In Defense of Learning an English Creole Language

Today is actually a Jewish holiday of sorts, although one with very few religious practices involved. Tu B’av (Jewish Love and Harvest Festival of Sorts, which literally translates to “the 15th of the month of Av”, using a numerical systems in which Hebrew numbers are stand-ins for letters way before the Arabic Numeral system came around) is one of the most auspicious days of the Jewish Calendar, the other being Yom Kippur.

Being generally confused as well as having some issues with illness I thought yesterday was actually that holiday and so I posted this picture to announce that, yes, I will be coming out with a New Polyglot Video, hopefully very soon. If not August, than definitely September.

victory is my destiny

No doubt there are going to be those that are fuming due to the lack of French / Chinese / Italian / Portuguese / Turkish / other global languages, but come on. Too many other polyglot videos featuring those languages exist. Let others have their turn.

And if other people want to downvote my videos just because of leaving out their favorite language or including a minority language and not theirs, then so be it. It just speaks to a greater issue of ruthless pragmatism and conformity in the online Polyglot community.

One of my big memories of the Polyglot Conference in 2015 was hearing a well-known Polyglot whose opinion I respect very much say that he wished that many of his peers would investigate Asian languages other than Mandarin Chinese in more depth. My decision to study Burmese beyond my trip was not only motivated by him (even though I’m not really focusing on it at the moment), but I also got inspired to learn another Asian Language, Lao, because I’m just…generally curious to learn more about the most bombed country in the history of humanity (true story!) Oh, and … uh… snippets of Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil, etc. on the side. But I suck at these. A lot.

Besides, I can communicate with some Thai people with Lao and I prefer smaller languages, something that you knew by now.

Gee, you really love reading my ramblings, don’t you?

So if you looked at the picture above, there were probably very few of you that could recognize every single country in it (by the way, that’s not footage from a future video, that’s just a teaser).

But out of the 27 or so countries featured, there are six (SIX!) English Creole Languages and seven if you include Standard American English.

Let me count them for you:

 

Vanuatu -> Bislama

Papua New Guinea -> Tok Pisin

Solomon Islands -> Pijin

Trinidad and Tobago -> Trinidad English Creole

Sierra Leone -> Krio (Salone Krio)

Belize -> Bileez Kriol (Belizean Creole)

 

I would have become my Bileez Kriol videos a few days ago but I got tied up with a guest in town as well as not getting good sleep and what-have-you. And I haven’t published a new video or a day or two…

By taking on minority languages in my video (such as Breton) as well as English Creoles (like the list above), I know that I will get some very harsh negative responses.

A lot of people feel genuinely threatened by online polyglots in general, and even MORE so if they actually commit themselves to “useless languages”.

And imagine if you’re very proud of your country and your language and your language is a global language, and then this guy comes along having chosen to neglect the study of YOUR language and chosen languages spoken by significantly fewer populations instead. You may feel CRUSHED.

And then there are those that insist that their Creole language is actually a dialect of a European language (and this is especially true in some Caribbean countries, note that I did not say “Carribean Island Countries”, because there are some Caribbean nations [e.g. Guyana] that are not islands).

I could have chosen to leave out Trinidadian English Creole (which I’ve been studying on-and-off for the past few months, even though I got the book in January 2016 as a “you don’t have Lyme Disease anymore!” give), but I’m including it even if it will subject me to ridicule and dislikes.

Here’s the reason why.

 

Creole Cultures Need Legitimacy and Love

 

Some have indeed acquired it, with Haitian Creole being the primary example. Walking around New York City you’ll see signs written in it, especially on public transport. Haitian Creole is also in Google Translate as well, not to mention countless of other avenues to learn it online (Haiti has a fascinating history that actually served to permanently change the face of colonialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade).

However, too often do I encounter with disgust that Creole Languages are “not real” and that people “should never consider learning them”. (in Francophone and Lusophone areas, I’ll have you know, this is overwhelmingly not the case, and sometimes I’ve encountered people who have learned French and Portuguese Creoles from France and Portugal respectively).

The disdain towards Creole Languages seems to be an English-speaking hangup that I’ve primarily encountered in North America (in Australia and New Zealand languages like Tok Pisin are actually highly valued on the job market, even though some of those jobs may get you sent to places where they are spoken with great regularity. True story!)

That being said, I do have some theories as to why some people may be inhibited in learning them and also why learning Creole Languages, for me, is a moral imperative:

For one, there is always the issue of “number of speakers”, which is just plain silly if used by itself. Attracted by the culture of Argentina? A great reason to learn Spanish.  Genuinely concerned by the way Chinese culture is misunderstood in your country? Mandarin may thing for you. “Lots of people speak it, therefore I should learn it”, is just flock-following. I’ve encountered too many people who explicitly list that reason for learning such a language and when they speak these languages, it comes off as stunted and non-genuine. As it should! Because the cultural connection is usually lacking!

And why learn African Languages from the former French colonies when just French will do? Well it seems that China’s language institutions are investing in African languages precisely so that they can have an edge in business against people who think like that.

English Creole languages are spoken in places where Standard English is the language of the government until you actually step inside any of the actual government meetings.

Oh, and my parents needed a Krio translator when they were in up-country Sierra Leone, so especially in the case of African and Pacific Creoles, knowing the standard language is only going to get you so far (even though in some cases it may be wiser to use Standard English, especially in some urban areas in countries like Papua New Guinea).

Another hangup is appropriate usage. Especially if you are a white person, you may be concerned that your speaking a Creole language may be construed as making fun of their culture. Well, appropriate usage can always be discussed with your friends from places like Salone, Melanesia or the Caribbean.

In the case of Papua New Guinea, speaking Tok Pisin with too much English influence and not-too-well can be construed as “Tok Masta”, which is considered highly condescending. And we haven’t even touched on some of the Caribbean Islands in which people see their Creole as a version of English so much so that they deny having any knowledge of a Creole language whatsoever (the situation in some communities like these is very, very odd, although I think Jamaica is a holdout, after all, did you know there is Wikipedia translated into Jamaican? Hey, I’m living in Crown Heights, I should probably order my Jamaican Patois book sooner rather than later. Perhaps after an important milestone, maybe, although I don’t think I’m including Jamaican in my upcoming video…)

Another thing to mention is “opportunities to use it”. Online, tons. Even for developing-world creoles. This is true even if you go onto news sites in places like Vanuatu and see a lot of the news written in English rather than in Bislama. Comments on the articles may not be in English, not also to mention snippets of Creole Languages that are used in articles that are otherwise written in Standard English.

Yet another hangup is yes, it has to be said, undercurrents of white supremacy. An idea that, somehow, the way that these people speak actually isn’t worth your time, even with a lot of black people in the United States feeling increasingly unsafe. And another idea that the language of Europe are more important and have more money attached to them than the languages of any of the places they colonized or languages that came into being because of colonialism (=Creoles).

I want to help people and cultures heal and understand each other. I arrived to Crown Heights and seeing the Trinbagonian flag everywhere (yes, Trinbagonian is a real word!), I took it upon myself to know my community better (after all, I knew plenty about the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights prior to moving there!)

Am I going to get comments about usage of Creoles in my video? Most definitely. Some will be negative, no doubt, but I think that there will be many people from places like the Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone and Trinidad and Tobago that will appreciate the fact that I tipped my hat to their cultures when very, VERY few people (or perhaps almost not one) in the polyglot-video-making-world does that.

Already in my video series on YouTube I have caused people to rethink language learning (including many thank-you-notes).

I’m going to continue to do so for as long as I can.

Who knows? Maybe I’m the healing the world needs…maybe it’s you!

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How to Use the Pokémon Animated Cartoon Series to Learn Languages!

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Screenshot from the Finnish-Language Pokémon Website.

Few cartoon series have been localized as widely as the journeys of Ash Ketchum and his many friends. In addition to the usual advantages of using TV series to learn languages (patterns and repetition are essential in creating a space for your target language in your brain), the Pokémon Anime also endows a number of unique quirks that are definitely worth mentioning.

If you came here to find a listicle, you’re absolutely right!

 

  • The Cartoons are Available for Free Online 

On The Pokémon Company’s official website, as of the time of writing, you can access the site in the following languages: English, Spanish (EU), French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese (Brazil), Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish. (There is also the Japanese site as well but I can’t really access the site map aside from a Pokémon Go download link as of the time of writing).

You can use the versions of the site in order to access (from anywhere in the world, mind you) not only various episodes of the anime but also various flash games that are completely localized in all of these languages. There are other features on the site as well, and obviously in the bigger languages the site is more complete (with a Pokédex available in some of these languages).

Furthermore, the content and layout of the anime episodes will vary depending on language and sometimes they “rotate”, so when you access the site on different days or weeks you’ll get different episodes.

To access the website in these languages, just type in “pokemon.com/XX”, where XX is one of the letter codes: ES (Spanish), BR (Portuguese), DE (German), FR (French), IT (Italian), RU (Russian), NL (Dutch), SE (Swedish), NO (Norwegian), DK (Danish) and FI (Finnish). Pokemon.com takes you to the English version of the site.

Once you’re on the site, click on the TV icon and have fun! (Or you can fiddle around and browse all the while).

If you are not learning one of those languages, you can also access, via YouTube or other sites, the anime in the following languages (and probably many more, depending on where in the world you are): Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Latin Spanish, Portuguese (EU), Czech and Romanian. (If I missed any, let me know in the comments. I know that the anime is sometimes localized into languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese, but I can’t find any depositories of them online, although sometimes the Pokémon movies are available in all of the languages listed on this page with more ease. Sometimes these movies will be available on the websites).

 

  • The Speed of the Dialogue is Perfect for a Beginner-to-Intermediate Learner

 

This was oddly consistent throughout a lot of the localizations of the anime, as well as the English Dub.

What’s also very odd about the speed is that speaking at the speed that many of the characters do in the Pokémon anime is actually completely natural for a native speaker.

While learning Hebrew, Russian and Spanish in high school and college, one extraordinary hurdle I had was that I was addressed in low-speed “Learnerese” a lot of the time. Then thrown into the real world of these languages, I really didn’t know how to speak like anything natural. The same was true with most of the teachers that addressed me as well (although there were noteworthy exceptions).

One thing I really liked about the Pokémon TV show in various languages was that it presented the perfect speed for a learner that was anywhere between beginner and intermediate. It wasn’t too slow, but it also was just the right speed that was suitable for a conversation.

Granted, there are some more challenging parts, primarily the Team Rocket Motto (which is probably the most difficult portion for learners to understand), but above all most of the dialogue should be at a manageable speed for you.

And even if you don’t understand it, the Pokémon anime can still be helpful for a learner because…

 

  • The Pokémon Anime is Rich is Visual Context Clues

 

When Team Rocket talks about their plans to capture Pikachu, often you’ll notice that a significant amount of illustrations and animated visuals accompany their plan. You can actually use this in order to make out what is happening even if you really don’t have a clue what’s being said.

Keep in mind, kids learn their first languages with the aids of cartoons like these, and these visual cues help them…and that means they can also help you!

Another example in which visual cues are also used is when Ash and his friends encounter a landscape or a cityscape or a colony of Pokemon (among many other things). You’ll also notice that every member of Ash’s party often remarks on what is being said. Pay attention to these short phrases. They’ll be extremely useful throughout your language learning journey.

Also, during battles, note that some key words are also repeated at key actions, as well as various words and styles used depending on what emotions the characters are feeling. Anime is very rich in expressing people’s emotions across many different lines, so that should also help.

Speaking of battles…

 

  • In Some Localizations and Seasons, the names of Pokémon and their Techniques will be in English. Use this for accent training.

 

In Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and German, the Pokémon’s names will be localized. In all other languages they will use the English versions of the Pokémon names, and in the Nordic dubs in the later seasons the techniques will also be recited in English (although the names of the Pokémon types are NEVER localized).

You can use this to your advantage if you really want to train your accent in these languages if you pay attention to the quirks in how these English names and words are pronounced by the voice actors.

If you’re a native English speaker, pay attention to pronunciations that may sound strange to you. Even in the Nordic dubs I’ve caught a handful of complicated Latinate technique names being butchered, although examples escape me.

Interestingly, in comparison to casual speech in many of these languages, the dubs are significantly low on English loan words (the way that German or Dutch in particular tend to use them very often). You may be able to snag one once in a while, even in languages like Portuguese and Russian in which Anglicisms are rarer than in languages like Norwegian.

 

  • The Pokemon Anime Provides a Plethora of Stimuli that Can Serve as Memory Techniques

 

If you hear a phrase or a word you need to remember, you’re going to forget it easily unless you find something to “connect” it with. It could be a funny incident involving the word, it could be a story involving the word, or you could associate it with your environment or feelings at the time.

(This is why learning the language in an immersive environment is so helpful.)

The Anime provides memorable characters in the Pokémon themselves, as well as a host of settings and music tracks that you can connect to the phrases you’re taking in.

And we haven’t even touched on the possibility that you can also connect various words and phrases to plot points in the story. Not also to mention you can do what kids do: re-watch your favorite episodes endlessly (again, this is how kids learn their first language!)

 

  • Various Portions have No Dialogue at all (or Dialogue in Pokémon Speech). Use This Time to Reflect on What Words You’ve Heard and How to Internalize Them.

 

One thing that can be frustrating about watching Pokémon in a language you’re learning is that sometimes the action shifts to having the cute monsters hop around the screen or just looking at landscapes or, true to anime fashion, just having characters look at each other with menacing stares (in addition to many other down-time situations that I haven’t touched on!)

Use this time in order to develop memory techniques to fully internalize any words you’ve learned earlier on in the episode.

Also, if you’re having trouble picking up words, feel free to type something that sounds like it into Google Translate or another dictionary thing. It will usually correct you, especially if it is a phonetic language. Otherwise, if you don’t have a translator, you can use context clues. This is especially helpful if you’ve seen the episode before in a language you understand better.

 

Conclusion

 

One of the most successful animated cartoon shows in history can be used as a learning tool with surprising efficiency, given its ability to weave words with storylines and illustrations. The episodes themselves are perfect for a learner seeking to make his or her way out of the “language learner material ghetto” (as All Japanese All the Time refers to it as).

I should mention that I don’t have a lot of experience using this show with East Asian Languages given that my East Asian Languages that I’m working on ever-so-slightly (Burmese and Lao) don’t have localizations (as far as I know).

So if you’ve had experience doing that, let me know what I missed out on! Part of me thinks it may not all be that different!

 

Happy Watching!

 

 

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.

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.

2016-10-31-19-21-52

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.

A Sample Warm-Up Ritual for Polyglot Gatherings

In the days leading up to it, I ask myself the following questions:

  • Which languages am I most likely to be using? (Spanish, German, Portuguese, Hebrew)
  • Which rarer languages might be featured? (For example, this round I am practicing Finnish and Faroese because they were both name-dropped in a blog post about the last polyglot bar. Given how Estonian and Finnish are related, it might be fair to count Estonian in, too)
  • Which languages am I not feeling particularly confident about right now? (Answers: Romance Languages, Greenlandic, Estonian a bit rusty too)
  • Which Languages do I feel I could use quite readily right now? (Answer: Scandinavian Languages, German, Yiddish)

The ones in regard to (4) are ignored for the time being. Anyone that intersects with both (1) and (3) (in this case, Spanish and Portuguese) gets special media treatment.

Anyone which intersects with (2) and (3) gets treatment as well.

Lastly, any other languages in (3) get attention.

So, what languages of mine require practice?

Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Finnish, Estonian, Faroese

Yay, list!

Now, what I do:

The ones that I feel are the WEAKEST I practice at the earlier in the week.

Faroese goes first (On with Kringvarp Føroya until I get bored of it, and then an assortment of Faroese Music).

Once I feel that I’ve had my fill of that, I take out my phrasebook and review the grammar. Alas, I am still using “language learning materials” with Faroese but hopefully within a month or two I’ll drop it.

Estonian is next. Songs, review vocabulary lists (I don’t use textbooks for Estonian except for reference now), and watch Estonian versions of some Disney musical animated films for kids.

After this, I put the computer away and train myself to think in Estonian (with Faroese it is a bit more difficult because there is no Google Translate for it…but mark my words…I think we’ll have it before the year is up!)

Words I am blanking on are looked up and recited out loud.

Hebrew—well, I figure I have the class on Wednesday. No big deal.

Finnish, Portuguese, Spanish— I watch TV in all of them at various points throughout the day when I have time. Words I do not know are looked up, but for Romance Languages I feel that my understanding is usually very, very good, but active use is weaker than I would like.

The rest of the languages get about two minutes worth of attention each (usually a YouTube something). The ones that I am learning I either use (1) Memrise (2) Quizlet or (3) a book.

And then when the day comes, I get my confidence in perfect gear, and then I walk to the area on foot, training myself to think positively about my abilities all the way there.

And then the fun begins…

Polyglot Report Card, for September 2014 (Part 2)

The First Part of this report card is here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/polyglot-report-card-for-september-2014-part-1/

Next up is a language with two flavors, Portuguese.

as armas

brasil

I cannot lie, I really like European Portuguese and I am quite passionate about it (although not as passionate as I am about many other languages).

In fact, I say this with a hint of guilt, I like it a LOT more than I do Brazilian Portuguese, despite the fact that it could be said (as a friend of mine has) that “European Portuguese isn’t a separate language. It’s only a really annoying accent”.

In any case, I’m not really where I want to be with either of them (except for when it comes for understanding Brazilian Portuguese, thanks a lot to Duolingo…)

I may be tempted to “throw television at the problem” in order to make it go away, especially for European Portuguese which is less commonly studied. At present I’ve been watching something in EU Portuguese on average of once every week, as opposed to my Duolingo studies in “Brasileiro”, which I try to make daily.

My plan:

Brazil: Complete the Duolingo tree (and the end is within sight). The problem: sometimes it really feels like a chore for me and my hand hurts from typing. The three-heart system can also be particularly stressful—probably the most stressful “game-like” experience I’ve had is with Duolingo.

Portugal: Once I complete the tree, I’ll use Portuguese media to measure my progress. That will be another diagnosis, but if European Portuguese really isn’t much more than a “really annoying accent”, then this spells wonderful things for me, despite of some cries of “two separate languages”.

The pronunciation of both is definitely not a problem for me anymore. Not only that, but I can switch between them with minimal effort. I couldn’t do this when the year began.

medinat yisrael

I really got lazy with Modern Hebrew and it really is all my fault. I got lazy with Spanish as well. Given how these were the languages which I had plugged the most time into earlier in my life (because of school), I really felt that, on some level, I had been “force fed” them. Because of this, it is difficult for me to feel “passionate” about them, and sometimes my conversational ability can range from good to troublesomely bad, depending on how I feel.

How do I get that passion back?

ay yay yay

Well, for one, we’ll see what JTS’ Hebrew classes do to me in a few days. Hopefully I can put it together and get to convincing conversational ability between then and now. I can’t allow myself to become a victim of my “mood swings”.

As for Spanish, well, there are plenty of Latin American conversation partners, including one of my best friends who is Puerto Rican. Then there is also immersion, which I hadn’t used in high school because I was too naïve (nor did I really have the time for it back then, given the dreadful testing culture…)

The same way that I learned the Scandinavian Languages with a lot of media immersion, I have to realize that I must do the same with the Romance Languages. It may be boring at times because I feel like I understand everything (when what I want is ACTIVE control of the language), but if I want to maintain this language that’s what I have to do. Portuguese by itself and expecting Spanish to remain in place just by virtue of the connection isn’t going to work.

Worse off than Spanish is Dutch, and I came across the odd realization in Paris that I can understand Flemish accents more easily than I can those from the Netherlands (odd…they’re the same language, that’s what everyone tells me…)

 

vlaanderen

That “ui” sound is the least of my problems. My knowledge of Dutch grammar is rusty and I don’t think that my accent is at all that good. I’ve been using the immersion technique with Dutch for a while now but I think that I’ve hit a brick wall…

I can understand a good deal of television and even more of the written language. But what do I need to do for active control of the language that I can be proud of?

not orange quite surprising

I may need to turn to Memrise or even Duolingo’s Dutch course (even though my plate is very well full on both). Reading the Transparent Dutch blog certainly wouldn’t hurt, especially in regards to those past participles that I sometimes draw blanks on, not also to mention those odd situations which leave me wondering whether or not I should use German sentence structure in Dutch.

And last but not least, a new member of the almost conversational family, having graduated from the lower tier:

kalaallit nunaat

Words cannot describe how proud I am about the fact that I can talk about myself and my hobbies in what is probably my favorite language at the moment.

For those of you who have dealt with me personally over the course of the past few months, you may instantly know that I am talking about Greenlandic, an Inuit Language with Danish influence which has been described by many as notoriously difficult, possibly even the world’s hardest language. But I digress.

According to Per Långgard, the teacher probably best known for Greenlandic for Foreigners courses (in both the English- and the Danish-speaking words), there are very few foreigners who have full working proficiency in Greenlandic (according to my recollection, the amount of foreigners who have done so could fit into a small classroom!)

I’m nowhere near that level, I don’t know if I would commit my Greenlandic studies to that degree, but the fact is that I have a very good firm basis in the prefixes, the suffixes, basic verbs, and what makes the language different from all of the other languages that I have studied.

My weakness: the written language, and this may in part be due to the fact that Greenlandic isn’t supported by either Google Translate nor Facebook (although there is a Wikipedia in Greenlandic).

I can’t go around translating songs quite yet, but I can get the gist of every article and song or TV episode that I see with no help from Danish or English. Something for me to be proud of!

Also, if any of you know any Greenlandic Speakers in the New York Area, send ‘em my way.

 

This series ain’t over yet! Tune in later on for Part 3!

Why Danish isn’t as Hard as Google Search Results Make It Out to Be

dansk i graekenland

From the airport in Hania, Crete–a place that has a reputation for getting “planeloads of Danes” during the tourist season.

Hej allesammen!

If there is one language that has been accused of being both very easy and very difficult to learn, it would definitely be the Danish Language. I still have remember the first time I typed in some words into Google Translate and had them read aloud with that recognizable little button…

My mouth dropped, I lightly screamed, “WHAT?!!?”, and I muttered to myself in disbelief. “How does THAT come out to be…THAT?” I wondered…

Nearly a year and a half later after that incident, Danish pronunciation is not the least bit scary to me, after lots of cartoon-watching and media consumption (in fact, the only reason why I would consume media and watch cartoons is precisely for learning a new language—nothing more…)

[TANGENT]

Let’s get this out of the way right now: for media aimed at younger audiences, even in part, there will be dubs of them in the Nordic Languages, “All their media is in English, and that’s why they all learn to speak it excellently…”, you might have heard? No, not quite. Sorry. That would be the schooling systems you have in mind.

In my Stockholm hotel TV where my family was staying, there was definitely very little dubbed material (is that why people get this impression?), but the fact is, that you can find media in the “everyone from the countries where these languages are spoken speaks English” languages, and a lot of it!

Not only that, but you can and will find people willing to speak to you in these languages and will actually be very pleased that you undertook the effort!

Wait, did I go off on a tangent? Yes I did…

[/TANGENT]

On one hand, a quick Google Search in regards to the Danish Language may tell you that you better give up now because all the expatriates struggle with the language, never learn it, always get answered in English, can’t even get the basic street names correctly, etc. etc.

On the other hand, while I don’t particularly trust the FSI’s rating of languages by difficulty (or any such ratings, actually), the fact that Danish is in the easiest category (along with Romanian, the other Scandinavian Languages and the Romance Languages—hey, FSI, possibly put Romansh in there, too?) is telling.

I came across this list back when Danish pronunciation mystified me, back when I thought, “I will never bother with torturing myself with this, I’ll stick to Swedish and Norwegian for the time being”, and I was perplexed. But interestingly, a part of me found it believable…maybe the pronunciation wasn’t so bad after all.

Okay, back up, for those of you wondering what exactly makes Danish so elusive in the eyes of foreigners, allow me to introduce you to the stød, the glottal stop. Mention this to someone who speaks the language, and he or she may make a motion of sticking his or her tongue out slightly and then withdrawing it—in so doing, this creates a certain creaky vibration of the throat. This is effectively what you need to master.

While it took me a number of weeks practicing to practice it, while walking on silent roads or in the shower, I actually encountered someone a few weeks ago (German/British), with no prior knowledge of Danish, who pronounced a perfect stød on his first try! Well, you really shouldn’t judge anyone from first tries, but the fact is: there is hope for you! Not also to mention that there are dialects of the language without it.

Without further ado, allow me to present this, a translation of a very popular Greenlandic song, “Sila Qaammarerpoq”, into Danish:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQwjuScey9s

That creaky voice sound that you can hear at multiple points in the song? Yep, that’s what scares away many prospective learners.

Not the only thing, however—the fact that Danish spelling is deemed a “poor indicator” of pronunciation means that even basic words, like “bedst” (best), “gade” (street), “overalt” (everywhere) and “eventyr” (fairy tale—you know, that’s what Hans Christian Andersen called his own creations…), become very intimidating.

But, in reality, these words are just as intimidating as their English counterparts would be for a foreigner!

Scratch that, the English words would actually be more intimidating!

I don’t see too many foreigners saying how the English language is extraordinarily difficult, and I think that Danish pronunciation and spelling is actually a lot more intuitive than that of English—although let’s be honest, this is not a very high standard.

In summary, Danish’s reputation as very hard can be ascribed to the following factors:

(1)    Stød—not impossible for a foreigner to learn. Obviously this requires some practice

(2)    The spelling-pronunciation disconnect. This, too, requires some practice.

 

And the best way to get this practice is by using the same method that most people who learn English to any degree use: media immersion.

This is effectively how I learned Danish, after learning Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees. Thanks largely to the similarities between Norwegian Bokmål and Danish, the written language was a lot less scary, thanks largely to the fact that Norwegian is very straightforward in its spelling and pronunciation systems, more than both Swedish and Danish are.

I spent the least amount of time with Danish textbooks and learning materials—far fewer than I have with any other language. Because I spent most of my time with materials made for young native speakers of the language, my confidence skyrocketed and my progress was quick. This way, I turned the nightmarish aspects into a boon—I used it as a means to tell myself, “immersion is necessary to be good at this”. And so it was.

My vocabulary was almost entirely gained through immersion, and I even remember some from the food packaging labels from the time I lived in Stockholm, back when I thought, “if I even try to read this gosh-darned language aloud, I’m gonna make a fool of myself…”

But even if Danish is your first Scandinavian language, you have to realize that your journey is very much not impossible, contrary to what the Internet might say (and what doesn’t the Internet say?). You will be amazed with your progress and your journey, and so will you. And so will your friends….even the Danish-speaking ones…especially the Danish-speaking ones!

And actually, I’ll leave you with a secret: I know that there are many people who disagree with me, but I think that Danish sounds beautiful, especially when sung.

If you don’t believe me, watch Walt Disney’s films dubbed into the language. They’re all there!

This might also be roughly familiar to some to you:

Held og lykke!