How to Recover From an Embarrassing Defeat (In Language Learning)

Especially if you’re not a veteran language learner yourself, it may not be apparent to you, but the path to poylglottery (well, mine, because it is the one that I see best and, what’s more, in a “behind the scenes” manner) is littered with great pain alongside great mirth (but isn’t this true about acquiring any skill?

Let me tell you about some extremely embarrassing incidents that have taken place throughout the years:

  • Froze up in front of an Icelandic native speaker (last November)
  • Froze up in front of a novice Irish speaker, hadn’t practiced for weeks (earlier this month)
  • Had difficulty having an Ecuadorian visitor understand my Spanish (March of this year)
  • Struggled in giving a presentation in novice German so badly that one of my lecturers was visibly frustrated (February 2014)
  • Told off by some speakers of Hasidic Yiddish (twice this Spring / summer)
  • Crashed during a German conversation (earlier this month)
  • Pretty much every time I’ve been answered in English while ordering food in places like Israel and Sweden (in Israel it was more frequent, I’ve noticed that Swedish-speakers from immigrant background NEVER used English with me after I got the basics “down”) (2012 – 2013, and 2009 in the case of Hebrew only)
  • Having a Burmese taxi driver telling me that I needed to work on my tones (May of this year)
  • Having that same Burmese taxi driver telling me that I should learn languages from “people” rather than from “books” (he has a point, actually! But I didn’t have access to too many Burmese speakers in New York. Hoping this will change in the future!)
  • Having trouble understanding Burmese numbers at times (also May of this year)
  • Drawing blanks when trying to speak novice Vietnamese (July of this year)
  • Speaking super-slow Hungarian with iffy grammar with both native speakers and learners of all stripes (pretty much this whole summer)

A good deal of my languages from across levels are involved in this list, but interestingly some of my strongest languages (Danish, the one language that I have CONSISTENTLY been complimented the most by native speakers, as well as Norwegian and all English Creoles) are absent from this list. And those of you who know me well know that, very sadly, I keep a tally of pretty much every negative thing that has ever happened to me (hey, I’m working on improving it!)

It goes without saying that I’ve noticed patterns in my “defeats”:

  • Rusty practice (Irish and Icelandic have been subjected to this the most…)
  • Novice status (Burmese!)
  • Lack of deep cultural resonance (my mild antipathy towards global languages like Spanish or German is well-documented in this blog, I say that I “don’t love them any more than I have to”, and I’m under the impression that they’re not my strongest languages, nor will they ever be, barring circumstances like getting into a relationship with a native speaker)
  • Sometimes not feeling well (interestingly one time I showed up to Language Exchange NYC, met a Danish native speaker and managed an entire conversation with a native speaker without slipping up. I was on five hours of sleep and kept telling my friends that I “shouldn’t have gone” and that I “should have stayed in bed”)

The one important thing to do in situations like these is detach yourself from the situation. I don’t care if you’ve been interviewed by global news outlets or are revered as a global star of language learning, realize that you’re allowed to be defeated at times and that, at your core, you are someone who is (1) either on the way up or (2) very much on the top with well-deserved work.

Recognize the many times you’ve managed with languages that are not your native language(s), or without using your native language or English. Remember the many victories and compliments from native speakers, not also to mention the bridges that your languages have built, including those you’ve learned to fluency and those that you haven’t made fluent quite yet (I got free drinks out of Hebrew, I also got it out of French back when I was quite bad at it, and also with Burmese with three weeks of practice [at the Shwedagon Pagoda, no less! Relax, by “drinks” I mean “water bottles”! I wasn’t drinking beer at the Shwedagon Pagoda! I promise!])

If you’re still feeling pain so deep that you can’t bring those victories to mind, allow yourself to experience pain and just…wait. (thankfully I haven’t undergone anything like what Ziad Fazah underwent on Viva Lunes, nor has any friend I know—namely, being asked to speak a handful of languages and being unable to muster basic phrases in almost any of them. Oh, and I’m super-careful to ensure that what happened to him won’t happen to me in the slightest).

Come to the realization that it is through these defeats that you will find progress. Mr. Burmese Taxi Driver Who Said that Jared Needs to Improve His Tones served as a motivator for me to get better with the language, even though it doesn’t seem that I’m returning to Myanmar at any time in the near future (plenty of Burmese diaspora folks around many places, though!). Each of the embarrassing incidents above motivated me to get better. EVERY. ONE.

In the event that you weren’t feeling well that day, keep in mind that it doesn’t reflect on your true abilities. And in the event that you DID manage to speak a language very well when you were ill, give yourself applause. You deserve it!

Keep in mind two things:

  • Don’t compare your L2’s (or L3’s or any other languages beyond that) to a higher standard than your native languages. So, SO many English monoglots expect me to understand EVERYTHING that’s said in (Spanish / Hebrew / Yiddish / Swedish) all of the time. I don’t understand everything in ENGLISH a good deal of the time, so why would I expect it in any other language?
  • Don’t compare your L2’s to foreigners having learned English. English is like half-a-native-language to many people almost everywhere. In some places like the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or areas of the Pacific or Africa where English is an official language (and any other places besides these), it’s even more than half-a-native language. They’ve been encouraged to learn English their whole lives, you’ve probably received loads of discouragement, even from learning global languages like Spanish, and possibly even more for languages like Danish, and even MORE for endangered or minority languages.

Realize that every journey comes with slip-ups, regardless of HOW good you are with a language. Heck, I’ve even messed up English spectacularly on several occasions (and some HATERZ might like to think that it is because I’m a polyglot, but that’s not true because I’ve heard monoglot English speakers mess up their native language in similar ways).

Remember to give your “failure” some time, and then it will be something to laugh at. But it will become something to laugh at on one condition: if you rise above it and use it as a motivator to become even better at the language(s) involved!

I’m with you, encouraging you every step of the way! Don’t pay attention to discouragers or haterz! Get up and get going again! You’ll reach your goals before you know it!

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Wesleyan University: A Reflection

Ten years ago today, I enrolled as a freshman at a place of local legend in Middletown, Connecticut.

Here I am today, a long time after that fateful day, and one degree and many, MANY transformations later, I am going to think about how the place and the people there (both the faculty and the students) affected me on the long term.

In short, looking at the journey I’ve undertaken thus far, what part of it was made possible by the red and black?

For those of you who probably stumbled on this page wondering exactly who I am (and who have no intention on clicking the “about” button at the top of the page), allow me to explain: I’m Jared Gimbel, I graduated in 2011 with a High Honors degree in the College of Letters Program and Classical Studies (with a Jewish Studies Certificate side-order).

Right now I do a lot of work with language learning and teaching, primarily with Jewish and Nordic languages (keep in mind that there was no department of Nordic Languages [e.g. Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic] when I was there at Wesleyan and I doubt that there will be in the near future, but I can dream…). I translate from many languages into English, primarily Danish and Yiddish, I have had conversations in 30+ languages over the course of my life and I haven’t even hit my 30’s yet as of the time of writing.

As to the “how many languages” question, I usually have to keep the number artificially deflated lest I encounter skeptics. But in a setting with people from many nationalities, the skepticism never lasts for long…

Most importantly, I’m working on a video game which is like a Pokémon  / Earthbound / Undertale / Final Fantasy set in a cute-cartoon version of contemporary Greenland. Set for release next year “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” promises to be a real treat and I and my team promise to deliver!

Okay, enough about me, more about college:

What did Wesleyan make possible for me?

 

  • The Kaleidoscope of Truth

 

Thanks in part to my religious education doubled with high school “teaching to the test”, I had been instilled with the idea of absolute truth, especially in the humanities.

Later on it occurred to me that, much like the kaleidoscope on my father’s coffee table, truth was something that could be adjusted. Much like I spin the kaleidoscope and I get a different image, I can spin the perspective and get a different truth.

The understanding that there is uncertainty in all things is liberating, and it also serves to eliminate limiting beliefs.

What’s more, it also helped me undo the shackles of my religious education that tried to tell me that there is a truth in all things and that it is absolute and genuine (and interestingly, I think the idea of makhlokiot [arguments and contentions] are an essential element of Judaism, something that rabbis I encountered later on in my life, including those at Wesleyan, made sure to deliver to me!)

Any system could be unmade and reconstructed from the bottom up. It taught me how to be a revolutionary, and this blog and my many ideas about language learning would have not been possible without it.

 

  • The Value of Exploration

 

So many people at Wesleyan University, especially the students, were endlessly curious about other cultures, other topics, other fields and were truly willing to try new things.

Granted, thanks to me being more socially conservative then than I am now (I almost never partied in college at all…) I wasn’t an explorer in every sense.

People were willing to look at all details, to make quaint observations, to bring up their life experiences and assist other people on the journey upwards.

At JTS, I didn’t find this exploration present to the same degree. Nor did I find it in Heidelberg as often. The same was true for Hebrew University. It is true that exploration was an essential part of the educational experience in all of these places, but Wesleyan’s curious student body outdid all of them.

I think most people in the world would like to be like that, except for the fact that they have limiting beliefs and low self-esteem that is preventing their true flourishing.

You deserve to flourish. No “I can’t”, no “I won’t”.  I’ll help you.

 

  • The Idea that the Road Less Travelled is Actually the Better Career Choice

 

A lot of insecurity pervaded people at Wesleyan, given how many jokes were told about liberal arts majors and how a lot of us were probably headed to unemployment directly after graduating.

But interestingly, what the education really did (for me, at least) was that it enabled me to become dynamic. It enabled me to see opportunities, not only related to employment and financial gain, but everything else, on a consistent basis.

A lot of people from other universities probably found themselves sucked into more predictable paths. I didn’t. I’m very glad that I didn’t, even though a lot of pain and self-doubt sprinkled the way to my current path.

People on predictable paths don’t tend to shake things up, plainly put. And you, regardless of where you went to school (or even if you didn’t) still have the possibility to live your dream life, just by thinking differently!

 

  • To Embrace a Quirky Personality While Maintaining a Social Contract

 

A lot of people are truly afraid of expressing who they really are. A lot of people at Wesleyan were not afraid of expressing who they really were.

A lot of personality showing is discouraged the world over, especially on the “way up”.

I could have gone somewhere else and become more conformist. I could have said fewer jokes or tried to reference pop culture more often or watch and consume the same media as many other people.

Instead, I decided to emphasize who made me different, knowing that I was the main character of the novel that is my life. I wanted that character to be memorable, funny and an experience-collector. Wesleyan enabled me to come to the realization that it was not only what I wanted, but that I wasn’t alone in wanting it.

The effect of the peer group at Wesleyan University was very, very powerful. And I am grateful for it every day.

 

  • Realizing that Taking in Wisdom from Multiple Fields is infinitely better than narrow focus

 

 

This is a big one, and one that served as a “gift that kept on giving” later on down the line. In my classes, I learned to apply various forms of wisdom from one discipline to another. In my professional life, I can notice patterns in successful projects and apply them in a completely different manner in projects of a completely different nature.

More simply put, even something like successful video game design can teach me about how to be a good teacher (e.g. knowing how the mind works and using that to create a more engaging class).

I took on a lot of projects throughout the years, including:

 

  • Concert Pianist
  • Educational YouTube Channel
  • Let’s Play YouTube Channel
  • Synagogue Cantor
  • Karaoke Master
  • Celeglot (Celebrity + Polyglot)
  • Language Teacher
  • History Teacher
  • Preschool teacher (when I was in Poland…don’t ask!)
  • Translator
  • Video Game Designer
  • Tabletop Game Designer
  • Comic Book Author (Really!)
  • Novelist
  • Blogger
  • Person who draws cute baby seals for a living (Okay, maybe I was joking…or was I?)

You can guess that I got a lot of experiences from all of these. What’s more, I gained wisdom from each and that wisdom strengthened all of my collective projects.d

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Higher Education serves a sinister purpose at times. It crushed my confidence significantly. It serves to  convince us that we have no choice but to be smaller than who or what we really are. What’s more, some educational systems have poisonous ideas in place to further competition, and the fact that the Dean’s List came to Wesleyan University during my last year was an extraordinarily bad idea.

It serves to create conformity, to really convince you that you’re not good enough and that obedience and learning to think like your teachers is the most important thing.

I’m not going to lie, Wesleyan did have these ills present from Prussian-style education systems as well. A lot of those ills did significant harm to me and continue to do so, but that’s a post for another time.

But hey, grades (whether they’re good or not) and whatever social standing you had in college (whether that was good or not) matter very little to you when you’re a 20+ language hyperpolyglot with the admiration of your friends, community and beyond, so there’s that.

That said, I realize that degrees are very valuable for career-building and connection-making, and Wesleyan did a very good job and minimizing a lot of the necessary evils of our conformist educational system.

What’s more, I wouldn’t have become a truly exploratory soul without the people I met there and the environment fostered there.

And despite everything, I’d like to ask for forgiveness and say thank you.

Wes U

The Treasures of Bislama

 

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the Overture.

I first heard about Bislama when I was bidding farewell to one of my friends in Germany. She was a German-American and also a polyglot (who focused primarily on Middle Eastern Languages, I remember she knew Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic very well with knowledge of Egyptian Arabic and Turkish. Probably many others I forgot to mention).

We were in an American-themed diner in Heidelberg that was housed in a caboose. We were talking about what sort of languages we planned to learn in the future, and I mentioned Greenlandic and Faroese as being on my “hit list”.

She mentioned a language called Bislama, that I had never heard of before. She told me that it was a Creole English that was the primary language of Vanuatu, and proceeded to tell me some vocabulary that she learned.

Here’s a small taste of what people on the internet know about Bislama (if they know anything at all): http://imgur.com/GiiTKf8

Vanuatu also has the distinction of being the only country in the world that has its national anthem in an English Creole Language (Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, while they have very similar Creoles spoken there, have their national anthems in Standard English).

“Yumi, Yumi, Yumi” (Yumi = you and me = we [inclusive]) is a melody you don’t forget easily! Have yourself a listen to the instrumental track with the words on the screen! (The vowels should be pronounced as in Spanish, and the consonants like in phonetic English, and you’ll be good. Bislama, like other Creole Languages, is hyper-mathematical in its spelling system, although no doubt speakers will talk very quickly and abbreviate stuff that way):

To translate the first two lines:

 

Yumi, yumi, yumi i glat long talem se

Yumi, yumi, yumi i man blong Vanuatu

 

(We, we, we are happy to say that

We, we, we are people of Vanuatu)

 

In English you don’t say something like “Vanuatuan”, instead you refer to the people and culture of Vanuatu as “Ni-Vanuatu” or “Ni-Van” for short. This comes from usages of local languages.

Unlike Pijin or Tok Pisin (its releatives in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea respectively), Bislama has a significant amount of French words (bonane = new year, kabine = toilet) as well as those with both English-loaned and French-loaned equivalents (accident can be “aksiden” or “aksidong”, the first from English and the second from French).

The fact that there was the struggle between British and French colonialists in Vanuatu actually caused its people to cling strongly to the usage of Bislama as a national languages (although English and French are also used in official contexts as well). It’s a bit like two giants are asking you “what team are you on?” and you confidently assert “I am on team me”.

Bislama is not only a cultural treasure of what is actually a noteworthy tourist destination in the Pacific, it’s also surprisingly accessible to learn (because of that fact).

YouTube tutorials and the LiveLingua Project will help you on your way to fluency, as well as the Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook which is literally the most useful phrasebook I’ve encountered in any language (as far as English-language phrasebooks are concerned!) And, of course, there is also bislama.org which is VERY helpful!

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They redid the cover shortly after I acquired this version with the cool masks.

The word “Bislama” actually comes from the French word “Bêche-de-mer”, the sea cucumber, because Bislama was the language used to communicate with Ni-Vanuatu traders that were dealt with to acquire said sea cucumbers. In more old-timey books, the language will be referred to as “Bêche-de-mer”.

Jack London even uses Bislama (WAY before the days of the orthography used to write the language nowadays) in ones of his stories, “Yah, Yah, Yah!”.

The portions in Bislama were a bit of a headache for me to sight-read but I read them out loud and, sure enough, it sounds like completely legitimate Bislama that Ni-Vanuatu from contemporary times can understand without any issues at all:

http://www.online-literature.com/london/48/

Note how he actually uses Standard English spelling to write Bislama. Contemporary Bislama doesn’t do that, instead opting for a hyper-phonetic system (the National Anthem Video above actually uses the contemporary orthography).

Bislama is extraordinarily rich in interjections. Some of them come from French (“alala!”) and some from English (“areno!” = I don’t know) and many more come from the many local languages that came together to form Bislama.

If you speak English and want to learn Bislama, expect a significant head start in your vocabulary, especially once you begin picking up patterns on how English words are transferred into Bislama’s pronunciation system.

The patterns are fairly easy to pick up not only in that regard but also concerning its idiomatic structure (remember, these were designed by the genius of the human mind so as to create an efficient tongue that can be readily used in communication and even more readily learned in advance! The same is true for ALL Creole Languages!)

Often there is the duplication of syllables, “bigbigman” (dignitary, someone with a lot of status) can also be “bigman”, to follow is “folfolem” (all transitive verbs in Bislama end in –m and it employs a system of vowel harmony not unlike languages like Hungarian that adjust suffixes depending on vowel content of the word. Folfol + em – folfolem, but put + em [to put] = putum, the –em shifts to a –um).

I’ve noticed similar patterns of duplication used in Burmese, Chinese and even Hebrew and English variants (good, good!). Surprisingly this makes words easier for you to remember.

Some words are also very easy to attach “stories” to. A lot of these words are not appropriate for writing in a blog post like this but one such word is “fiftififti”, which actually means…bisexual! Fancy that! Another word refers to an effeminate man, “geligeli”, and shouldn’t be too easy for you to forget.

I really wanted to look at the comprehensive dictionary at bislama.org in more detail and list some of the words that jumped out at me, but aside from risking repetitive-strain-injury the comprehensive dictionary (of around 7000 words, mind you, making it one of the smallest comprehensive dictionaries of a language I’ve encountered [remember: comprehensive dictionary = ALL KNOWN WORDS IN THE LANGUAGE]), there are also a lot of place names not only relevant to Melanesia and beyond but also the Bible and sometimes it can be painful to browse the list because of that.

Another extraordinary damaging myth about Bislama is that it “isn’t a real language”, “is just a dialect of English” or is just “broken English”. All of these ideas are unequivocally false. If Bislama isn’t a real language, that Afrikaans and Yiddish should also be disqualifies as well. And Haitian Creole is also deemed as 100% legitimate while many creoles in the world are not.

Bislama can not only be helpful for you in navigating rural areas of Vanuatu (as well as giving you a leg-up on related languages spoken throughout Melanesia and Australia), but is also a marketable skill, especially in the Pacific.

Thanks largely to climate change, the world’s eyes are on the Pacific because it is, sadly, the front line in this battle against our damaged environment. Somehow, somewhere I feel that there is hope, oddly enough, and I think that a very good first step would be to experience the culture of places like Vanuatu in which people are not only suffering because of climate change but also singing and lamenting and talking about it endlessly to a degree that we should be doing in more industrialized nations.

Looking back, Bislama made me a better human being, and the more I learn about Melanesia in general and Vanuatu in particular, I glimpse a side of humanity, poised between 2017 and our ancient roots as humans, that many people should be looking at with more seriousness.

I also have a Bislama Anki deck (although it isn’t without its problems) of the Bislama.org list. If you want it from me, message me from the “Have Jared Teach You!” link at the top of this page!

yumi yumi yumi

10,000 Hits! You’ve Earned: A New YouTube Series!

Back when I started this blog in 2014, I was living in Heidelberg surrounded by foreigners that spoke far better German than I did. What’s more, a lot of locals had very good knowledge of English (although there were also those that had absolutely no English conversational skills whatsoever) as well as a smattering of other languages including Western European tongues and knowledge of languages of all countries that border Germany.

come back when you can put up a fight

And this is I several years later.

At first, I thought it would be a disaster. But I thought that maybe, just maybe, I would have something to offer, and that it would be better to just … TRY … and that maybe I would go down in flames, but it would be better if I were to just write something about my experiences learning languages and see what would happen.

  1. After a one-year hiatus that was due to my Lyme Disease and general “not feeling like it”, I decided to bring this blog back as part of a New Year’s Resolution. That was one of the best decisions of my life, bar none.

I’m keeping “World with Little Worlds” around, but I also have to realize that if I want to share more of my stories, then I’ll need something more.

After all, I’m one of very few polyglots that really focuses on endangered and rarer languages, even though most of my strongest languages (with the exception of Yiddish and English Creoles) don’t fit that bill. Suffice it to say that, unlike many other online polyglots, my strongest languages do not include the most powerful ones on the globe (German and Spanish I’m very good at, but I’m better at Swedish and Yiddish because, plainly put, I like them more and I like putting more time into them. I also have a sentimental connection towards Swedish, Hungarian and Yiddish in particular, given that these were languages heard within my family before I was born).

Here’s something you might not fully comprehend unless you’ve ventured down this path before:

Putting Videos of Yourself Online Speaking Languages Requires Extraordinary Bravery.

There will be people calling you fake.

No matter how good you are or what you do, people will accuse you of using machine translation, consulting with native speakers, reading from the screen or, if all else fails, insult you for your choice of languages or dislike your video because you didn’t learn a language from their country or, in some cases, their continent.

And here’s another shocking fact:

Most of the people saying bad things about your video are actually NOT people who speak only one language!

Odd but true. The majority of polyglot-skepticism I’ve encounter have overwhelmingly been from people who speak two to three languages very well and are, in some cases, bilingual from birth. More often than not a lot of these people comes from places that have had history (or a present) of linguistic persecution of minorities (I will not name these countries, you know what they are).

Suffice it to say that, despite the hatred I have been getting (as well as the praise and thank-you-notes), I have decided that I’m going to continue with more videos.

And to that end, I’ve decided to undertake a number of YouTube projects in honor of 10,000 hits.

Let me tell you about some of them:

 

Language Learning Documentation 

 

Right now there’s an ongoing series on my page in which I’m learning Palauan. But here’s the thing: I’m literally documenting all the time that I’m spending with the language, so that you can see how the process of becoming A1 (or possibly even higher) in a language is actually carried out!

I pronounce a lot of the words in interesting ways. I laugh at myself. I realize that mistakes are a part of this journey. Nevertheless, I persist.

Palauan is a lovely language and the website I’m using (tekinged.com) says that Palauans are very fun to talk to.

For those unaware, Palau is a Pacific Island nation, located somewhere between the Philippines and the Island of Papua, located perpendicular to them both and not too far from Indonesia either.

I highly recommend you carry through with this experience, it will not only motivate you but also show you exactly what goes into this process.

 

 

A handful of other languages have been lined up as “you’re next” in this series, not also to mention other plans for languages that I’ve studied but that I’m not fluent in yet.

What’s more, given that I live in New York City, something like Moses McCormick’s “Level Up” series is in order.

(For those unaware, this means that you walk around stores and streets and other public places and you engage with people in their native language, note reactions and learn how to improve!)

But another post on that will definitely come in its own time. Right now I’m very worried about overstepping the boundaries with using published materials and it costing me a copyright strike AND my place in the YouTube Partner Program.

And that’s without even getting into the idea of possibly filming people without their consent. But hey, I should at least try it for the sake of linguistic diversity, now, shouldn’t I? And anyone who doesn’t want to be filmed can easily be cut out, right?

More on that next time!

Because right now I have to teach!

Thanks for 10,000 views, folks! Just wait till ya see what happens when this reaches 100,000!

Oh, and…here’s your map!

10008 views

 

Could I get everywhere else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The point you should take is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overmorrow is Coming

many languages

For nearly a month I’ve neglected a lot of my blogs, but this is in part due to holidays, my game design, and also quite a lot of study.

This weekend marks two important events for me. For one, the Polyglot Conference, in which I and many others will meet in person many of the authors and luminaries who inspired us to go on our many language journeys.

Second, October 10th and 11th marks four years to the day that I began my three years abroad right after college, which began in Krakow and then ended up in too many other places to count. Alas, I seem to have forgotten all but the most basic Polish, but another task will soon come to me before this academic year is out, one that will require me to re-learn a lot of it!

Through the study of a lot of my languages, I’ve had to re-evaluate some of them both down and up in the past month (The Celtic Languages I was a lot weaker in than I thought, and  the Finnic languages were stronger).

In the past month, I also made the difficult decision to drop Greenlandic from my repertoire for the time being, although it is truly impossible to forget a language entirely. Given how much I have already devoted to Greenlandic already, it seems that this is merely a pause.

But I also remember that Icelandic and Danish I first struggled with a lot at first, and then, upon becoming more hearty a “language hacker”, I wasn’t nearly intimidated by them.

The past few weeks have been replete with virtually non-stop study, putting my work for my game and even my MA final examination on hold (I was told by my MA examiners that I should use my language abilities in my reading list, but there is only so much you can do with a something like Icelandic in a final exam about Jewish History).

I do not say this lightly: there were also times in which I was absolutely frozen and unable to continue with studying, perhaps worried that, despite the endless hours I had thrown into lots of languages, that I somehow “wasn’t good enough”.

But above all, language learning is not a contest. Not particularly a sport, either. It isn’t an issue of who speaks language X the best being the winner, it isn’t about who speaks the most languages being the winner, it is a process of exploration, in the same way that hiking really isn’t a competitive sport.

To make this point, my biggest shame in my language learning experience, followed by my biggest mirth.

Heidelberg, Germany. February 2014. I was asked to give a “Referat” (something like a class presentation / teaching the class for one day). Obviously, the class was held in German, but I remember using so much Yiddish, Hebrew and English in between (the topic was Jewish studies) that one of the co-teachers actually shook her head in despair, wondering how a “stupid American” ever made it into this program to begin with.

That semester was actually quite replete with similar incidents like that, my journey through the German language, more than that of any other, being one of “tripping and falling”. The fact that I had Yiddish and Scandinavian languages under my belt at that point didn’t help much—I thought that my truest attempts at “High German” would always be tainted.

But as it turns out, in the last few months (June – July) my fears evaporated. Sometimes I still think of that semester and cringe. But I suppose I would cringe even more had I chosen to try even less than I did.

Now the biggest pride:

April 2015, Ben-Gurion Airport. On the way back from Israel, visiting my family members, with my Anglophone parents on the way back to the U.S. Given as I am the spokesman, the security staff, without my knowledge, puts me in the line for people who have Israeli passports (he mistook me for one of his own, and Israelis have possibly the most refined American-radars on the planet, blame Birthright).

Upon reaching the security staff at the end of the line, we were told that we should be in the line for foreign passports and that we had no business being in that line whatsoever.

And then of course there is the honorable mention of passing as a local in a place rumored by some to be the hardest to get the locals to speak to you in the local language.

Well, whatever becomes of this conference, it will definitely be fun, no doubt!

Looking forward to meeting my fellow hikers,

Jared

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What Good Does a Forgotten Language Do?

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Milwaukee, WI

Everywhere I have been I have encountered people who learned a language to a certain degree and then forgot it. This occurred with languages learned in adulthood as well as those learned in childhood at any stage.

Forgetting a language, in my opinion, seems to pose a bit of a “half-life” scenario, in which knowledge not sustained tends to decrease over time by “halves”.

I have a handful of languages that I have forgotten and cannot form sentences in. French, which I learned as a child, slight amounts of Japanese, Chinese, and also having majored in Classics in college gave me Classical Greek and Latin, both of which have fallen out of use in favor of…ummm…other languages that I would rather devote my time to.

Estonian and Polish have also gone that way for me, although of the forgotten languages that I have, these ones are definitely the strongest (and I didn’t really feel strong in Polish at any point, despite having lived in the country…shame, shame, shame on me…)

Well, good news for those of you who have forgotten languages: there are still some benefits to be had with having learned it.

For one, there are friends made with any language journey that takes place in a public setting. Even in a private setting, there are songs and stories and cultural tidbits that are encountered. Even if the entire language fades, many of these remain, and you would be surprised about how much you may be capable of remembering.

There is a certain discipline that comes with the experience as well, and it is worth to glimpse a culture, however weakly.

I remember one time in the Heidelberg Sprachcafe in which I encountered a Spanish-speaker who had a good friend from Finland and then proceeded to give me basic phrases in Finnish with a very heavily intoned Spanish accent. I was amused and delighted, and you have the power to amuse and delight people just the same with whatever knowledge you may have left.

With a culture also comes a set of texts that you may have been able to read at one point, but can no longer. Even if you can’t read the text any more, the morals of the stories stay with you, as some may some obscure details about the language contained within the texts.

This may also manifest in the form of song lyrics or a tune of a certain song that became popular in your group or study session. Even when I had forgotten virtually all of the Russian that I knew, I did have certain tunes spring to mind from Kino, Mumij Troll, or the Cheburashka short films. With my steadily weakening Estonian, I still have Ott Lepland on my hard drive and those tunes don’t go away as easily!

Learning patterns and discipline and grammar in any form is helpful skill-building. In my Classical Greek classes, I remembered a lot of grammatical terms that became helpful when learning live languages further down the road. They helped me think about these languages more easily.

The fact is, it is a well-known fact that most students in foreign language classes tend to forget the languages due to disuse. But there is a reason that these classes exist to begin with! And you should realize that if you undertook this journey in the past, you still have something of that journey.

And if you undertake this journey in the future, remember that, should you forget it all, you will still have pieces as well.

And those pieces will glitter brightly. More than you think…