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

 

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

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

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

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

You already have an encyclopedic knowledge of SOMETHING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

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

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

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

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

Now how exactly can you apply this to ACADEMIC knowledge?

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

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

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

Or let’s take verb conjugations, for example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:

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

 

Happy hooking!

20140928_074028

Advertisements

My Unpopular Opinions

Everyone who ventures into the world of growth makes an effort to take on a way of thinking that most people don’t have.

Choosing to be somewhat edgier than normal, I decided to write this piece to explain what sort of mindset led me to become a legend in my own sphere and, increasingly, on an international scale.

To become successful in any fashion, much less become revered captain of industry, a certain narcissism and ruthlessness is required.

Which each passing day I feel that my dark side is somehow strengthening, but along with it, a desire to assist people bring their dreams to reality, live fulfilling lives, and build bridges and help cultures understand each other.

It’s odd, because throughout my life I’ve been taught that “being a nice person” is the most important thing. In my understanding, being nice and courteous is what’s EXPECTED  of you, it isn’t a bonus or a skill and should not be treated as such.

The most important thing, in my life, is do anything it takes to fix the world or protect it from bad futures. In Jewish understanding this is the idea of “Tikkun Olam” (World Reperation), which oddly enough was a phrase that I literally DID NOT HEAR until I enrolled at Wesleyan University, despite several years in an Orthodox Jewish background (although a lot of my Orthodox friends, and rightly so, do value Tikkun Olam with great pride…and not just Rabbis, mind you!).

Here are some opinions of mine that you may not share, but I’m okay with that…

 

  1. The online polyglot community seriously needs to consider expanding languages learned.

 

Too often is the same set of ten languages bounced around over and over and over again.

Too many people on the online polyglot community consider the question of “usefulness” rather than asking themselves what they really want.

Too many seek outsider approval or, even worse, ask their friends what sort of languages they should be learning. (Don’t do that! Ask yourself that question instead! And I think I’ve written that on this blog before, methinks…)

Truth be told, with few exceptions, just learning popular languages without any deep motivation dominates a lot of the Facebook groups.

Again, it’s one thing to learn a language because of a genuine connection, but a lot of people just do it “to get ahead” or “out of civic duty” or are more focused on the results they read about in that Business Insider article rather than the process of getting to know a culture (which is as in-depth a process as getting to know a person).

One time I actually met someone who was a well-known figure in the language-learning industry and s/he almost reacted to my knowledge of languages like Greenlandic and Tok Pisin, not also to mention the fact that I was working on Gilbertese in my YouTube series, with confusion bordering on hatred!

Obviously among the best-known polyglots in the world, this almost never happens. Among my deepest friends, this doesn’t happen.

It pains me to see how Fluent in 3 Months, formerly a source of inspiration that I would visit in tears whenever I was worried that I would never learn Swedish or Hebrew well enough to be good enough to talk to anyone, has turned into a predictable array of articles that just show off a handful of the world’s most powerful languages in favor of showing the true diversity of the human spirit. It’s shameful.

I don’t encounter innovation among most polyglot communities, I just encounter the predictable and the dull, and that could change if only people were REALLY willing to do something different. Source: I became world-famous all over Palau and Greenland because I thought different.

Mostly I’m talking about Facebook communities rather than blogs and websites (and certainly not those blogs and websites belonging to friends of mine who have not only provided me inspiration but also a platform!)

 

 

  1. Most people will end up sacrificing their true potential for conformity or comfort

 

Do you really want to become a legend? Do you really want to become someone who the world and your family will be very proud of indeed?

You have to make sacrifices and think differently. It is an essential law of the universe that states that conformists never win. EVER. They never have, nor will they ever go on to do so, anywhere, for all of human history.

But which would most people rather pick? A safe group identity, or a life of shaking things up and being remembered and revered for it?

Most people are not willing to make that sacrifice. A lot of people will be unduly attached to their entertainment, to their predictable jobs, and choosing to slog away at routine rather than asking themselves “what can I do to make myself the very best?”

Granted a lot of this may come from limiting beliefs, and if you have them, throw them away without any second thoughts. The people who want to discourage you are always wrong (even if it is I myself that is discouraging you from anything, however implicitly. Don’t be discouraged!)

But I’ve seen this throughout my life. Given the choice between making valuable connections and investing in self-improvement and putting your all and living a quieter life…it’s clear which one most people want. But at the end of their life, I’ll guarantee you that all of those who chose the quieter path will regret it. Very, very deeply.

And this leads to a point that a lot of people don’t actually want to believe but I’m very convinced of. And that is…

  1. Most people don’t actually want success in their lives

From my preschool years I noticed that I was surrounded by people (even adults) who often would cut off their best versions of themselves with limiting beliefs. “I can’t”, “no, I don’t have the talent for that”. “I’m smart, you’re not, you can do these things, I can’t. You know that”.

The limiting belief is actually an evolutionary mechanism. Believe me, getting the wisdom and going through the process of learning all of these languages and learning more about it year after year is…painful. You find yourself surrounded by people who seem to talk about nothing, who don’t care about the world and are anything put the explorer types to whom our future and present as a species is indebted!

Plainly put, fame is painful. Talent is painful. You’ll have the weight of many people trying to drag you down. And the higher you are, the more of them you’ll get. No wonder a lot of people choose a life of non-adventure!

They might SAY they want to be successful, but aren’t willing to undertake the personal sacrifices and become the variety of character to whom success shows itself.

 

  1. If you don’t like me, you are the problem, not I

My good friends are among the smartest and well-spoken people I can imagine, ones who strive for justice, ones who are endlessly eloquent, those who think differently, bring light into the world, build bridges, build ropes to help others climb up, and ones that bring hope into the world.

I surround myself with these people and I actively seek them out. I want to learn from them and ask them for advice, share life experiences and ponder the world together, finding the newest ways in which heroism is required in the world.

And then there come times in which I attempt to start conversations with people, inquire about their journeys, their passions and how they feel great and heroic in THEIR own life…what sort of small (or big) victories they have achieved…

And sometimes the conversation gets actively shut down, sometimes they’ll choose to walk away or otherwise ignore me and give me short answers. Or worse, be explicitly mean to me, insult me based on my nationality or my job or my choices (although this has almost never happened in recent memory…)

I know where I stand in this world, and it is with the healers, the makers, and the heroes. I think as many people deserve to be in such company as possible! I think YOU deserve all the success that your deepest self dreams about, and has dreamt about for years!

If you somehow try to shut me out of your life, it is clear where you stand. You are the problem, I am not (although I know that I am very far from perfect, as are we all).

Lastly…

 

  1. Most people have a visceral hatred towards the type of people who avoid the dustbin of history.

 

Any successful person knows this. A lot of name-calling, shunning and cruelty awaits for those who think differently.

Most people not only don’t want success, they don’t really like types associated with personality traits that are associated with it.

Often I find in the world that there is a conception that smart people or project-starters or entrepreneurs or those who have acquired great talent are somehow “making up” for something, so as to turn the very idea that these people help our species and our world get ahead is actually a flaw.

A lot of people are going to take the predictable paths in life with low-risks and many of them are going to make the non-conformists and the “movers and the shakers” feel bad.

But that’s only to try to prevent them from getting ahead during the one time that they have the advantage.

Because you, O dreamer, are going to head into a legacy that will make you, your country, your family, your ancestors, your progeny and everyone who even met you once extraordinarily proud!

And then it will be worth every pain, every doubt, every calamity that you incurred along the way.

 

SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS:

 

I understand if you disagree with me or even want to try to dissuade me. I am gladly open to any discussion of anything that I’ve given here. What’s more, I want absolutely none of you to construe any of this as a personal attack.

Yes, I know I can be harsh at times, but the trying times of humanity right now call me to be more indignant then I ever have been. I’m not wasting the one chance of life that I get, and I know you won’t either!

come back when you can put up a fight

The 5 Languages that Changed My Life the Most

Yes, I know, polyglots don’t play favorites. Or at least that’s what we say we should do. I’ve noticed with great consistency that polyglots get attached to certain sets of languages a lot more than the rest of the group.

For example: I have a greater affinity to Jewish, Nordic, Celtic and Pacific Languages than I do global languages like German, French or Spanish. I have friends that focus on Balkan languages, Central Asian languages, Official Languages of the UN, Germanic Languages, languages of East Asia, and too many other types to list.

Today I’ll write about the five languages (note that I do not say “language learning journeys”) that changed my life the most.

And if I were to write a post about “The five language learning JOURNEYS that changed my life the most”, that would result in something different. The reason? Because the processes you undertake during a journey is very different from the benefits you reap from it. These discuss the benefits.

 

  1. Krio

 

“Jared, I don’t want you to learn this language. It makes you sound like an idiot.”

That’s what someone said to me once about two years ago when I was discussing my parents’ journeys in Sierra Leone and the conversation turned to Krio and how to learn it.

Suffice it to say that I was not of that opinion in the slightest, aware of the fact that my parents needed interpreters at times when they were in up-country Sierra Leone.

Learning Krio truly enabled me to understand African-American culture in ways that I hadn’t before (this may surprise some of you that don’t know it, but the African-American culture in the US, the Afro-Caribbean Culture on the Islands [and places like Belize and Guyana], and the Krio culture of places like Sierra Leone and Liberia are actually linked to each other and have ties of solidarity and cultural mindsets).

Elements from Krio and its relatives from these three areas I mentioned entered American English not only in its informal registers but also its sentence structure. “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” is one such sentence that may have Krio influence, as a speaker of Krio would say  “na ya a deh tok!” And, of course, we haven’t even discussed jazz jive, which exhibits way too many elements from Krio as well as native African languages to list coherently

The proverbs and idioms are also extremely colorful (as they are in all languages in the world and Creole languages especially).

In listening to Salone Krio speakers on YouTube, they find themselves poised between many aspects of their identity that they describe in a heartfelt matter, including the Civil War in recent memory, the hope of the country moving forward, as well as the solidarity ties to their cultural cousins on the other side of the pond (and in the rest of Africa as well).

The people of Sierra Leone seem to carry an extraordinary fortitude that someone like me can’t possibly understand, and my parents also remarked on the collective cultural work ethic and willingness to hang on as something that continues to inspire them to this day!

Krio speakers in the past century or so have been emphatic in making their language a symbol of Sierra Leone as well as a language that wasn’t just seen as “broken” or “mislearned”. You can even access Google Search in Salone Krio as well! (google.sl and press “Krio”)

Also one of my favorite rappers, who lays down a lot of realities and pains of the developing world, Bone na Throat, is very much worth checking out! (He uses Krio and English, not also to mention his performances alongside guest stars from other parts of Africa).

 

  1. Modern Hebrew

 

I knew Ancient Hebrew as a child, and when I saw what happened to it as a result of one Eliezer ben-Yehuda and millions of determined people, I was stunned.

For one, my previous knowledge of English and Russian made it clear how much foreign influence was present in Modern Hebrew, right down to the verb structure.

But despite that, the charm of Hebrew that one can feel from reading the Hebrew Bible in the original is still kept very much intact. The verb system is not only kept in place but expanded upon to as to include words related to SMS and Facebook, among many other things.

(For those unaware: Semitic languages use a system in which a set of consonants form the basis for a verb stem. These letters, known as the root word or “shoresh” in Hebrew, will dance around in various forms that differ in terms of activity / passivity, as well as in verbs-turned-to-nouns. “l’kabel” is to accept, “kabbalah” is something accepted, which is not only the name for the Jewish mystical tradition [accepted from a divine source] but also a receipt you would get in an Israeli store).

Hebrew’s development found parallels in my own life story, in which my mannerisms and even my accent (not to mention my personality) changed as a result of hopping around the world. Jews hopped around the world as well, and Modern Hebrew, with its abundant influent from Slavic languages, English, French and many others, shows it, all while retaining its primeval charm.

 

  1. Greenlandic

 

A language with HUNDREDS of suffixes!  The hardest language I have attempted to date! And, then as well as now, my overall favorite language of them all!

Greenlandic, above all, was different. No other language I have studied (with the obvious exception of the closely-related Inuktitut) has worked in a similar manner.

It confounded me to no end. I had dreams of becoming fluent but no matter what, it seemed that understanding the radio or a lot of songs was always out of reach. And my writing abilities were in the trash (and sometimes they still are).

However, I decided that I was going to do SOMETHING. And the decision to do something , however small, with consistency—it edged me closer and closer to gaining a vocabulary that will probably serve me well during my trip to Greenland in October 2017.

What’s more, the culture I gained insight into actually inspired me to make my first video game, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”. That’s not nothing!

I’d say more about it, but there’s only so much I can spoil for a product I haven’t released yet, right?

 

  1. Tok Pisin

 

Up until I studied Tok Pisin, the languages I had studied in my life had been tongues of the developed world. Tok Pisin changed all that, and in encountering it I felt that I had encountered a time capsule.

The world that was captured in the cultures of PNG felt stuck between the present and whatever our ancestors were before many forms of technology made (and continue to make) our genuinely human side closed off to us.

Tok Pisin taught me how to be a human again, how to think in a language that was minimalistic yet expressive, and also gave me access to a culture that knows all too well that we are poised on a precipice in which either our desire for profit or our humanity will win (the time is not too far off in which we cannot have both!)

It also showed me that, even if I never intend to visit “the country”, I can feel a great resonance with “the culture” from a distance, sometimes even stronger than for countries that I had actually visited once!

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

 

Irish

Ah yes, a language more commonly used by non-fluent speakers than by native speakers…or that’s how it seemed to me when I first encountered the way Irish is used on the internet.

Given how many non-natives were using it enthusiastically online and in speech, the many usages of the Irish language, from those who speak a handful of sentences to full-on TV shows and YouTube series, has captivated me. The Irish-Language sphere on the internet is one of enthusiasm and acceptance, one that many other language learning communities, endangered or not, should take note to emulate.

 

Trinidadian English Creole

 

My first language with no standardized writing system, it truly made me think about code switching more deeply than in any other language. Trinis will often shift between standard English and Trini Creole very quickly, and listening to informal radio programs with a substandard knowledge of the latter requires you to be on your toes.

What’s more, this was a language I chose in part because I live in Crown Heights (and I’m writing this article from there). I learned this language enough to have conversations in it, and suddenly my neighborhood came to life in a way I didn’t even think possible (although my knowledge of other Caribbean Creoles, such as Vincentian, Grenadian, or Jamaican, remain weak as of the time of writing).

 

Finnish

 

The language everyone tried to tell me was impossible. Finnish made me think about how distinct formal and informal language can be. The various “grammar games” that are played in Finnish’s more informal registers made it easy for me to switch from the colloquial variety to a formal one. A useful skill to have if you ever want to learn, let’s say, East Asian languages in great depth.

Finnish music can be heart-wrenching, but also some of the edgiest music I’ve ever heard, one that truly causes me to embrace my darkness and fuel it into my missions of peacemaking and bridge-building. The great pride that many Finnish speakers take in their culture and language is also something that profoundly affected me, and it made me realize that all cultures and languages have it—they just sometimes need more coaxing to get it out and fully expressed.

 

AND #1…

 

YIDDISH

 

I bet none of you is surprised at all right now, right?

Yiddish was the first language I became fluent in as an adult, and for the rest of my life it seems that I will be of the opinion that it is an excellent choice for the first language I definitively mastered. (That said, I’m still learning new things about it and at times, if I’m rusty on practice, I’ll slip up, but given that I do that in English too…I’m okay with that, I guess…)

Yiddish showed me that a language could be a community.

Yiddish showed me that a language could echo a culture in ways that reading from a guidebook or even holy texts just couldn’t.

Yiddish showed me that a language can serve for a depository of cultural memories, as “Yiddish-Taytsch” wandered off further East, picking up words along the way from Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and many others. The people groups you encounter rub off on you (as an individual AND as a nation), and that became clear with the story of Yiddish.

What’s more, the enthusiasm of the Yiddishist community all throughout the world is, I have to say it, unmatched.

The songs and stories of the Old Country are coming back to life, even among non-Hasidic Jews.

Certainly there may be some light tension (or sometimes not-so-light tension) between the secular and religious Yiddish speakers, but hey, when it comes down to it, we’re all “Klal Yisroel” in a sense (even if you happen to be a gentile Yiddish speaker, I would say! The time wasn’t long ago in which even non-Jewish Yiddish speakers were honorary Jews, as well as non-Yiddish speaking Jews as an oddity)

Yiddish showed me what the true prize of fluency in a language is, and even when I wasn’t fluency, I was still getting plenty of prizes. Yiddish made me a better Jew and a better human being through its proverbs, songs and, above all, the community and friends that I’ve acquired through this fascinating tongue that will probably not only remain with me throughout my life, but  I hope to raise my children speaking it one day! (Of course they’ll have other languages, too!)

2015-07-06 11.22.31

What languages have changed your life and how? Let me know!

Happy Birthday, Rasmus Lyberth!

No other musician over the course of my life has brought me to the verge of tears as often as Rasmus Lyberth, a Greenlandic-speaking legend whose songs touch on the many emotions of the mortal coil and also venture into spiritual realms in ways a lot of contemporary music has forgotten to do.

In this piano mashup that I arranged myself, I used pieces from the following songs (the English translations I use were taken from the Danish “translations” provided in the track listing–and they don’t always match what the Greenlandic titles mean):

1. Siimuup Nipaa (Simon’s Voice)

2. Sooruna Oqarnak (Wedding)

3. Asallunga Oqaravit (Annette’s Song)

4. Innuneq Asaguk (Love Life)

5. Kuussuup Sinaani (The River)

6. Hey Hey

Fun fact: I actually have musical perfect pitch and so I arranged all of these without any sheet music!

Happy birthday, Rasmus!

How to Choose Your Next Language: The Only Post You’ll Ever Need

The advice that I put in this article is literally found nowhere else and if you’ve come here for a list of eight languages you should consider studying, you’re not going to get that.

Too many people have asked exactly what sort of process I use in order to pick what language goes “next on my list” or which ones I’d like to learn manageably well (Breton) vs. professionally fluent (Danish).

Too many people embark on a language-learning journey and just say “I want to be fluent. Period.” But it requires more thought than this. (Learning English for communicating with customers vs. learning English for law school are going to be too very different things. And besides, not all of a language’s “realms” have been fully explored by native speakers. Far from it, in fact!)

The fluency that people like this probably have in mind is when the various “realms” of their target language pertaining to their life are filled up.

If you think I need to talk about music theory in Tok Pisin or Finnish, think again. While I do know that vocabulary in my native language, I barely use it. I could manage it if I want (although keep in mind, some languages don’t have all of these “realms” filled in, Estonian in particular prides itself in being the smallest language in the world with a very comprehensive scientific vocabulary!).

Anyhow, language choice.

 

Reasons that I would disregard when choosing a language

Too many people pick languages based on “how many native speakers it has”.

This is not a helpful metric, for a number of reasons.

For one, the one thing you should NEVER do with your life is entrust the choices in your life to other people. E-ver!

Obviously earlier in your life it may have been necessary but if you’re independent in any capacity I highly recommend anything that even contains a whiff of letting other people choose your destiny.

There are those that choose languages like Spanish and Chinese because they have a resonance with their friends from places where they are spoken. They have become attached to the music and to the literatures and the many cultural mentalities contained in such a place.

There are others that choose these languages because of cultural misunderstandings—perhaps they think that a fear of Mexico or China is just too much to bear in the United States and learning these languages will help serve as a protection against such a fear.

There are others still that encounter speakers of these languages with great regularity.

But choosing a language based on an abstract concept of “lots of people speak it” and very little else is pointless and ill-defined.

People who learn Spanish or French for reasons like this and little else barely get past the intermediate stage, don’t have the cultural resonance required for genuine fluency, and probably continue their learning for ill-defined “monetary benefits” or “understanding people” when just sticking to learning material aimed at foreigners year after year, being surpassed in progress by people who learned the language out of a genuine love for the culture and way of thinking.

(You CANNOT become fluent with just language-learning materials! You NEED material intended for native or fluent speakers!)

And never, ever, EVER ask ANYONE “what language should I learn next?”

Ask YOURSELF that question instead!

I’m sorry if my word choice is too harsh, but I’ve decided that in the coming year, I’m going to be a lot more uncensored in my opinions. It’s good for clickbait, after all!

Also peer pressure is not a good reason in the SLIGHTEST. Not for language, not for anything. “No French? No Turkish? No Chinese?” Got this year after year after year.

And the only thing that really got me interested in the French language to begin with wasn’t even France, it was West Africa and the Pacific Islands!

You are the boss of your life. Disregard the rest of people who want to pressure you or make you feel bad. Make decisions that you really want from the heart, and you’ll be a legend. Let other people make your choices, and you’ll end up burned out and full of regret. End of story.

Okay Jared, so HOW should I choose my language instead?

Step 1: Look at one of the following things:

 

  • A map of the world
  • The language index at omniglot.com
  • The register of flag emojis in your smartphone keyboard (if you have one)
  • A very vast collection of language-learning books
  • The travel section in a bookstore or library.

 

Feel free to use a combination of these elements.

What places or languages in that list stick out to you?

Which ones might you have been dreaming of seeing or knowing more about since you were a kid?

When the language is written on a page, does it feel like something you ABSOLUTELY must have in your life?

When you read about the language or the country where the language is spoken or visit online forums about the language or communities associated with it, do you feel a sense of wishing that you were a part of that? Do you feel a sense of wishing that you would like to communicate with these people and understand this culture?

When you listen to music sung in this language, how does it make you feel? Would you like more music of that sort in your life or not?

Also, another metric to consider using is to look at your own heritage.

What language(s) did your ancestors speak? Do you have relatives that speak it or otherwise are (or were) capable of understanding it? You’ll have the motivation to learn such languages because, whether you like it or not, they are a part of who you are.

I got very much attached to languages like Yiddish and Swedish precisely for this reason, and it seems that it will be that way with Hungarian, too.

It’s Okay to Learn a Language for Silly Reasons, Too

Sometimes a language jumps out at you and you don’t know why. Maybe it sounds cool. Maybe you like the writing system. Maybe you read something funny about the way the language is spoken (“Danish sounds like seal talk”) or written (“Greenlandic looks like a kid banging on a typewriter”)

You’re probably wondering, “Jared, did you just write that it wasn’t a good idea to choose a language based on number of speakers, but it is okay to choose a language because it ‘sounds cools’?”

Precisely.

Here’s the reason why.

When choosing to invest in a hobby or buying a product, it is primarily an emotional decision. Logical decisions can be used some of the time, but if you want a lasting attachment to your investment, choose something based on your emotions rather than what other people think might be good for you.

My choice to have learned Greenlandic was not a logical decision in the slightest. My choice to have taken the book out from the library, photographed the language section in the back, and put it on Memrise was all purely from an emotional standpoint.

Where exactly did it land me?

Well, I became attached to Greenlandic because I liked how it looked on paper and how it sounded. I also had a fascination with Greenland since my childhood.

Several years later, I’m going to Greenland to meet with some of the country’s biggest names in the arts and I’m developing a video game set in Nuuk. I was also interviewed by Greenlandic National Radio in December 2016!

This was all because I had an emotional attachment to my project.

And you need a project that you, similarly, are emotionally attached to.

The choice of language has to be YOURS.

It has to be one that you long for deeply, that you can think about with a smile and talk about with friends and show you true devotion to the culture and literature and idioms and everything that language is.

It can be any language in the world! It doesn’t matter if it is a global language or a small national language or a minority language or an endangered language or even an ancient tongue that is used only in writing.

You have to choose it because you genuinely love it!

Love conquers all, and this is doubly true for language learning.

many languages

This building from Antwerp has been featured in WAY too many foreign-language learning posts. I think I may be the one that started the trend! 

How to Perfect your Accent in English

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

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

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

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

grand central

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

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

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

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

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

  • Not using the Schwa sound

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

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

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

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

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

So what you need to do is two things:

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Not Pronouncing the R correctly

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples of these ticks:

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

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

  • Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

It. Is. Possible!

That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!

Have fun on the journey!

The Wonderful World of Music in the Faroe Islands

Today is Ólavsøka (well, it’s actually a multi-day holiday, and by that, I mean it’s 1.5 days, and July 29th is the 1.0 of the 1.5), which is the Faroe Islands’ National Day.

foroyar

In the simplest way possible, this day celebrates the Saint that converted Norway to Christianity (and keep in mind that the Faroe Islands and the history of Denmark-Norway, now two separate countries, are very much linked. To this day, the largest Faroese communities outside of the Faroe Islands themselves are located in Denmark and in Norway respectively).

But you probably didn’t come for a history lesson, you came here for music, so that’s what I’m going to give you:

 

  1. Frændur

 

One of the Faroe Islands’ classical mainstays, Frændur (from an Old Norse word meaning friends, the source of the English word as well) has a well-established nostalgic feel to it, and the lyrics are not only eloquent but also helpful for beginner and intermediate learners.

 

This song is probably the closest thing that the Faroe Islands have to an unofficial national anthem (The title just means “The Faroe Islands”). If performed at a concert, expect literally everyone in the audience to start singing along, sometimes so strongly that the people on stage will go silent completely:

 

 

And while we’re on “I Love my Country” themed songs, I’ll throw you another one (“My Country”):

 

 

And a cover of that song done by many well-known Faroese singers:

 

 

 

  1. Terji og Føstufressar

 

I could try to translate this name cleanly but all I can come up with at the moment would be something like “Terji and the Fasting Munchers”. (Guess who neglected his study for Faroese for years? Shockingly I can still understand a lot of the lyrics and I can read even better than I ever remember being able to!)

Their first album won the title of Album of the Millennium in the Faroe Islands and they even came out with a sequel, just titled “Tvey” (“Two”).

That first album, just titled “Terji og Føstufressar”, concludes with the following harrowing song, with a chorus I’ve  never forgotten: Snjóhvíta dúgvan er skotin til jarðar, sorlaðir liggja nú menniskjans sjálvgjørdu verjugarðar.  “The snow-white dove is shot to the ground, it lies now, broken, mankind’s self-imposed line of defense”

And just listen to those sound effects at the end:

 

 

(That entire album is available on YouTube in Karaoke form if you want to sing along ,by the way).

 

And their second album contains this gem at the end. This song pretty much goes like “I really like spending time with you and I feel something… [mood whiplash in the course] … pity you and I aren’t getting together because you’re married and have kids!”

 

 

  1. Children’s Music Available from VIT

http://kvf.fo/vit/sending/sv/sangir

I bet you didn’t know you could play flash games in Faroese either! Click “spøl” on the link above. You can also get the highest possible score on the marshmallow game if you literally do nothing after angling the vehicle on an upward tilt after collecting one marshmallow (interestingly you get a game over when it gets so big that you have no choice but to hit yourself. Oh, it’s a snake clone, sorry if it wasn’t clear from the outset).

 

  1. Rasmus Rasmussen

 

One of the most sublime musicians I’ve ever heard in my life, Rasmus Rasmussen’s instrumental guitar music is a divine experience that you just simply have to partake of.

 

His life story sadly involved being bullied as a result of having come out of the closet and ultimately resulted in his suicide, and it could be argued that his death and significant suffering beforehand actually spurred a change in the Faroe Islands, in which homosexuality wasn’t always viewed kindly.

 

Within the past few years, I think the Faroe Islands have really changed in this regard (although definitely let me know more about this if you know more).

 

Let’s treat you to some of Rasmus’s music in his memory:

 

 

 

 

His digital albums are available at this bandcamp website, accessible here:

https://rasmusrasmussen.bandcamp.com/

 

  1. Eivør

 

Probably one of the most recognizable voices in the Faroe Islands, Eivør Pálsdóttir combines primeval influences that echo not only the magnificent landscape of the Faroese but also of pre-Christian times.

 

 

Interestingly, some of the growling noises that you hear in many of her songs have an uncanny resemblance to Inuit throat-singing (which is heard more often in places like Canada and the USA given that Danish missionaries banned it in Greenland).

 

 

  1. Kári P.

A folk singer that always seems to carry tunes that you know you’ve heard before, but can never recognize exactly where from:

  1. Tyr

 

I learned from my Greenlandic music to save my heavy metal for the end. In honor of Ólavsøka, I figured I had to include the national anthem in here somewhere. Here it is. *smirk* (And yes, it is instrumental)

 

 

  1. Hamferð

 

It means “Phantom” or “Vision” in Faroese, and they acquired a lot of attention back in March 2015 when they became the first-ever humans to film a music video during a solar eclipse.

 

Now, while they are a heavy metal band, keep in mind that this version is actually comparatively tame:

 

 

And last and certainly not least, let’s introduce you to the way they actually sound in their albums:

 

 

I remember one time I successfully got someone to think that the screaming voice you hear in the first song was actually how Faroese was spoken on a day-to-day basis.

Just kidding.

I was told “Ha. I’m not that gullible”.

 

 

Appendix: Song Lyrics

 

The Faroe Islands may be a small country, but there’s a HUGE collection of song lyrics (in Faroese only) that you can use with learning as well as your Karaoke evenings or cover songs:

http://sangtekstir.com/sangir/

 

Did I leave your favorite Faroese musician out?

Are you a Faroese musician and did I leave YOU out?

Let me know in the comments!

Góða Ólavsøku!