”How Do You Know So Much About Everything?”, or How to Build an Encyclopedic Memory

 

Too often throughout my life have people tried to convince me that somehow my mind was “special” and that I was “gifted”.

Later on in life, it occurred to me that the only thing that really made me different was the fact that I “tripped” on some successful formulae on how to memorize things and that I applied them with consistency.

If you’ve had a conversation with me in real life, you’ll definitely know that I am an experience collector that draws in a lot of different histories and cultural experiences from throughout the globe and draws them together in ways that are inspiring at best, intimidating at worst.

Today I decided that I’m going to let loose some of my secret as to how I developed the memory and how you can develop an encyclopedic knowledge of anything of your choice!

You already have an encyclopedic knowledge of SOMETHING

That’s one important thing to keep in mind. Even if it is very simple details about your life, your family or your work sphere, there is something that you know very well in detail.

How exactly did you remember it? I’ll give you some clues.

For one, you associated the various facts and faces and stimuli used for recognition with multiple elements. Some of them were:

  • Feelings
  • Incidents associated with certain feelings (e.g. funny stories, awkward stories)
  • Places (we’ll get to the memory palace in a bit, which is probably the world’s most tested-and-true memory technique)
  • Your senses (you may associate smells or sounds or melodies with them)

Another thing you also did in order to remember these details about your life is the fact that your brain has been convinced (and rightly so) that learning these details is actually essential to your survival. (If you can trick your brain that learning something is essential to your survival, your brain is going to learn it whether you like it or not. Humans are the most successful species this planet has ever seen and your brain is, by extension, served as the key to that success. Trust it).

In places like Germany and Myanmar where I could not always rely on people speaking English or other languages I knew, my brain kicked into second-gear when I needed to learn phrases of the local language, especially ones that would be useful in emergency situations. Even in places like Sweden and Iceland knowledge of the local language could be a survival advantage and …

(I was writing this in Grand Central Station and a fire alarm went off. Despite the fact that the announcement was in English I literally couldn’t understand a single word. Serves to show you that sometimes even “your language” can be completely unintelligible to you and you don’t give it a second thought or become insecure about it!)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

I was having a conversation about multilingualism at (one of) my rabbi’s classes last night. Interestingly I said that a lot of people memorize other things with great success (e.g. names of sports teams and what years they won, names of Pokémon, video games, video game levels, TV shows, episodes and seasons, books you’ve read, names of your teachers throughout your life, etc.) One reason for that is that they associate it with places, feelings and stimuli.

Take the example of sports games. I’ve lived with a lot of students from Spain when I was in Poland (to whom I owe the fact that I talk Spanish like an Iberian). They went to sports bars very frequently and no doubt they associate each game with a different place and a different set of emotions, not also to mention the sort of things that their friends or other company said or did during the game or afterwards. In so doing, they have an advantage in memorizing a “timeline” in their head given that they associate each incident with stimuli that serve to enforce the memory.

Or take video games. I can literally draw of map of the Kanto Region (from the original Pokémon games) from memory. I can tell you where in Kanto to find any of the individual species in the Red Version (I started with a Bulbasaur, for those curious). I can even hum the music from any of the routes or the cities (although this is probably due to my musical memory in general, which is something I may write about another time). What’s more, I KNOW I am not the only person who can do that.

I associated each place not only with the melody but also the type of Pokémon that were found there, in addition to places in real life where I was when I beat certain gym leaders in the game. (I beat Brock in Hamden, Connecticut outside of a place called Wentworth’s Ice Cream store, for example).

Now how exactly can you apply this to ACADEMIC knowledge?

For one, since I was very young, I associate particular places with other stimuli (they were usually visual or musical). I also associate places with individual customs or landmarks. Flags, obviously, became a big help as well.

This was something that I may have picked up later in in my childhood from edutainment games. Take, for example, the 1990’s versions of “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” (I’ll have you know that they depicted some places I’ve been to in real life, including Yafo in Israel, Gamla Stan in Stockholm, and the Old Town in Heidelberg with not a hint of inaccuracy in the SLIGHTEST. Okay, they probably copied the details from panoramic photos, but whatever). In the games, you not only associate the places with hints that the characters give to you but also the landscapes and the musical pieces that echo the “mood” of whatever place you’re in. (Yafo is going to be very different from San Francisco, and Mount Kilimanjaro is going to be very different from either of those).

The places no longer became lists of places I’ve never heard of, they became places of living people, real places and a culture that I tasted, to whatever small a degree, with the game’s soundtrack (I would say that Israel, Iran, Iceland, Zaire (as it was called then), France and Germany probably have the most memorable musical pieces in that game).

Or let’s take verb conjugations, for example.

For Finnish, I associated them with particular sentences that I heard in songs and spoken by characters in dubs of animated movies or cartoons. In so doing, the grammatical “pains” of Finnish (such as conjugations of verbs, conjugations of the “no” verb [in Finnish, “no” is a verb and you have to conjugate it and pair it with the stem of another verb afterwards], or the relative pronouns [don’t get me started on these!]) weren’t so painful anymore.

In Hungarian, I’m doing something slightly different, in which I’m associating them with sentences from my Anki deck, all of which seem to tell a story by themselves (okay, let’s open up the deck right now and see what I get. Okay…the sentence is … “apám jól van, mint mindig” [Father is well, as usual]. Doesn’t that sentence tell a story by itself? Doesn’t it cause some emotion of sorts to stir up in your heart? When you hear the sentence, you may associate it with a particular “taste” captured in the sentence. Remember that.) No doubt I’m going to head onto what I did with Finnish-dubbed cartoons as well, probably later on down the line…

Here’s probably another point you need to take away: just reading stuff off a page over and over again is NOT LIKELY TO WORK. You have to pay attention to how each element you’re supposed to be memorizing makes you feel.

What words in it resemble things or words in other languages you already know? What sort of story is the word telling? (In many Germanic languages [Yiddish, German, mainland Scandinavian] you “over-set” something to translate it, but in Finnish and Tok Pisin you “turn” it).

Are you learning it with a friend or eating something you really like (or really don’t like) while you’re learning it?

Did a native speaker correct your pronunciation and did you feel embarrassed? Did a native speaker compliment you and make you feel good about it?

These emotional turns are going to cause your memory to go into Jedi mode, which is why immersion in another country (or another area of the country or the city that you’re living in that you haven’t explored), which is very likely to create emotions of all sorts, is such a good idea, regardless of whether you’re a beginner (like I was with Burmese in Myanmar back in May), on the intermediate plateau (like where I sort of am with Greenlandic right now concerning my Greenland mission in October) or fluent (like with Danish in Greenland).

You can also use music to create emotions as well, which is why learning from a song (and a song text) is a fantastic idea as well, even though it may not assist you in conversation at the absolute beginner stage (although no doubt it will help you up your vocabulary count in the intermediate stage and beyond!)

In summary:

  • To develop an encyclopedic memory, know that it is possible. You already have a very good knowledge of at least something, no matter who you are.
  • Associate what you want to learn with “hooks”. They can be anything that evokes an emotion or a visual that may assist with it. Pay attention to what “connections” you can make between what you want to learn and what you already know. Your knowledge base is like a Lego Castle and the more you build on it the more opportunities you’ll have to link things.
  • Use hooks of all sorts.
  • If something’s not sticking, feel free to expose yourself to it multiple times and your brain may come up with a hook eventually. If not, you can stare at the what you want to learn (e.g. a word, a conjugation) and make something silly so that you remember it.
  • Associate pictures or other sentences or tunes with what sort of words you want to learn.
  • Most importantly, realize that ALL humans are capable of this, and you don’t need a “certain type of brain” in order to get an encyclopedic knowledge of things. Just keep working on the hooks and you’ll get asked what I get very frequently in no time. “How on earth to you manage to KEEP SO MUCH STUFF in your BRAIN?!!?”

 

Happy hooking!

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How to Perfect your Accent in English

It isn’t often that I find myself writing about my native language! Actually, I think this is literally the FIRST time I’ve ever done that!

I’ve been an English-language tutor for nearly two years now, and one thing I’ve really noticed is that, thanks to my time in Poland at a reception desk (among many other jobs that included “Yiddish translator” and “guy who sings children’s songs for…well…children”), I’ve gained the uncanny ability to actually zone in on people’s English-language errors and peculiarities.

This article isn’t about grammar in the slightest (but if you’re curious I would think that the biggest mistakes made by far would actually be related to sentence structure and article usage [when do I use “a”? when do I use “the”?]).

Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to knowing how to perfect your accent. And English is tricky!

grand central

You, one day, knowing that your English skills are in the top 0.01% of all non-native speakers! 

Some languages, like Finnish or Hebrew, are pronounced the way they are written with mathematical precision!

English, especially the trickier American variety, is anything but that.

Without having to read any of my extended memoirs any more, let’s get into the details.

The most common pronunciation errors made by my students would include:

  • Not using the Schwa sound

American English has a very lazy sound indeed that a lot of languages don’t have. If you are a native speaker of American English, say the word “the” …note that it is a low sound that almost comes from your chin!

Instead, they will pronounce the words “the” and “thee” indentically. You don’t want to do that.

Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use the schwa sound are…well, there are no rules.

Because the schwa can literally be represented by a, e, i, o, u OR y!

Wikipedia, as of the time of writing, gives the following examples: about (first syllable), taken (last syllable), pencil (last syllable), memory (second syllable), supply (first syllable), sibyl (last syllable).

So what you need to do is two things:

  • Master the sound (the wikipedia article on Schwa that I just mentioned has a recording you can use!)
  • Find patterns in the way that it is used by English speakers and imitate them. If you find this hard to do, go to tatoeba.org and find English sentences read out loud by native speakers. In this way, you can learn to imitate a sentence exactly as a native speaker would! (Thanks to Ari in Beijing for this tip!)

 

  • English vowels, especially in “American”, are “Lazy”.

 

When I hear heavily accented English a lot of the time, and this is true for people from all continents, I usually hear a precision in the vowels.

In many types of accented English, the vowels are pronounced with emphasis and are strongly highlighted. You can do this and sound like a native speaker of American English…from the 1940’s, that is.

But contemporary English has a gliding quality to its vowels that almost none of the other languages that I have studied have.

American English uses a “legato” (and for those of you who speak Italian, note how differently an American would say the word versus the way an Italian would say it and you’ll illustrate my point exactly!). The vowels slither from one end of the mouth to the other. The primary focus of that back-and-forth swaying should be the back half of your tongue!

Instead, what many speakers do is that they pronounce the vowels statically. What this means is that the vowels, instead of moving throughout your mouth the way they do in “American”, stay put.

I don’t blame a lot of non-native speakers. Most languages in the world do this.

Those of you who know me in person know that my accent is a mixture of those from the many countries I’ve lived in. I have no problem putting on a flawless American accent, but it takes effort for me, because the lazy sounding of the vowel is something that, looking at it honestly, actually requires effort to execute.

Again, imitation of native speakers will assist you in learning how to do this. Pay attention to the small details of people’s speech (by the way, that’s what I did in my Learn Palauan Video Series that’s still ongoing). That way, you can pick up an accent.

What’s different from the way the native speaker is saying it in comparison to the way you would say it? Pay attention to EVERY. SMALL. DETAIL.

  • Not Pronouncing the R correctly

 

And this is especially  a problem from places like Thailand in which the L and the R sound are almost mixed (I bet you’re probably thinking about politically incorrect accent imitations from cartoons, aren’t you?)

One of my students practiced this sound by imitating my pronunciation of the phrase “rare occurrences”, which many non-native English speakers struggle with.

Your tongue should be curved upwards slightly, or flat, and then retreated. It should sound almost like a lazy dog’s growl (and I think it was a comment on Fluent in 3 Months or something like that that I took it from).

For those of you who speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the phrase 好好 (or “very good” = Hǎohǎo) is actually pronounced something closer to having an “r” sound in the middle of it. That’s how I got native Mandarin speakers from Beijing to pronounce the R sound flawlessly. Surprisingly that r actually resembles the American R to an astonishing degree.

  • Having various pronunciation “ticks” from their native language seep in.

Now this is one that I considered omitting by virtue of the fact that there are some native speakers of English that do this (e.g. some Irish people don’t pronounce the “th” sound, Trinidadian native speakers of Standard English may pronounce the word “ask” as “aks”, etc. And no, this isn’t the time for me to get into a debate about whether or not the English Creoles of the Caribbean are separate languages or not. Post for another time!)

This can take extraordinary training and most people are satisfied with their English accent enough to the degree that they don’t deem it necessary.

Take Sweden, for example, a place with a very high rate of English proficiency. Despite that, you’ll hear people pronounce the “ch” sound like a “sh” sound, or the “j” sound like a “y” sound at times. (“A box of shocolates” … “you yust need to understand…”)

Thanks to my experience with Scandinavian tongues, I speak like that too, at times. (Keep in mind that many Swedish young people will throw in English phrases and sentences even when speaking Swedish among themselves).

You don’t understand the degree to which the things you expose yourself to can affect you. It’s very, very powerful.

These things can be trained away with effort, but given that a lot of people want a “good accent” and not a “they can’t tell the difference between me and an American” accent, a lot of people don’t go this far. But I think that the various English pronunciation ticks of many nationalities are well-documented and you just need to be aware enough to avoid them.

And sometimes speaking exercises and tongue twisters may train things away.

Again, maybe these ticks are actually something that you like (as conversation starters, for example). But I got news for you: you can easily turn such things like that “on” and “off”.

Some examples of these ticks:

  • Swedes, Norwegians, French people pronouncing “ch” as “sh”.
  • Polish and Portuguese speakers overusing nasal vowels in English.
  • Hungarians speaking English with the first-syllable-is-always-stressed rule (English does, as a general rule, do this, but not with the consistency of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • Greenlanders pronouncing the “ti” combination as “tsi” rather than “tea” (e.g. “Arctsic Winter Games”)

This is very much a perfectionist point. Which brings me to the one thing that almost ALL English learners struggle with.

  • Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language

The most common roadblock for developing a good accent in English!

Your native language may have a set amount of vowels. English is almost certainly very likely to have more.

Often some speakers will just read and speak English using the vowels of their native language, rather than learning in detail the way that the English language uses vowels.

As an English native speaker, I have to be careful about my accent. If I don’t do a good job, I may get answered in English, especially if my accent impedes my understanding.

You, as an English learner, don’t really need to get worried about being answered in your native tongue when you try to speak English, and NOWHERE NEAR with as much consistency. This is especially true in English-speaking countries.

As a result, I’m not surprised by the fact that most people don’t want to hone their accent and only want to make it “borderline understandable”. And this is true even in places that score “very high” on English proficiency tests.

To some degree, I understand this because humans are, generally speaking, lazy creatures.

So what you’ll need to do is learn how to pronounce the vowels in English while successfully shutting out the sounds of your native tongue.

Imagine that you had no knowledge of your other languages in the slightest, and just needed to imitate the sounds based on what you heard, without overlaying the vowel sounds of your native language on it. That’s what you need to be doing.

Simply put: don’t read English vowels the way as if they were the same exact vowels in your native tongue. Use a new system.

 

BONUS: Another thing you could do to help you in English is…learn a little bit of another language!

 

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Especially in places where it is commonly believed “don’t learn too many languages because you can’t master them all. Focus on a handful of them!” (just wait till I and the rest of the polyglots get validated by furthered informational and memory technology! Hoo hah!)

But if you choose to do this, you’ll actually acquire skills from your other language to help you with English and everything that it entails.

You’ll also learn about how to approach learning from a different angle, and what makes English (and the process of learning English) different from whatever other languages you may be learning.

As a hyperpolyglot myself, I’ve honed the many processes of learning and maintaining my many other languages by means of collecting experiences on each journey and sharing them with each other.

This is one well-known fix that very, VERY few people try, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it already.

Granted, English may actually be your third, fourth, fifth, etc. language, in which case you just may need a little bit of thought, investigation and a few diary entries in order to see what you could do to fix it.

 

Yes, I have, on a handful of occasions, met non-bilingual folks whom I mistook for Americans because they spoke English so well (and my accent radar is EXTREMELY well-honed).

It. Is. Possible!

That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!

Have fun on the journey!

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.

myanmarsaga

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

Myanmar Saga: Burmese after 1 Month

Once upon a time I went to a bookstore and I was chanted by the fact that guides to Southeast Asia seemed to be everywhere. In libraries all around Manhattan, as well as in too many store shelves to list, it seems that the region is headed in the same way that Iceland is: the travel destination(s) that everyone talks about and almost everyone dreams of visiting.

(This is true about all of the countries in the region)

That was late 2014, shortly after returning from Germany to the United States.

Years since the day that I saw a Lonely Planet guide on a library shelf, I am pleased to announce that in less than one month I will be setting foot on the Golden Land after a very long journey from…the other Golden Land.

(Fun fact: Yiddish speakers called the United States “Di Goldene Medine” [the Golden Land], which is also a title used for Myanmar/Burma/”That Southeast Asian Country”)

The last few times I tried to play “language tourist” in France (seeing how far I could get with Duolingo alone…hint…DON’T DO THAT!) and Jordan (didn’t put almost any effort into it at all due to things I was going through with school), I failed extraordinarily.

I won’t let it happen this time.

And, of course, I am reminded of the time that my father expected me to know a lot of Spanish as a result of being halfway through Spanish II in high school. On a trip to various cities in Spain, he used my floundering as a validation for “Language learning for adults is impossible” hypothesis. Thanks to what happened in Iceland, he adjusted the goalposts (saying that I was capable of my okay Icelandic because I was exposed to French and Hebrew as a child), and I guess the goalposts are sorta…stuck there for the time being.

ANYHOW. BURMESE.

 

Burmy

If you can get this, then you should be my best friend. Obviously not my picture.

 

SUCCESSES:

Here’s what I’ve mastered so far:

  • Thanks to the “Burmese by Ear” course, the tones are not a problem for me (although when listening to them in singing they become an issue)
  • I can ask for the hotel and I can say that I want things and that I want to do things.
  • I can address a lot of tourist functions, including asking for food, how much something costs, and, of course, essentials such as basic greetings.
  • I got used to the sentence structure (particles at the end indicate grammatical context, such as whether it is a question with or without a question word, or what tense it is)

 

FAILURES:

 

I feel that my burnout and my laziness are intensifying with age, as is fear. One result of this is that my knowledge of reading the Burmese characters is not as strong as I would like. And I haven’t even got around to the confusion of the various words in Pali that can sometimes be spelled differently in Burmese.

What is Pali?

It’s the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, a bit like the Ancient Hebrew / Quranic Arabic / Biblical Greek of the Buddhists of Southeast Asia (this branch is dominant in Myanmar / Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia).

Liturgical language influences are common to many of the world’s languages, and, as with Yiddish, this phenomenon in Burmese actually creates words that do not conform to normal pronunciation rules.

I’m going to have to read a lot of signs in Burmese and I have less than a month to fully get to reading them well.

Here are my other blindspots:

  • Numbers (a bad blindspot to have! Very bad!)
  • Understanding of politeness systems.
  • Understanding of colloquial vs. formal speech (although I understand this at some level).
  • I don’t feel that I can put together very complicated sentences.
  • Listening to Burmese music and radio is a complete joke, I can barely understand any of it.

 

HOPES:

 

If I were a weaker person, I would chalk up my failures to the fact that “Burmese doesn’t have a lot of learning materials” (in comparison to the most popular languages of that region, which would probably be Thai and Vietnamese).

I won’t do that.

Yes, it might be harder for me on the short term (and that’s where I am headed at the moment), but I can always do something. And something is better than nothing.

I have my work cut out for me at the moment:

  • Be able to read signs (esp. street signs. This is important because the transliteration systems are inconsistent across guidebooks and tourist materials!)
  • To that end, possibly make cartoons and other drawings, like “Chineasy”, to help OTHER people do the same.
  • Know your numbers.
  • Rehearse and role-play various situations more often.
  • Read more about people like me learning Burmese online, whether for scholarly purposes or travel.

Who knows? Maybe Burmese will end up being one of my favorite languages down the line!

Any advice is highly appreciated!

Have you studied any language for travel purposes? Success stories about that? Share them in the comments!

grand central

Definitely not Southeast Asia here

6 Reasons Why You Should Learn Breton

breizh

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, pick a more original picture, but this keeps in mind those that have never seen this flag before. Introducing, dear friends and followers and curious people, the flag of Brittany!

Time for me to be honest, I get vexed whenever I see a “reasons to learn popular language” post, as if they needed any more reason aside from being from (usually) very politically powerful and/or rich countries.

So this series is my response, and I’ll start with one of my favorite languages to sing in…

 

“You’re learning what…?”

Too often people will rule out potential languages to learn if they have to explain what it is to most people.

Look.

You have one life.

I understand if you may not want to spend even a small portion of that life doing a certain something.

But if you do have a desire, however small, to learn a language that most people in your community don’t even know exist, then…DO IT ANYWAY!

But you haven’t come here for my opinions, you’ve come here to learn about Breton (or maybe you just want to know what it is!)

 

What is Breton?

Breton is a Celtic Language native to Brittany, which is the area of France directly across from the English Channel. That peninsula sticking out westward towards the sea? That’s it.

But if you go to Britanny nowadays, you’ll hear mostly French spoken on the street, the reason for that being the same as why you’d hear mostly English rather than Irish in Dublin.

That said, there are movements for the revitalization of the Breton language, and there are a lot of people who know it natively (at least 100,000 people!), but most of these are older people (born in the 1950’s or so).

So given the current demographics, and despite the existence of the Diwan school network (which you can read about here), there is some cause for worry.

But luckily you, dear traveler, can help!

And if you want to hear it spoken, feel free to scroll down where you’ll encounter folk songs and heavy metal (no, not making this up!)

If you want to see it written, feel free to look at some of the links as well as Breton Wikipedia here.

And No. 6 on this list will have exciting ways for you to use the language while having fun!

 

Why Should I Learn Breton?

 

  1. Breton played a key role in the history of Britain and France

 

Bretons were essential in turning the tide of victory to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, one that ultimately decided the future of the world’s most powerful language today.

After the Normans defeated the Saxons and set up “house” in England, Bretons migrated from across the English Channel to Cornwall, making the Celtic languages there, especially Cornish, more similar to Breton.

The Celts played a role in influencing both Britain and France, and their influence in turn has been spread over the entire world, despite the fact that all Celtic languages alive today are endangered.  Enya’s “March of the Celts” describes them as “Beo go deo / Marbh go deo” (Irish for “Alive forever / Dead Forever”), and ever since hearing these words, I’ve noticed that the not-completely-subtle-nor-completely-invisible influence of Celtic Languages and Cultures has spread throughout the entire globe.

Brittany is no exception, and among some well-known people of Breton heritage you may have heard of are Jack Kerouac and Charles de Gaulle, both of whom used the language at various points.  (General de Gaulle’s uncle was a Breton poet! De Gaulle = V’ro Chall. Bro C’hall = Gaul Country = France)

Brittany continues to play a role in popular culture in the Francophone world the same way that Scotland does in the Anglophone world. What’s more, people with Breton names live in all continents, by virtue of the fact that France actually has territory in more time zones than Russia does (!!!)

 

  1. Like Singing but Can’t Play Instruments? Breton is for you!

 

Almost all of the Breton music I have heard sounds equally fantastic when sung solo as it would be on highly produced recordings.

If you like Open Mic nights and want to impress people with something exotic and memorable, getting to know Breton music for a while would be highly worth your time!

Denez Prigent (his last name is pronounced as in French), best known for songs of his that were featured in works of American popular culture such as “Black Hawk Down” and “South Park”, learned Breton from his grandfather and has since become a powerful voice of Breton music.

This is the song that was featured in both of these works, and I know it isn’t particularly creative of me to include it, but I have to include it because some of you may have that “wow, I actually know this song from somewhere”. Lyrics and information in the description of the video:

(This song has since been covered dozens of times as well, and I highly recommend you check out Denez Prigent’s other albums, “Irvi” and “Sarac’h”, some songs are very helpful for advanced beginners, others are quite arcane, however…)

And for those seeking something more energetic and wondering. “Cool…got any heavy metal?”

This is for you (title translates to “The Sailors are Dead”, one thing you’ll notice about Breton is that, like Ye Olde English, the sentence structure actually reads “Dead are the Sailors”. I’m also curious if I’m the only one that thinks of the NES game “Zelda II” when I listen to this):

I’ve found myself genuinely a changed man as a result of Breton music. What’s more, because I am a synagogue cantor as well as (insert my other six odd jobs here), I’ve found inspiration in the a capella melodies of many a Breton singer.

What’s more Alan Stivell, the godfather of Breton music nowadays, is Jewish via his mother’s side (!)

Don’t lie! You’ve heard that melody before! (“Son ar Chistr” = the Cider Song, has to be the only drinking song I’ve found included in a phrasebook [!]).

This song’s melody has been included in various other pop songs all over the world, and is a Breton melody from the 1920’s (if I recall correctly).

One of those tunes that stays with you forever, isn’t it?

 

  1. The amount of public domain songs that exist in Breton is staggeringly high!

Do you like singing?

Even if you don’t like singing, do you want to use classical and vaguely familiar songs in your creative work?

Good news!

Lots and lots of Breton songs are out there, waiting to be discovered!

As well as heart-rending poetry that YOU may be the next great translator of!

Putting this in google.fr set to Breton and clicking on “Ar Voul zo Ganin!” gets me this:

http://per.kentel.pagesperso-orange.fr/

And that’s just 101.

 

  1. Standard Breton pronunciation is straightforward

To the very untrained ear, Breton and French are spoken with identical registers. Not surprising. I tell people who aren’t aware of what Breton is that “Breton is almost like Welsh spoken in a French accent” (even though Cornish is a lot closer, actually).

While there are some tricky sounds, including the c’h that is actually pronounced as a separate letter from “ch” (c’h = guttural sound like “Bach”, ch = sh sound in English), as well as some consonants/vowels that disappear in spoken speech (think New Englanders not pronouncing t’s) as well as shenanigans with the “ñ” sound (you’ll see this letter at the end of words in Breton), vowels are straightforward and diphthongs, while also slightly tricky, don’t take long to get used to.

Accented syllables are almost pronounced as two, and look for these on the penultimate syllable.

An iliz = the church. To be pronounced “on “ee-ee-leez”.

So much fun!

What’s more, there is at least one Breton-Language song I am aware of that is generally available in karaoke outlets in France. Probably one of the most recognizable Celtic songs on the planet, actually!

 

 

  1. By learning Breton, You Take a Stand Against Cultural Assassination

 

There are those that say that Breton has the distinction of being the one language in human history that dropped in usage more quickly than ANY other!

If you can read French, have a look at some of these chilling quotes under the section: “Les langues ne meurent pas toutes seules…” (Languages don’t die by themselves)

http://brezhoneg.gwalarn.org/yezh/kinnig.html

I’ll translate a few of them for you:

 

“For the linguistic unity of France, it is necessary that the Breton Language disappear

“There is no place for regional languages and cultures in a France that must make its mark upon Europe”

“A rule that I would never bend: not a word of Breton, neither in class nor at recess”

“Keep in mind, gentlemen, that you have only been put in place in order to kill the Breton Language”

 

I will spare you the rest of them.

It may or may not be “your” culture, but if you can play “doctor” to someone else’s culture or language, it will give you an extraordinary warm feeling of satisfaction knowing that you are, in this critical moment in time, taking the side of those who have been unfairly treated.

 

  1. Despite the fact that the Republic of France declares French the sole official language of the country, the opportunities to use Breton will grow despite of, or perhaps because, of this policy.

 

And while history can’t be undone, I think that people everywhere are more open to the idea of reviving and nourishing cultures that have been suppressed. And even within France, there are a lot of initiatives, from bottom to top, encouraging the usage of Breton and furthering its publicity.

Even if you are a not a native speaker, you can help! Let people know about the Breton Language, its music, its poetry, and the cultural aspects that may not seem as foreign to the ordinary American / Frenchman / Brit / (anyone else) as he or she may imagine.

The curiosity you spark in other people may very well start their journeys, and it is likely that you may have a deeper impact on creating cultural awareness than you realize!

Last year, one of Denez Prigent’s songs was featured on an episode of South Park (I found out this out at a Jewish youth event in Brooklyn, of all places…), and that by itself caused a lot of people to become curious. You may not be an extraordinary pop culture icon (yet), but you can still do something!

There will come a day in which Breton will come to Google Translate (as it already has come to Minecraft and to Mozilla Firefox, in complete translations, no less!). There may even come more impressive and unforeseen victories still.

Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that, and proudly say to your friends and family members that you helped make it happen?

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Your boat, ready to take off for an exciting journey into Breton / Brezhoneg, that will forever change you. Note: this is Sweden, not Brittany. Sorry about that!

 

How to Get a Really Good Accent in Your Target Language with the Help of Only One Word or Phrase

My tactic revolved around a quote from Bruce Lee which said that he feared not the man who practiced 10,000 kicks, but rather one kick 10,000 times. Come to think of it, it has been a while since I picked up a quote dictionary.

I blame quote infographics on Facebook.

Unrelated fact: when I was in high school I had this “quote of the day” feature in my creative writing classes, which I recall shamelessly having ripped off my peers at previous institutions.

Moving on…

rgmf

When I was in Paris, I remember that one of my sibling travel companions kept on saying the phrase “les hommes d’équipage” (the ship crew) aloud in a dramatic voice at vaguely regular intervals (there was no occasion that called for the recitation whatsoever). It apparently had some unclear connection to a poem about an Albatross that escapes me.

I had heard “les hommes d’équipage” about seven times a day on average, and interestingly said travel companion had a very convincing accent indeed, without even trying, after a significant amount of recitations of the phrase.

True story: sometimes I catch myself saying the phrase out loud, too. Even now!

Now during the few weeks between Paris and New York, in which I found myself in my parent’s place alongside all of my siblings (first time in a long time), the habit rubbed off on me too. When in very, very casual conversations with my family members, I would throw in a phrase with virtually no context and with a very non-American accent indeed.

Except for this time the phrase was Greenlandic, and the words were “Kalaallisut oqalusinnaavit?”(Can you speak Greenlandic?)

It probably was annoying to them as “les hommes d’équipage” was during my Paris venture, but I certainly managed to experiment with a different Greenlandic-sounding accent every single time, until I got one that stuck and made sense.

And once I had that accent for the two words, I was capable of splicing the accent onto the rest of my speech in that language.

I speak a number of languages but my accent strength in them is not equal.

And here’s why not:

Because I haven’t had this accent training drill with a phrase in all of them.

One thing I used to do with Danish was say the word “Hvad?” (what?) at points in conversations with my family members and some friends when the English “what?” was appropriate. As a result, I practiced this word many, many times indeed, and even if my Danish accent or my ability to replicate the stød is not perfect, it certainly became a lot better.

Now that I think about it, I really should be doing this more often…

So here’s what you do:

  • Identify a certain phrase or word in your target language that sticks with you.
  • Make it a bit of an inside joke / exclamation / etc. and get in the habit of using it. If you don’t want to do it in public, then just feel free to use it when frustrated at your computer, etc.
  • Let the word or phrase grow on you, and then one time, you’ll find yourself having said the word with an accent that sounds perfect.
  • Now you have the accent. Try using it on other words in your target language, and possibly even in your native language / other languages to ensure that it sticks.
  • It may not be utterly perfect and may require some refinement, but…voila! There you are.

Happy practicing!

August 2014: New Riddle!

My Arctic August is going by very well, despite the fact that the environment where I am has not been conducive for immersion, or for making videos.
Despite this difficult setup, I can now hold conversations in Greenlandic with fair frequency, but I feel that my reading ability isn’t where I want it to be. As for Northern Sami, the same situation is to be found, but slightly in favor of reading and less so of speaking.
I confess to having an inability to focus on one project at a time. Therefore, in addition to Northern Sami I was rehearsing its siblings as well. By “siblings” I mean Finnish and Estonian.
One thing that really helped me with the Scandinavian Languages were the fact that I used my inability focus on one language at a time to my advantage, and improved the lot of them together, although it took a good degree of mental gymnastics to do so.
I decided to do the same with the trio of Finnish, Northern Sami, and Estonian, which are more distantly related than Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are.
Unfortunately, because I got really lazy, my Hebrew skills have been taking a toll, and while my understanding remains sharp I feel that my conversational abilities have plummeted. My new list reflects that, but luckily next week—my new graduate program begins! JTS’ Hebrew programs will definitely help me in that regard.
For French: despite my trip to Paris, I find myself a bit challenged. As someone who has a deep rebellious side, I find it difficult to have “chemistry” with a very commonly studied language. But Duolingo isn’t going away and I will put in some nominal effort until I start to reap results.
The understudied Faroese Language, on the other hand, is going by very well! I found the most perfect course on Memrise imaginable for me, and thanks to my new phone purchase, I have been attending to my obsessions whenever I find myself needing to wait for something.
It has taught me a LOT about the more modern Scandinavian Languages (who knew that “ingen” [no one, none] and “ej” [none] were related via Old Norse?). The pronunciation, like that of Danish and French, I had been learning by means of hearing words and putting the rules together.
When the Inuit difficulties of Greenlandic made me want to throw my phrasebook across the other end of the room, or close my browser window in frustration, I would often turn to Faroese for something easier. The vocabulary doesn’t pose a problem as virtually everything is a compound word or a piece of one, and it really helps enforce my other Scandinavian vocabularies (and teach me more than a few new words in the process).
Getting a Faroese accent is a bit difficult, but I think I may need to dabble in an Icelandic one to fully realize the difference and make it more distinctly “Faroese”.
Now, I realized at one point that I may need to drop some of my languages just because I may not realistically have time to practice them all. I did find a way around it, however, and I’ll explain it when I reveal my new language dabbling.
Here are your hints:
• This language is the official language of a country, but not the only language with this status.
• This language is also an official language of a part of said country
• This language is endangered
• Judging from the FSI’s standards, this would be very easy for an English speaker to learn (although I do have problems using “hard” and “easy” to describe language projects or languages in general).
• The language is very closely related to some of the most popularly studied languages.
• The language’s name sounds very close to an adjective used to describe its classification.
• On paper, the most common language in the area where it is spoken is one that is on my list already (it is one that I know well)

Next week I move to New York, and I really hope to improve and maintain my various projects by means of its countless inhabitants!