3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)

Some Encouraging Thoughts about Learning Swedish in Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyhow…

Reasons Why Learning Swedish in Sweden is a Good Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

WRONG!

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

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

 

  • Use your smartphone to your advantage

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

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

Simple phrases will, more often than not, work.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • Don’t dwell on mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was my immersion journey in Sweden hard? Yes

Would immersion journeys be hard anywhere else? You bet.

Did I leave Sweden fluent? No.

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

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

You’ve got an exciting journey ahead!

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

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

dansk i graekenland

We sure did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, let’s pivot back to the discouragement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A victory pose, if e’er there was.

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

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

SIMPLY PUT: I IMAGINED IT.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m here to help.

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Don’t worry, be happy

6 Reasons You Should Consider Learning Modern Hebrew (Even if You’re Not Jewish)

Llun Jared Gimbel.

Today is Israeli Independence Day, and yes, it is a Hebrew phrase that has caused many a foreigner to struggle pronouncing it: “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”. For those curious, it is just the literal translation of “independence day” (yom = day ha = prefix indicating “the” “atzmaut” = independence, abstract nouns, or verbs that can be expressed as nouns, often end in “-ut”)

Like so many other students in the Ulpanim, I struggled with Hebrew, and even more strongly I struggled with Israeli culture, that my father told me would be very similar to that of the U.S. but my experience in the country indicated that it was anything but.

I have to actually start writing a listicle in honor of “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”, so I will segway into reason no. 1.

 

  1. Israeli culture is refreshingly human.

 

In the United States, I often feel that a lot of people hide their emotions, hide their true feelings and often are considerably difficult to read. A lot of this may have to do with Hellenism combined with various forms of Protestant theologies, indicating that “showing emotions is bad” (in the Nordic Countries with the possible exception of Iceland, this is very much the case, as well as German-speaking countries in Europe)

Israel has very much the opposite problem, in which the directness is perceived by many westerners as “rude”. Many Israelis also believe that this is unique to their country in particular, but I’ve seen in this most of southeastern Europe as well as in Poland.

Israelis will become your friends more easily, they will ensure that you become a better person, and they will criticize you honestly and sometimes maybe a bit too strongly. This may be  harsh at first, but after a lot of time in Israel and heading to a place like Connecticut, you’ll probably think (like I did) that you are surrounded by “softies”.

Many of them will be forthright about their political opinions and even if you disagree with everything they say, they will still be your friend. After all, as one of my friends put it, “I have friends from both the extreme right and the extreme left. If we all stopped talking to each other, the country would fall apart in a week”.

Israel, on one side, does have the army culture, but in many other areas it is anything but a nation of conformists. A go-getter attitude that “sticks it to the man” is something that motivated me to do things like start this blog and start putting videos of myself online.

Speaking of videos…

 

  1. Israeli Comedy is what All Other Comedy Wishes It Could Be

Have yourself a look:

If you spend your time among Israelis, you may find your sense of humor sharpened to a degree you didn’t even think possible. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to find humor in everything, even the things that Americans wouldn’t even dream of joking about. It goes without saying why the Israelis needed to develop humor since before the state was founded.

Learning Hebrew only makes it more possible with being able to interact with this brand of humor in its most authentic form.

In a world growing ever more fearful, we need more laughter. If you want to laugh, there is seldom a better choice than with the Hebrew of contemporary Israeli TV, Radio and print media.

  1. Hebrew is a gateway to learning how languages work outside of the Indo-European bubble.

 

As a seasoned polyglot I seem to divide languages into two categories (and no, I’m not talking about “Disney’s animated films are dubbed in this language” vs “These same films are not dubbed into this language”).

The Indo-European Language family is confusing, enchanting and mesmerizing. Not only that, the VAST majority of  languages that people study are on the Indo-European spectrum, which goes from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all the way to Iceland.

Hebrew was my first non-Indo European Language, and the more I’ve come to studying non-Indo European Languages, whether they be something like Finnish or even further afield like Greenlandic or Burmese, I’ve noticed that they provide an exquisite quality that Indo-European Languages just simply can’t provide, whether they be something commonly studied like Spanish or even something a lot more rarely studied such as Gujarati.

Especially online, people tend to make would-be polyglots very afraid of non-Indo European Languages (Hebrew and Turkish and Finnish and Mandarin Chinese have very few words in common with English, unlike French, which does! French = eezy! Hebrew = hard! Be afraid! Ha ha ha!)

Ancient Hebrew is a glimpse of a language that existed way before Indo-Europeans proceeded to influence virtually every language out there (although there are a handful of words in common with Indo-European Languages of the Sea People).

Contemporary Hebrew is a great way to “test the waters” to see how a non-Indo European Language works (hint: a lot of them still have a lot of Indo-European influence). There might be a lot of struggling in learning how the language functions with verbs and prefixes and suffixes, but later on you’ll find tons of expressions taken mostly from Yiddish, Slavic Languages, English and French.

You may find yourself so enchanted by it that you may want to learn other languages that aren’t Indo-European as well! A highly rewarding experience!

 

  1. Israeli Music is Like Daydreaming in mp3 form.

 

Not a lot of songs that make you actually want to get up and do chores, right?

If you like nostalgic tunes that bring you back to your childhood living room, or need a hugging feeling once in a while, Israeli music will have a lot of that! (Not also to mention dance tunes and heavy metal, but that’s for another time!)

Check. Out. This. Channel. Now.

  1. Israelis travel EVERYWHERE

What I am about to say is not an exaggeration:

I have encountered Israelis in every country I have EVER visited.

Just got out from teaching a Hebrew class, and during that class I remember my meeting with an elite from Hillel International.

He told me a joke:

Scene: Peru

He asked his Quechua-speaking tour guide: “What are the most populous nations on earth?”

Tour Guide: China is first place, and then the United States, then Israel. I see Israelis everywhere!

Israelis are probably the world’s most seasoned travelers, and if you wear a yarmulke or other Jewish identifier or sign that you speak Hebrew in public, prepare to get “Shalomed” very often! In Berlin, this happened to my brother once every five blocks. Not a joke!

You’ll be able to get yourself free drinks or travel advice and compliments wherever you bring your Hebrew. Even if it isn’t good enough yet, you’ll definitely manage to open up people, as is the case with any language.

Most Israelis will also be really happy to help you learn Hebrew, even though there may be a few others that may have become disenchanted with the various vexations and “drama” of the culture. Once I even got told “let’s continue this conversation is English, because I speak English better than you speak Hebrew” (These are in the minority! I promise!)

  1. You can use your knowledge of Hebrew to be a peacemaker

 

A lot of Israelis (not the majority) have this understanding (possibly because of the school system) that the world hates them, and that they don’t win Eurovision because of anti-Semitism and that they are a point of derision throughout the whole world and no one wants their country to exist.

I’ve told ton of people from throughout the world (yes, even from the Arab world) that I speak Hebrew and that I have lived in Israel. It’s primarily the government policies that are the issue, not ordinary people, the language(s) or the culture (all of which are very much admired, actually! Same with all other countries that have their governments “appear in the news” very frequently)

I’ve seen some of my non-Jewish friends studying in Israel and it has been tough for them, no doubt. If you are a non-Jew (full disclosure: I’m an Ashkenazi Jew myself), and find yourself enchanted by Israeli comedy or the Bible or Israeli tourists or the beaches in Tel-Aviv, let people know! Tons of Israelis want to meet you and be friends with people like you!

Who knows? Maybe Peace will come to the region (or other regions) because of people like you!

And maybe the journey to world peace will begin with your journey to learn a language!

Who knows?

 

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

My Weaknesses

 DSC00027 (11)

Here’s something you probably weren’t expecting me to write about, and I highly recommend all bloggers who give advice of any sort do very much the same.

Here I am, someone who writes instructions for people wanting to use their languages to talk to other people, to get to know other cultures, or who came here finding a perspective on how to learn rarer languages or those spoken in places in which English proficiency or fluency is the norm.

But I’d like to let you in on something: I don’t even see myself as any variety of authority on most days. Regardless of how much external validation or how many interviews I get or even if I speak ten different languages in a single evening without faltering in any of them (it has happened!), I still see myself as very much a flawed creature.

I just hope that my musings could provide an antidote to the discouragement we encounter all far too often.

My biggest weaknesses, and what I can do about them:

 

  1. I burn out easily.

 

This wasn’t the case back when I was in school, but I think the novelty of polyglottery has a bit worn off and for a few months now I’ve been hard-pressed to do any variety of language learning that isn’t directly connected to the Internet or an mp3 file.

I’m moving out of my apartment right now and as I write this I have on my left side a pile of no less than eighteen language learning books, and while some of them I have looked at cover to cover, I have an expectation that I should have memorized the contents of at least one, and I have done no such thing, despite the fact that a handful of the books are very worn out from overuse.

On top of game design and writing this blog I feel that my energy has been beaten down through cynicism, and somehow I need to get it back.

 

A possible fix: Maybe I should take a break from almost all rote-language learning for a while (excluding the maintenance with entertainment that I would usually use to take break, after all, watching “Let’s Play” YouTube videos in Finnish hardly counts as work in my book.)

Barring that, maybe I should wait a while and then perhaps a change in my life would cause me to return to these projects with new vigor.

I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to learn Welsh and I feel that I haven’t been making ample progress. On top of that, I have a travel destination in May 2017 (most likely) and an accompanying language mission that I cannot afford to “screw up”.

More on that for another time!

 

  1. I’m hypercompetitive

 

…but not in the way you might think!

 

I’m hypercompetitive with the ideal version of myself that I’d like to become. So when I make a mistake somehow or can’t switch languages fast enough (this is one thing that has been tripping me up as of late!), I blame myself.

If I feel as though I’ve been floundering in maintaining certain languages, I get uneasy even if I’ve had a lot to do otherwise and most other people would forgive themselves!

In short, I expect myself to be superhuman, but I can’t have it any other way. I’ve tried.

What’s more, I also have external competition, perhaps worrying that many other polyglots that have focused on more popular languages see me as something “less” because I would commit more time to something like Irish or Bislama than to French or Spanish.

 

A possible fix: take a note of my weak feelings and note to which languages I’ve had these troubles with. Use mini-exercises , nothing to stressful, to make myself feel good about using these languages again. Realize that mistakes are actually okay—after all I catch myself making grammatical errors or using the wrong prepositions in English more frequently than I used to!

 

  1. I get nervous easily.

 

There was that one time that I was asked to speak Icelandic to a guest at an event and I was so tripped up for a number of reasons that I could barely get coherent sentences out.

Then there are the times in which, if I have had something with sugar in it, even a little bit, my memory banks will be positively scrambled. It’s bad when you have to show up to an event having rehearsed Spanish the whole day and forgot the word for “download” accidentally (descargar, for those curious).

I should know that word, I think to myself, given how much time I use with video games to practice Spanish (which I am only moderately proud of and don’t consider myself good at most of the time, this statement applies both to video games and to Spanish).

I figure “more practice”, head home, watch six videos in Spanish and write out words I don’t know and develop techniques for memorizing them, and it occurs to me that vocabulary really isn’t the problem, the actual problem is self-doubt.

 

A possible fix: However grateful I am for my schooling, I have to recognize that, sadly, one of its purposes was (and remains) to suck out a lot of our confidences. Realize that the problem isn’t a lack of practice or a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of mindfulness. I should focus on this sort of mental discipline as much as sheer rote-learning when preparing for language exchange events.

 

  1. I dwell on past failures for far too long, even though I know I shouldn’t

 

Some of you know this about me, but concerning events especially I have a photographic memory.

Sadly, one thing this has done is that I remember almost every time a native speaker has put me down / answered me in English / I’ve been tongue tied or unable to form a sentence / something bad was said or written about me / I couldn’t think of the right word / I didn’t live up to my standards.

I even took a year-long break from Spanish because of thoughts like these.

 

A possible fix: realize that a lot of the being answered in English bits were due to (1) insecurity on behalf of the native speaker (2) a contract (in which they may be required to speak your native language) (3) in which the native speaker has too much of his or her native language in the home or at work and wants a change (I’m okay using other languages if necessary) (4) habit (look, if you met the person before you could manage their language well enough, be easy on yourself! They may be used to communicating with you in the language you met them in)

For the other concerns, see the possible fix in (3), above.

 

  1. I often put more stock in other people’s opinions of me, my progress and my work than my own opinions thereof.

 

This, again, has to do with schooling and grades.

There is one good thing to this, though: if I get validated or complimented or being told I speak “fluent” or “wonderful” (insert language here), I feel an extraordinary confidence rush. Thankfully this has been happening more and more.

A possible fix: I’ve been used to discounting my own opinions as invalid (also perhaps something to do with my schooling), now I just have to do this to my own negative opinions. This has to be called a “one-sided optimistic bulldozer”.

Truly a worthy investment on your part, too.

No, Americans are Not “Worse” or “Better” at Languages Than Anybody Else

While there are some certain realities that cannot be denied (that every member of my extended family that is still living, with the exception of myself, is a monoglot), it has little to do with reality and more to do with attitude.

2015-07-06 11.22.31

Austin, TX, home to speakers of Spanish, Japanese, Upper Sorbian and Northern Sami, among others

Think about it. If you were raised with everyone telling you that learning a language is a waste of time, hopeless beyond a certain age, and that “everyone speaks your language anyways”…why would you expect very stellar results?

Let’s say, for the purposes of a thought experiment, that all the countries on earth, instead of the 190+ there are in reality, are the current and former members of the Danish “Common Kingdom” (Dan. “Rigsfællesskabet”). So in this world, the only countries that exist are Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m not mentioning Norway and Sweden here, that is taking the exercise a bit too far and possibly extending into controversy).

As you well know, Danes do visit and have employment opportunities on Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and in both places Danish is the second-most common language after West Greenlandic and Faroese respectively. In Iceland, Danish is still learned commonly as a foreign language after English.

In the real world, while there is some interest among Danish-speakers in learning Greenlandic and Faroese, the majority does go with the idea that “they speak Danish anyways, why bother” , not unlike what some English speakers do in the real world with where their language is commonly spoken (most of the developed world, more or less).

In this thought exercise, in which the English language does not exist, who do the “worst” language learners actually become?

The point you should take is this:

No one nationality is better or worse at learning languages than any other. But some nations do have better or worse ATTITUDES at learning languages than others.

It has little to do with age of beginning education either. The Netherlands, very high English proficiency indeed, does start its English language nearly later than any other country in the EU (I regret not remembering nor writing down the source). The earliest is Belgium (3 years, if I recall correctly).

But there is no correlation between age and English proficiency or proficiency in any other languages.

Often I read articles about how wonderful the Luxembourgers / South Africans / Nigerians / Scandinavians / Dutch are at “linguistic ability, and then sometimes I feel pain. Why did I have to be born into this nation?

But at a certain point, I realized, especially coming from the Northeastern U.S., that I had advantages in picking up languages that people from these countries and others do not.

  1. English may be everywhere in certain countries, but in many American Cities, nearly EVERY major language is everywhere.

In Heidelberg, I struggled to find speakers of official EU languages of smaller countries. In New York City, I once encountered two Faroese speakers over the course of a single weekend! (P.S. that was NOT the Polyglot Conference).

Furthermore, the neighborhoods of many American cities are known for being, to some degree, ethnically divided, with regional languages dominating alongside English. Yes, this does exist to a degree in many other developed countries, but given as the United States still remains the world’s most popular immigration destination, you can imagine the variety you can help yourself to!

This is the U.S.’s hidden treasure that it has lying out in the open. But will you take it?

  1. American English has its accents taken from the various countries from which its immigrants came. You probably have a variety of foreign accent without knowing it.

 

This is somewhat self-explanatory. Upon returning from Germany to the U.S., I noticed exactly how many American accents owed themselves to German. I also noticed significant Slavic strands (especially Polish) as well as Scandinavian strands among American accents in general. Sometimes I could even tell what an American’s ancestry was based on listening to their voice, and you’d be surprised how right I was!

As a result of this, you’ve been exposed to a plethora of voices that you somehow need to convert into the many accents of the world. Again, the fact that so many immigrate and have immigrated to the U.S. can make this a boon.

  1. American English has a colloquial speech taken from words and colloquialisms from all of the immigrant languages.

“Long time no see”, “you hear?” as a question, and “this here book” all started out as immigrant mistakes, and then they became fossilized in correct, although slang, English. In literally EVERY language I have studied, I have seen an influence that the language has played in English, or, alternatively, that English has influenced it. (This holds true even for minority and/or smaller languages!!!)

As a teacher of languages myself, I make a point of showing how much of the target language a person knows already, without extensive effort. I point out the various connections between that target language and English.

If you ever hear me do it during a lesson, your conception of “Americans are bad with languages” will be banished forever to the hinterlands, never to be heard from again.

For learning a language as an American, it is merely connecting the various familiarities you already have from certain popular culture phenomena or slang expressions and then you have a stable base in a language upon which you can grow fluency.

4, No American I have met has ever decried any language as “useless”.

You’d be surprised how often I get in some countries a “why would you want to learn that?” response. You’d be surprise how, when I used to speak English in some countries, there would be those that put down the local language as useless (hint: if you speak the local language well, or even not so well, no one will ever say anything bad about it! On either side!)

Americans, thanks to a general open-mindedness but also a very friendly demeanor, NEVER judge you on your language choices. Furthermore, they are never skeptical about the idea of a polyglot (some people, especially in Europe, see the idea of learning lots of language an extraordinary waste of time. I heartily disagree because the skills between languages are more transferable than you may think, especially within the same families and sub-families!).

You’ll encounter learners of the rarest languages at American polyglot gatherings (as I’ve seen last week) and you won’t hear any scorn among them. In fact, scorn will be heavily discouraged! In fact, more often than not, a rare language is seen as a thing of extraordinary pride. True, when I was in Germany and Iceland, there were those that marveled about the fact that I could understand Greenlandic (which I then forgot and am now learning again!), but the awe shown is only a fraction of the praise that Americans, polyglots or not, will shower upon you for your efforts and commitments.

You are really encouraged to pursue your dreams in this country. Language learning should be no exception.

And the only thing holding America back from being the greatest multilingual powerhouse the world has ever seen is an attitude, paid for by pseudoscience and fear.

Get rid of that, and a wonderful, new ultra-omniglot United States will come into being, unlike any other country that ever existed!