My Finnish Language Journey: Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland!

finnish ain't hard

Yesterday and today buildings throughout the world were illuminated with blue lights in honor of the birthday of a country that has developed a stellar reputation well outside its borders in recent decades.

My journey with Finnish has been an interesting one, because it’s one that I learned how to speak well while leaving me in complete mystery in exactly HOW I pulled it off.

I’ve used all of the following:

  • Reading dialogues out loud
  • Reading grammar notes out loud from textbooks
  • Watching Disney film snippets and Pokémon in Finnish (dubbed versions)
  • Clozemaster
  • Transparent Language
  • Writing exercises
  • Later on (once I acquired B2 level) teaching the language to other people.
  • Language Exchange Groups (I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Finnish with real people in comparison to Swedish, Danish and Norwegian [especially the first two])
  • Songs (including passively, with lyrics and actively with karaoke)
  • Radio
  • Let’s Play Videos with Finnish commentary
  • Writing to people who speak the language.
  • Video games

 

Too often I get asked the question “what do you use to learn so many languages?”

The question should not be “what do you use to learn” them but “what DON’T you use to learn them?” I became successful with Finnish (despite the fact that I still feel as though I have a long way to go with it) because I threw EVERYTHING at it.

And that’s what a successful attempt to learn a language LOOKS LIKE! You don’t’ just expect to use “Duolingo” and get fluent (it’s in all likelihood not going to happen). You need to use AS MANY tools as possible to make a language a part of your life. The most successful of my language missions have had that, while those that were / are lacking are those in which I still have yet to use EVERY available means of using the language.

Looking back on the journey, here’s what I wish I told myself in 2012 when the Finnish Language and I seemed like we had a future together (which we DID!)

 

  • Throw Out Limiting Beliefs Immediately

 

Too many people are stuck with ideas that they’ll never be good, or that they won’t even be manageable. Others are stuck with ideas that they’ll just get answered in English all of the time. Yet others enter the world of Finnish and other target languages with a negative mindset, thinking that it is something they intend to lose as soon as they enter it.

I entered at first saying “I’ll see what I can get. I can always learn something and I can always learn more later”. But all the while I never DREAMED that I would be capable of mastering the grammar of the language, both colloquially as well as formally, the way that I did. And I should have thought even more than “I’ll manage”, I should have thought “I’m going to be GREAT!!!”

And this leads into another point…

 

  • Finnish (or any other grammatically rich language) is a giant feast. Savor each ingredient separately and don’t expect to gulf down EVERYTHING at once.

 

Many of the cases are straight-up prepositions (as is the case with the other Finno-Ugric Languages), but some other elements are more idiomatic. One that trips up my students regularly is the –ksi ending, which indicates that you are talking about a noun, and more specifically “given that it is that noun” or “into that noun” (e.g. transformation).

 

englanniksi sanoja – English(ksi) words(partitive)

 

English words, or, more accurately “given-that-they-are-English” “words-some-of-them”.

Okay now you have ONE concept, now see if you can manage personal endings for nouns (Kaveri [friend] + ni [my] -> “Kaverini” – “friend(s) of mine”) or the fantastic conjugating “no” (en -> I … not, not I. et – you (sing.) … not, not you, ei -> he/she/it …. Not, not he/she/it, etc.) usage of nuanced suffixes, verb conjugation, AND variant forms of verb conjugation and other grammatical features in colloquial speech! (These might not be in your textbook!)

Oh, and manage all of these concepts at once spoken by a native speaker at quick speed. Sure, the fact that Finnish words are always accented on the first syllable is going to help you, to some degree, as is the fact that some Finns speak very slowly in comparison to Romance Language speakers, but the grammatical buffet of Finnish is going to OVERWHELM YOU.

Unless, you take it in, bit by bit, and count every single one of the small victories.

This is true with other languages, but this is even MORE true with languages in which you might struggle with forming a simple sentence for weeks!

 

 

  • Use Flashcards and Other Similar Apps WITH Immersion for Progress

 

Memrise helped me reach my goals with Finnish but I couldn’t have done it with only them. I also had to use YouTube Finnish in order to bring words that I “vaguely” memorized in the app into a genuine context where they made sense.

Often when I was watching any amount of fun things in Finnish I would remember a word that I had seen in Memrise matching the context EXACTLY.

Unless a language is VERY closely related to one you know, or one that you’ve had experience being exposed to but have gaps in it (as is the case with Polish for me, for example), the flash cards by yourself are not going to be ideal.

But pair with other methods, everything builds off each other.

 

  • Being disappointed with your language progress means that you’re either studying too much or using the language without studying too much.

For all of my languages regardless of level, I noticed that there are some languages that I’ve STUDIED too  much to the exclusion of using them for fun (Irish) and others that I’ve USED too much without studying too much of them anymore (Greenlandic). To correct this imbalance, apply one or the other, depending on what you HAVEN’T been doing.

For much of my Finnish studies, I managed that balance PERFECTLY, more than with any other language I’ve studied. And I’m glad I did.

  • Small words mean a lot in making you sound like a fluent speaker.

 

Thanks to me having watched a lot of Pokémon in the Finnish dub (more than I care to admit) as well as a lot of gaming channels in Finnish, I’ve really learned how to use simple one-word expressions that make me sound believable when I put them in my speech (some of these qualify as “filler words” but not always).

 

Think about it: how often have you heard non-native English speakers say “very good” as opposed to “cool beans!” or “that’s great to hear!” (the latter of which are very American indeed, I think).

 

I got a lot of simple expressions like these thanks to me using Finnish in these “controlled environments”. They didn’t make me fluent, but they made me confident and believable with great regularity.

 

  • No language is too hard.

 

I don’t necessarily say “no language is too unlearnable” because I’ve tried to find some languages to learn in which I can almost seldom find ANY materials for them.

But even though a language like Greenlandic (and Burmese, later on) got me to almost doubt this, you need to keep in mind that, especially with more politically powerful languages, your L2 is learnable, even to near-native fluency. You just need to find methods that work, and utilize EVERYTHING you have in order to make it work.

The apps themselves are great, but they won’t make you fluent alone. Same for the books, videos and TV shows. Bring them altogether, and you’ll become someone who impressed almost EVERY native speaker you’ll meet.

 

That day can be yours! Go ahead and take it!

 

Let’s conclude with this, now, shall we?

 

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30-Day Speaking Challenge, or The Gift of Lao

Just the right thing I needed in order to drill the “ONE LANGUAGE AT A TIME” thing home: came across a link to a 30-Day Speaking Challenge in a Facebook group and decided to get in on the action before the new month of November came in.

You can read more about the challenge here: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/

For those of you who probably don’t want to click on the link, I’ll share the concept here: film / record yourself speaking a bit of your target language for thirty days in a row, publish the results in a group and get feedback / encouragement / what have you.

Now interestingly the language that I chose was Lao and there’s a strategic importance behind it:

  • It’s small enough for me to be passionate about it, but also is close enough to Thai to the degree that maybe a speaker of it could help me even if he or she hasn’t made much exposure to Lao. From what I know: they seem to differ in their pronoun usage as well as in some key words, not also to mention the fact that they use different (although similar) writing systems. What’s more, Lao tends to include pronouns in sentences and speech more often than Thai does (which can omit the pronoun the same way that Burmese or Japanese ordinarily would do. In layman’s terms: in Burmese I would say “have food” in order to indicate “[I] have food”, “there is food”, “we have food”, etc. That’s not passable in English [except in VERY casual speech] and in that respect Lao resembles English in which the pronouns are commonly used.
  • It’s tonal and if there is ANY language I would strongly need a community for, it would be a tonal language.
  • I correctly predicted that most people doing the challenge would be doing European Languages, wanted to get “other continents in on the action”.
  • I’ve had more exposure to my other tonal language, Burmese, as well as significant practice using it. That said, I may consider doing Burmese in a future 30-day speaking challenge.
  • I’m not an absolute beginner in Lao (A1 at the moment)

 

I just submitted my second recording to the spreadsheet and may consider publicizing the 30-day result depending on how much I like it. Hey, it seems that I’m 1/15th of the way done!

Here’s how I predict the challenge will affect me:

 

  • It will make me take my construction of the “Temple to Lao” more seriously.

 

When I was interviewed by Ari in Beijing in April, I mentioned the fact that the most important thing for learning a language is the fact that you need to build a “temple” to your target language within your time routines.

 

The only real way I’ve been doing that so far is with my YouTube channel. Sure, reading Lao dialogues out loud with some funny commentary and messing up the tones can be entertaining, but there’s so much more I could be doing.

 

I could become as immersed in Lao culture the same way I was with Greenlandic or Yiddish. I could truly feel as though understanding this poor and “forgotten” country is something I shouldn’t back away from.

 

My peers in the group have been very supportive of me thus far, and I’m thankful for that.

 

  • I Will Learn to Have More Mercy on Myself

 

I don’t speak languages from East Asia very well (although Burmese is by far my strongest out of…two…). I should expect to make mistakes and realize that I’m not getting any Lao trophies or getting to watch any Free Lao YouTube movies without any subtitles without a lot of work. And that work is going to involve discipline, learning how to make sounds I’m not used to, and, very importantly, on the importance of tones.

I hold myself to extremely high standards. A lot of people in the group are uploading recordings upwards of three minutes on the first day. Most of them are learning European Languages and are native speakers of European Languages so they have an advantage that I just don’t have. It’ll take me longer for me to make progress in Lao than it will for an English speaker to make progress with French.

And that’s okay.

And sometimes I worry that I mess up the tones entirely and completely.

And that’s okay too. For now!

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Explore Lao Culture and Identity as a Hobby as a Result of This Challenge. That will Enforce my Desire to Learn It More.

 

Already within these two days I’ve begun  to see it happen. I’m monumentally increasing my exposure to Lao and commitment to learning more about it, even if it involves reading books and travel blogs in English.

 

I’m beginning to see more of what the world looks like through Laotian eyes. And with each new culture I feel more human, more fulfilled and more righteous.

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Focus On One Task

 

I have a bunch of languages to improve, but I think that if I give the lion’s share of my focus to one task, I’ll be able to gain confidence more quickly and that will carry over to my other languages, both ones that I speak fluently and ones that I don’t speak as well.

Come to think of it, I’m feeling a lot better focusing more on improving just my Lao rather than improving Lao alongside Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and Tajik. I can maintain those on the side (or what I know of it), but I think that this focus is helping me fall in love.

And it seems that this is the beginning of something lovely!

LAO

10 Lessons I Learned from Language Immersion in Greenland for a Week

Two Languages (three if you count English which I used at time). One city. A lot of ice and friendly people. Was it a success? MOST DEFINITELY!

I’ve been studying Greenland on-and-off since 2013 when I first encountered that Lonely Planet book that described the Greenlandic Language as “the result of a small child banging on a typewriter”.

Cupid’s arrow to the heart. Photographed the entire language section of that guidebook, page by page. Put the words into Memrise. I thereby made the site’s first Greenlandic course which ultimately ended up in the language  being included in the OFFICIAL LISTING OF LANGUAGES IN THE APP!

Then there’s Danish, which I’ve been studying / speaking since 2013 as well. Frightened to speak it fearing judgmental native speakers until I encountered some people who spoke it in 2014 (native Danish speakers as well as L2 speakers from Germany). Then I realized there was nothing to be scared of.

Greenlandic: Weak although impressive on some level. Certainly a lot better than my Burmese was earlier this year (although I think my Burmese is SLIGHTLY better than my Greenlandic now, truth be told). I managed some tasks impressively, some with difficulty, and I have absolutely no ability to speak in Greenlandic about deeply serious or philosophical topics (but ONE DAY!)

Danish: Conversationally fluent to professionally fluent, depending on my mood and who I’m talking to. There is one thing, however. Sometimes I still feel frightened and judged when I try to speak certain languages with strangers. This results in “cymbals banging in my head” which can significantly deter my ability to think of vocabulary at the right moment. But surprisingly, I’ve IMPROVED as a result of being here.

So how did I do? For one, I managed almost ALL of my business that could be done in Danish or Greenlandic in those two languages. In conversations with friends I think I managed a good balance between Greenland, Danish, and English (hey, it’s fair that I share my native language with them, too!) Especially in the second half with Danish, I expressed myself without any issue and had absolutely no glaring issues with being answered in English after the second day!

Above all, GREAT SUCCESS! I also learned a lot of words as well and gained insight into the dynamics of bilingual societies (this is the first time I’m doing immersion in a place with TWO local languages, although no doubt Danish is significantly less prominent in more rural areas of Greenland outside of the major cities)

Yes, I know I was on a break, but I thought it would be important for me to write at least SOMETHING because I’m here in Greenland for the first time:

 

  • In a multilingual place, expect rapid changes in switching languages at times.

 

This was fun. I’ve heard of people going to places like Montreal or South Africa or other places where multiple languages are used between people and in the public sphere. I wasn’t sure what sort of dynamic to expect, but interestingly I found that the dynamic between many Greenlanders involved hopping between languages in conversations sometimes (this might be especially evident as far as families that may have different first languages among them). My host family used Greenlandic, Danish and English with me, sometimes switching throughout the conversation, and sometimes I even overheard some people doing the same. Granted, with probably about the same frequency you’ll encounter people sticking to one language at a time.

 

There are SO many dynamics to be taken into account with this that it probably would take more than a week to fully investigate and delve into them.

 

  • Don’t take being spoken to in English personally, especially if it occurs at a time in which the person who you are speaking to is aware that you are from an English-speaking country.

Imagine this: you hear that somebody is from a place where your L2 or L3 or L28 is spoken. Great success! So you begin speaking in the language of that place, believing that, in so doing, you will demonstrate cultural appreciation and a willingness to show that, on some level, you care about where they came from.

 

That’s how some of the people who “answer in English” may be thinking!

 

I’ve noticed that usually a shift to English tended to occur in Greenland not so much when I messed up (usually I just rebounded and continued in the target language, especially with Danish) but rather when (1) somehow they found out I was from the U.S. (either I told them or something on my personal information made it clear, etc) or (2) they were aware of the fact that I was American beforehand (even if I had communication with them in other languages in the past. Note: my written Greenlandic is tremendously weak, although I’m hoping that predictive text and better learning methods will help me in the future).

 

In the other Nordic countries, conversations are being had about the threat that English is posing to their language. In Iceland this is particularly strong (I feel). In Greenland, it is my understanding that this conversation isn’t even had as far as English is concerned (I think a lot of the debates center on Greenlandic vs. Danish). Danish was (and is) 1000x easier to learn and to maintain than Greenlandic is (and this is more to do with political power of these two languages than anything else). But given that I was willing to learn and converse in BOTH, it actually sent a message to people that I really, REALLY cared about Greenland, its people and its culture (learning one language for a trip is cool, but two?)

 

I can imagine that a lot of Greenlanders want to feel global and globally connected. To that end, I am willing to use English with them to some degree, as long as I can use the other local languages as well. I used English at times, but never to the degree that it became a detriment to my “language learning mission”. (In Iceland, I strove / will strive to avoid English as much as I can).

 

What’s more, there are some immigrants to Greenland (Yes, they exist!) who speak neither Greenlandic nor Danish, and I sometimes encountered these folks behind service counters. In one Thai restaurant in Nuuk I even saw the menu in Danish that was coded with number-and-letter combinations, possibly to get over any language barrier than may be involved.

 

  • If you’re headed to a multilingual place (that is to say, a place with more than one LOCAL language. Nuuk qualifies [with Greenlandic and Danish] and while Reykjavik does have many English-speaking denizens, Icelandic is the ONLY local language there), get advice beforehand (or as soon as you can) about what sort of languages you should use in which spaces.

 

Also if you can determine what language a certain waiter or celebrity or person you’re meeting speaks, use that to your advantage as well.

 

On the way from the airport I was told that it was wisest for me to usually use Danish while buying things (which I did). But obviously using Danish was not 100% suitable (or even 50% suitable) for EVERY SINGLE SITUATION that I encountered in Nuuk. Simply put, there were situations in which knowledge of Danish wasn’t essential in the slightest, and Greenlandic was.

 

Again, among people who speak both, you are welcome to use both, especially in casual conversation. I would gather the same would hold for any other bilingual area.

 

  • Don’t Overthink Your Mistakes (or Anything Else)

 

No, just because you messed up that one word doesn’t mean you’re a failure. No, just because somebody began speaking English to you that one time doesn’t mean you’re a failure either (this happened once or twice to me by the way). And for the love of everything that is holy, don’t belittle your accomplishments!

 

Especially if you’ve come from a family of over-achievers and perfectionists (a bit like mine used to be), you may hold yourself to a standard that is way too high. Don’t expect yourself to be an angel. Believe me, even the best of polyglots out there aren’t angels either, even if it may seem like that in their videos. I sure know I ain’t!

 

  • If you’re starting to feel doubt, think about how far you’ve come and how FEW people have attempted what you’re doing.

 

Surrounded by native speakers of languages that I spoke to varying degrees made me self-conscious at times. My perfectionism (which exists in my heart even though my brain knows it should be gone) also did not help. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be taken as a “serious” polyglot by masses of people on the Internet, or even if I really DESERVED to present at any polyglot conference at all.

 

And this is DESPITE the fact that I manage MOST of my interactions during this trip without ANY English. (Even though I did use English because, again, I don’t want to be greedy. I understand that people see me as a resource in a country where non-Danish foreigners weren’t even allowed to visit until 1953 [!!!])

 

I also took for granted the fact that I could read all of the signs, all of the menus, all of the everything (in Danish – note that the vast majority of these things in Nuuk are actually bilingual Greenlandic / Danish).

 

  • If the language you’re speaking is threatened or perceived as threatened, you have advantages with its speakers (and getting help from them) on many, MANY levels

 

Greenlandic-speakers see their language as vulnerable, and UNESCO agrees with them. Against the mini-giant that is Danish and the ultra-global-giant that is English, it seems that Greenlandic sees itself stuck in a magnificent clash of outsider cultures (well…these two cultures…).

 

When I began speaking to Greenlandic speakers in places like pubs and restaurants and my host family, I got every single possible variety of positive reaction and tons of continued encouragement. Greenlandic speakers are probably among the most helpful native speakers I’ve encountered for any language ANYWHERE!

 

I got business contacts, high fives, hugs, compliments, in-depth conversations and plenty, PLENTY more. And this is with my manageable-in-tourist-situations-mostly Greenlandic.

 

The only languages I remember getting this sort of red carpet treatment for were (1) Icelandic, (2) Hungarian and (3) Polish (and even [3] was very selective. Some people reacted with utter joy and others were a tad confused. I should say that Poland is a FANTASTIC environment for language immersion with JUST the right amount of English usage vs. usage of the local language that is helpful for whatever you’re doing!)

 

  • Don’t assume other people are judging you (or will judge you) for speaking their language.

 

Greenlandic people usually don’t show their emotion at all—EVEN in comparison to other Nordic countries. As an American, I found this extremely jarring and almost strange. Anyone who knows American culture even on a surface level knows how “obsessed with feelings” we are.

 

Sometimes I was tempted to think that people were displeased with me, and then I remembered that the cultural mentality is extremely different in comparison to the United States.

 

And one person went so far as to even tell me that the idea that “speaking Danish -> Greenlanders will judge you as a bit of a colonial invader” wasn’t actually that true at all.

 

Point is, a lot of people “not being nice to you” or “not liking you” may actually be…imagined…

 

On the other side, in the United States we have the reverse problem, being too kind to people with whom we do not really want to interact with. And I think, to a degree, that’s significantly more dangerous. But onto the next point…

 

  • Pubs and gatherings are great places to help you with language learning. Keep in mind that they serve different ends.

 

Pubs -> great for finding people that will help you with individual words or gaps in your vocabulary. You may encounter some people who may be very carefree due to alcohol and they’ll (1) be forgiving of your mistakes and (2) compliment you way too much. If you’re a beginner and you feel up to it, I would make evenings like this a priority.

 

After all, I think the Polyglot Bar and Mundo Lingo also really helped me especially with French which I learned almost ENTIRELY through this method! (even though sometimes I fear that I speak it not quite as well as I would like and it is NOWHERE near my strongest language and sometimes I’m definitely not fluent!)

 

Gatherings -> great for having serious conversations and also rehearsing new vocabulary that you may have memorized in response to the theme of the event. It’s also a true measure to see how spontaneous you really can be and you’ll encounter speakers of many languages at larger gatherings. Great for advanced learners especially who want to go from good or very good to divinely invincible.

 

  • Over time, you’ll grow into a persona with a language you’re proficient or fluent in

 

Imitate the people. Note what they do. Learn to behave a little more like them. Pretend you are them. You’ll be able to grow into fluency a lot more readily with a language in which you have a persona. How does your native-language self compare to the sort of people you see around you? Note the differences and act on them. This may actually happen naturally as a result of being around people.

I had someone tell me that over the course of the week I was looking “progressively more like an Inuit”. Make of that whatever you will!

 

  • Your goal isn’t to be mistaken for a local. Your goal is to communicate.

 

Okay, maybe you DO want to be mistaken for a local, but obviously if you haven’t visited the country or if you haven’t developed deep in-person friendships with people there, there will probably be something in your body language or in the way you speak that will give it away.

 

I look vaguely Asiatic (probably my Jewish background) and I look vaguely Nordic (probably my Swedish-American background) but I don’t really look like I’m Inuk in the slightest. I don’t dress like Greenlanders do (and I was told this to my face, Greenlandic people really liked my fashion style and said that I looked like a “super-manly American cowboy”. No joke!)  I don’t look like a “typical Dane” either, regarding both my fashion and my physical appearance.

None of that mattered in the slightest because my pronunciation in both Greenlandic and Danish were good (so I’ve been told) and in the case of Danish I got all of what I wanted to say said almost all of the time (except when my nervousness got the better of me and in both cases it was when I was speaking to people whom I had seen on TV, concerts, etc.).

 

I think the one thing I need to work on is internal self-doubt and freezing up sometimes. I think that’s really preventing me from being at my best consistently using foreign languages. And I guess that’s probably gonna be part of my New Year’s Resolution for 2018 (COMING SO SOON?!!?)

Greetings from Nuuk,Greenland!

Mother of the Sea and Me.png

Ten Affirmations about Language Immersion in a Foreign Country (P.S. I’m on a Break)

On to Iceland tomorrow and Greenland on Wednesday!

That means I’m going to be on a break from then until Halloween (when I come back, probably without any costume whatsoever).

In the meantime, I have to prepare myself to think in THREE different languages during the trip, and I’m not going to lie, I know that I should let go of negative experiences in the past (e.g. times in which people were extremely reluctant to practice their native languages), but I have trouble doing so.

In short, my mind knows that I need to view the challenges ahead of me very logically, but my heart is still inclined to view every little mistake as a statement on who I am as a person.

So here are ten affirmations that I’ve drawn up (you’re welcome to disagree with me) about language immersion in foreign countries:

 

  • All language learning journeys, even regarding your native language, are works in progress.

 

  • Most people in the world WANT you to learn and speak their language, even if you just speak a little bit of it.

 

  • The most important lessons from your language immersion may come weeks, months or even YEARS after the fact.

 

  • The spread of English throughout the world is likely to make you LESS likely to get answered in English in foreign countries as time goes on. (The one place where I’ve been answered in English the most is the place that had the lowest English proficiency rates…Myanmar, namely. The one place I’ve been answered in the local language the most consistently is the one with the highest…Iceland vol. 1 [2015])

 

  • If you have to use English at times (e.g. emergency situation, feeling ill, someone wants to practice with you), don’t see it as a defeat AS LONG as you make SOME gains with your target language(s).

 

  • If somebody tells you that learning their language is a waste of time, KNOW that their opinion is in the minority both from within and without. Disregard that person’s opinion.

 

  • Some native speakers may need some convincing. Be persistent in usage of your target language if you suspect this is the case. If you get answered in English, continue in the target language without hesitation. Believe it or not, some NATIVE speakers get that treatment as well!

 

  • Don’t believe horror stories about language immersion from the internet, or think that you have no choice but to be answered in English all of the time. The most inspiring stories usually never get told on blogs or publicized widely on Quora or Yahoo! Answers.

 

  • Count your victories and celebrate them, however minor.

 

  • Even with your best foreign languages, or even your native language(s), there WILL be slip-ups. Accept it and realize that moving forward is the most beautiful thing you can do.

 

 

 

I’m presenting at the 2017 Polyglot Conference on how to learn languages using video games. At the very end of that conference, the location for the 2018 conference will be revealed.

Calling it: it will probably be somewhere in Britain (probably making some sort of post-Brexit commentary of sorts).

See you in a few weeks!

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Last Weekend in the US Before the Polyglot Conference: Where Do I Stand?

Monday I head to Iceland, Wednesday I head to Greenland, and here I am writing this piece from Brooklyn, wondering if I’m going to leave my language missions abroad (and the Polyglot Conference itself) with a great sense of relief or accomplishment or covered with clouds of self-doubt.

More recently I’ve been having nightmares in which I bring my security as a polyglot into question (e.g. online comments popping up [in my DREAMS, mind you] that tell me that my accent is bad and that I’m a fake, or in which I’m asked to speak to people in their native language and, well, these have been all over the board. Some have been stutter-worthy, other instances in which I’m practicing in my dreams have involved me doing WAAAAY better than my conscious self could imagine.)

Also, I’ve had dreams more recently in Burmese, Tongan and…Gilbertese! (My Burmese is probably at around A2 right now, Tongan at A1, and Gilbertese can be A2 if I can do EVERYTHING right in the next few days.)

In the meantime, however, I’ve decided to hit the “pause” button” on my studies of Fiji Hindi, Guarani and Khmer (although I’ll continue to do them after the Conference and, of course, in my YouTube series).

A huge break for me is the fact that I’ve been capable of mastering spoken Jamaican Patois in nearly a week (!!!!!!) Granted, Trinidadian Creole and Sierra Leone Krio are EXTREMELY close to these (Krio has more African influence, Trinidadian Creole has more English influence, and then there’s my stunt with Belizean Creole [or “Bileez Kriol”] that also really helped with solving the Jamaican Mystery more quickly than I had expected. Also, for many Americans, Jamaican Patois is hardly anything foreign, thanks to the influence of Jamaican music and culture all over the globe.)

The only “weak” language I’m working on (I have to focus on ONE in order to get it good enough at this point) is Gilbertese.

So here’s my currently lineup right now! (ESTIMATING my levels:)

 

A1 – Gilbertese, Tongan

A2 – Lao, Burmese, Hungarian, Polish

B1 – French, Irish, Greenlandic, Cornish

B2 – Hebrew, Finnish, Breton, Spanish (EU), German, Icelandic, Krio, Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole

C1 – Tok Pisin, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish

C2 – Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin

Native – English (US)

 

That’s a total of 27 (And I usually don’t tell people that Solomon Islands Pijin is my STRONGEST foreign language!) I may have underestimated my B2’s and overestimated my B1’s.

If I count those I forgot (which I MAY be inclined to use on various occasions, no idea how I would manage with any of them given how seldom I’ve studied them for MONTHS), this brings the list significantly higher (30+), but most of those I forgot are in the A1-A2 level.

My study routine before this conference was significantly less organized and less effective than my study routine before the 2015 conference. It was extremely scatterbrained but this time I have the added advantage of having an immersion environment for three different languages before the conference (Greenlandic, Danish and Icelandic). Again, that is likely to prove a big confidence booster or a confidence wrecker. Whatever the case, I’ll manage with significantly more wisdom after the fact.

The biggest gift I’ve had this year for language learning has been the fact that I have return to Anki.

I was struggling a lot with Spanish especially over the course of multiple years and I’ve noticed that extensive vocabulary lists in languages that I have already mastered the grammar of have turned my mind into an unbeatable machine (whenever I’ve had significant practice with Anki earlier than day in the relevant language, that is).

The only reason I adopted Anki at all was because I was expecting to go on a Trek with no Internet in Myanmar (it didn’t end up happening, although I did visit the country back in May) and knowing that I had to resume teaching right afterwards meant that I couldn’t show signs of being “rusty” upon returning from my trip. Luckily I got the consistent practice and a lot more.

Goals right now:

  • Get a good accent in the languages I may have not been exposed to as much (Gilbertese and Tongan especially). Listening to music and radio will help.
  • Get a FLAWLESS accent in the Carribean Creoles.
  • Hone tones in Burmese and Lao
  • Complete my Lao Anki course (DONE!)
  • Complete my Krio Anki course (probably not going to happen but I’ll try!)
  • Complete my Gilbertese Memrise course (REALLY not happening but the more progress I’ll make, the better).
  • Devote time on transport to memorizing words as best I can.
  • Develop a morning routine in which I can get exposed to all languages in less than an hour (to be used the mornings before the days of the conference, may choose to skip languages that I’ve been using frequently or if I’m feeling REALLY secure in them).
  • Ask my friends to write comments in the languages in the lists above.
  • MENTAL DISCIPLINE. I have to let go of all my previous failures and be more forgiving of myself. No one’s going to be “out to get me”, either among the locals of various places and certainly NOT the people at the conference. I did fantastically at the last conference and I’m sure I’ll do it again.

 

In 2015, the languages I significantly underperformed with were Spanish, German, Irish and Finnish. I’ve gotten a lot better at all of them since then. The Languages I significantly overperformed with were Yiddish, Swedish, Faroese (since forgotten) and especially Norwegian (the super-duper winner of the 2015 conference, got regularly mistaken as a native speaker by pretty much everyone!)

Since 2015 I have paused my studies of Dutch, Faroese, Northern Sami, Ukrainian, Russian and Portuguese (and probably a number of others I’ve forgotten).

Whatever happens, I have to stay optimistic and determined.

Hope to see you there!

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October 2017 Immersion Mission: Greenland / Iceland!

Well, here it is. The month in which I present at the Polyglot Conference 2017 is finally upon us.

October 2017 also promises to be one of the most exciting months of my life to date for ANOTHER reason: I am finally going to be visiting my favorite country! (Or, what I would pick as my favorite if I had to…)

It is my great pleasure to tell you that, when the Jewish holidays conclude, I will have the priviliege of visiting Greenland!

You know what this means: I’m going to have to prepare for language immersion, much in the same way that I did before my trip to Myanmar back in May 2017.

But this time, the trip promises to be different for the following reasons:

(1) I’ve had years of experience behind each of the languages involved (even though my Greenlandic is, in my opinion, quite weak).

There are a total of three languages that I expect to use when I’m in the North Atlantic (in addition to English, if the occasion arises). Icelandic in Iceland, Greenlandic in Greenland, and Danish in Greenland (although Danish is commonly studied among Icelanders and some I’ve met speak it quite impressively, usually those that have spent time in Denmark. For those unaware: Iceland used to be part of the Kingdom of Denmark, much like Greenland and the Faroe Islands still are).

(2) I also have to rehearse MY COMPLETE COLLECTION before the Polyglot Conference.

And I’m quite worried about it.

I’ll plan on bringing the following languages to the conference: English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Finnish, Spanish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Irish, Krio, French, Cornish, Polish, Greenlandic, Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole, Myanmar / Burmese, Lao, Tongan, Guarani, and Khmer. (Ranging from “I speak this language fluently” to “I can have simple conversations in this language” in descending order. Khmer and Guarani may get the boot, but it seems unlikely that any of the others will, even though for all the languages from French downards I have gaps in my vocabulary that I need to address…)

Between rehearsing for the conference specifically and this trip specifically, I am more inclined to put effort towards my weakest languages rather than the trio that I am likely to be using during the trip. This may change during the days leading up to the trip itself.

(3) This is the first language immersion mission in which I’ll be using languages that I have strong command of.

Danish definitely, and I’ll see how my Icelandic and Greenlandic stack up (I’m inclined to think that I’ll do very well with both of them in tourist functions, and reasonably well with Greenlandic in conversation and quite well to very well with Icelandic. I’ve been rehearsing Icelandic and Danish quite regularly during my weekends, although I’ve neglected the study of my Greenlandic quite badly!)

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What sort of traps will I expect and I will I try to diffuse them?

For one, I’ve notice that by far my biggest enemy is my own self-doubt.

I’ve seen this being played out with cruel consistency at many language-exchange events. Sometimes I use the wrong word or say SOMETHING that isn’t congruent with my extremely high standards that I set for myself, and then I get vexed to the point of being self-conscious during the rest of the evening, certainly far away from being at my best.

This could even be something like “I used a word or expression that I’m not entirely sure is correct” (that’s what it usually is, come to think of it).

I think that what I’ll definitely be needing more of in this mission is more mental discipline.

Namely, well-disciplined people are more likely to control their emotional stimuli, and less-disciplined people are more like to be controlled by them. I can’t let my ego get in the way so often.

There is one good note that I’ll end on: I’ve noticed that there is a very small minority of people who, despite the fact that English is not their first language, will not use their native language with you, sometimes even if you’ve demonstrated that you’re fluent (or otherwise very good) in that language.

This has only happened a handful of times over the course of this year (and one of them was actually yesterday) and I’ve fully learned to actually disregard such people. There are few things that you can do to make me significantly lose respect for you and that is one of them. (I’m sorry. But hopefully you’ll learn not to do that).

And this brings yet another issue concerning Danish in Greenland, that I won’t get too hurt if people refuse to speak Danish with me (regardless of the case) because no doubt there are painful colonial memories and a process of reconciliation involved. In places like Spain like Catalonia or the Basque Country, or in France like Brittany, or perhaps even among some Palestinians (the last of which have been, surprisingly, more than happy to converse in Hebrew with me), I can understand why they wouldn’t want to use Castillian, French or Hebrew respectively, regardless of how well I spoke it.

After all, my less-than-savory memories of previous chapters of my life in the United States have sometimes made some languag situations uncomfortable for me (e.g. sometimes using American English with foreigners makes me uncomfortable, or Yeshivish English can also rub me the wrong way at times. It reminds me of a time of my life I’d like to forget, and that world that I was a part of had a horrifying revelation that I’ll write about when it gets settled, but not until then. But prepare to be shocked.)

That was a nice note to end on.

My clothing is in the washing machine, I need to go get it.

Have a good day and keep getting closer to your dreams!

How Long Does It Take You to Learn a New Language?

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Yes! The question that I hear on a daily basis finally gets to be addressed!

For one, let me begin by saying this: often I get asked this question point-blank, as if most people do not realize that languages that differ from those you already know actually take more time to learn.

What I usually say in one sentence is: “it depends. I learned Solomon Islands Pijin to a conversational level in nearly two weeks. There are those languages, like Greenlandic and Cornish, that I’ve been struggling with for YEARS and while I can speak them to various degrees, I wouldn’t really call myself consistently fluent.”

The short answer is that there are just too many factors to list in how much time goes into a new project, and further complicated by the fact that people measure timelines for skill acquisition in years rather than hours (Benny Lewis wrote on this topic, so I should definitely give him credit).

You’ve probably all heard it before from people with self-defeating excuses. “I’ve studied language X for Y years, and I still can’t speak any of it”. I can guarantee you that if you were quantifying your studies in hours rather than in vaguely defined “years”, you would see where the issue lies.

I have NEVER heard: “I’ve put Y hours into language X, and I’m still struggling with it”

Interestingly, in my case that statement has somewhat been true with Greenlandic, but obviously I think that it has to do with my study methods (as well as the handicaps that come in place by speaking an extremely rare language that is related by family ties to no other language that I know well).

If I were to look at the YEARS I’ve put into it, some assorted timelines would be like this:

 

Hebrew (Modern): January 2009 – Present

Yiddish: August 2008 – Present

Spanish: August 2003 – November 2015 (when I got Lyme Disease) revived July 2016 – Present

Finnish: April 2013 – Present

Cornish: December 2014 – Present

Lao: August 2017 – Present

Solomon Islands Pijin: April 2016 – Present

Faroese: July 2014 – November 2015 + March 2017 – August 2017 (currently paused)

 

If the sheer amount of time I “put” into the language in terms of YEARS would indicate how well I spoke the language, Spanish would be my second-best language and Lao my weakest. But it actually isn’t the case (I have neglected Faroese to the degree that my very meager Lao is now better than it…)

Does more time help? Most definitely, but also the quality of time put into it is more helpful. My three weeks in the Yiddish Farm program did more for my Yiddish abilities than anything I did in high school did for Spanish.

I’m not saying anything new when I’m saying the following: (1) measure your progress in hours, not years and (2) measure the quality of those hours (the more ACTIVELY engaged you are, the more results you’ll see). Benny Lewis has said very much of the same thing.

But you’re probably come for something else, namely “how long will it take me to get fluent?”

And, in a pure sense, I can’t answer that question, despite the fact that I get it asked so often (or perhaps because of it).

The more time you put into it, the sooner you’ll expect results. So one thing I would recommend is set aside about 30 minutes every day for 1-2 languages you’d like to get better at and you’ll start to see results build up. This is not something I learned just from Olly Richards but also from my parents who wanted me to practice piano every day for 30 minutes as a kid (except on Shabbat).

It also depends on more factors, such as what sort of other jobs you have or whether you have a family to attend to in any capacity (not also to mention other languages you may need to maintain on the side).

And, of course, those related to languages you already know will come more easily to you.

Solomon Islands Pijin is very close to English but Cornish is not, so I was capable of “breezing” through one of them and not the other. Could I have learned Cornish to conversational fluency in two weeks? Maybe if I did absolutely nothing else aside from what was required of me to keep living or if I was on an extremely relaxing vacation and had more than an hour to spare to the task every day…the idea of Daniel Tammet learning Icelandic in a week isn’t far-fetched to me in the slightest (and if I knew the in-depth methods of his study, it would probably be even less surprising).

Another thing I haven’t really touched on is the fact that people learn differently. 30 hours of total study may bring various different personalities to different levels.

 

So Jared, HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME?

 

(Because I know how much people really, REALLY hate overcomplicated answers…)

For a language closely related to one you know, if you devote 30 minutes to an hour every day for three months, you’ll be able to have small talk conversational about your life. For a different one, if you do the same, probably expect about four-to-five months. If the language you are learning uses a new alphabet, it make take you another two weeks to fully master it in all of its forms, or a month if it is hellishly complicated (although there are some people who may be okay with being “illiterate” on the short-term or even the long-term. After all, even nowadays I’ve met people who can’t write in their native language but can write in other languages!)

Then there is the issue for a language being EXTREMELY closely related to one you already know, in which case two weeks or even ONE WEEK would suffix. (English and Spanish aren’t as closely related as Danish and Norwegian are, to give you an idea).

And then of course there is another issue (as what happened with Cornish during…well, almost all of the time I’ve been “studying” it) in which you can’t make the full time commitments or big pauses cause you to forget things. Remember: the more you falter in your commitments, the more “days” you’ll need to catch up.

But can you really commit yourself to thirty minutes every day? I’ve encountered so many acquaintances that usually get stuck in the beginner or the intermediate plateau for a very long time. Often this happens because of being stuck to a set of materials without diversifying fully into the great spectrum of usages that a native speaker would have. (Imagine: if there was one person learning a language from three learning-books and another one learning it from those same books and also TV shows, music, and conversational opportunities, which one would have the advantage?)

I have a feeling that people who read my musings are determined people indeed. You’ll be fluent in your dream language before you know it!

Go! Go! Go!