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

Llun Jared Gimbel.

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

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

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

 

  1. Israeli culture is refreshingly human.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of videos…

 

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

Have yourself a look:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Israeli Music is Like Daydreaming in mp3 form.

 

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

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

Check. Out. This. Channel. Now.

  1. Israelis travel EVERYWHERE

What I am about to say is not an exaggeration:

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

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

He told me a joke:

Scene: Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows?

 

How to Learn Your First non-Native, non-English Language

 

I would like to dedicate this post to the mighty and memorable Miguel Nicholas Ariza, who celebrated his birthday yesterday at the famed Mungo Lingo Language Exchange events.

I hope that this article will inspire people to return to language learning again and again, as well as to the events that you help host!

 

be like miguel

This is Miguel. He is open-minded, friendly, curious and a great human being. Be Like Miguel.

 

In much of the world, people have 1 ½ native languages, English being the 1/2 , and the local language being the 1. (Sometimes there are areas with two local languages, possibly even more, such as areas of Spain or India that have regional languages)

The dynamics of learning English are very different from learning other languages. While Iceland may excel at teaching a lot of its students English, there were (and sadly continue to be) snags when it comes to the country’s Danish education system, which may be on its way out.

To compare the experience of learning Danish (in the case of Iceland) or Swedish (in the case of Finland) or Irish (in the case of the English-speaking areas of Ireland) to learning English just isn’t fair.

Imagine if, out of 20 products (such as computer programs or company names or refrigerator brands), 19 had names in (insert name of language that isn’t English here) Imagine if (that language) had among the best known movie and entertainment industries in world history and had a significant amount of  import words in every language in the developed world and, to boot, was more learned than any other language on the planet by people who have been told their entire life that not knowing it is to be left behind, and that sometimes a nation’s economic worth and potential in the eyes of the world is dependent on how well (or not) they speak that language.

That’s reality for non-native English speakers, almost anywhere, regardless of what continent they’re on.

No wonder people get answered in English when starting to learn languages. The native speaker may feel an inherent shame on not having won the “native language lottery” the way I did. Even if they come from a place like Iceland, where English proficiency is a standard.

(For whatever it’s worth, I think English will lose its cool factor when it starts to more seriously threaten other languages and cultures, and English proficiency is already starting to lose its impressive factor, even in places like Iceland, and will continue to do so. Contrariwise, learning non-English languages of all stripes will continue to be seen as an even more impressive feat if English continues to be on the ascent. These are my opinions).

 

I am beginning to learn my dream language. It is (XXXX), and, right now, I only speak English (or English + My Native Language). I feel that I’m struggling a lot. What can I do?

 

The first thing I would recommend is take your first field trip to omniglot.com, look at the language you are learning from the A-Z database (I can almost guarantee that it will be there, no matter how exotic), read about it, get used to the sounds of it, click the links offered at the bottom of the language profile page to either read more about the culture or get language learning resources (many of them free online pages)

If there is a “phrases” section, copy out everything in it into a notebook or put it into a program of your choice. You will use these countless times throughout your life if you are to succeed! Exciting, huh?

From there, you have a number of options, are your primary goals are as follows:

  • Learn all of those phrases.
  • After that, say, “I have, I need, I want” followed by “do you have? Do you need? Do you want?”
  • Activate the following “checkpoints” (I’m not thinking about Duolingo right now, I promise!). Think of these as your “collectibles” (so this is what was going through Luis’s head, right?). Just learn how they work in a basic sense: articles (if any), adjectives (how to say “I am X, you are X, he / she / it is X, etc.), verbs (in order of importance: present, past, future, imperfect, any conditional tenses), conjunctions (start with and, but and or, they get you pretty far), prepositions (size will vary tremendously depending on language), case system (If there is one. How many? How often are they used? Which are regularly used? In some languages, like anything Finno-Ugric, case system and prepositions overlap.), noun genders (if any, there are entire language families lack them)
  • Give a stump speech about yourself and prompt others to do the same. (I am a X, I come from Y, I was born in A but now I life in B, my current goals are CDFG because of H. I am learning dream language because of reasons IJK.)
  • Learn associated vocabulary with your job and the things around you.
  • Common mistakes made by learners (unless you are learning something very rare indeed. Even something like Welsh will have an article about it about this topic)

 

From then on, learning the vocabulary in that language will be like assembling puzzle pieces, except for the puzzle NEVER ENDS!

 

Congratulations, you just got in for life! You’re always going to be learning new things about the language, maybe even if you try to forget it…even if it is your NATIVE language! Ha ha ha ha!

20140928_074028

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

 

Okay, Jared, that is great and all, but how do I go about memorizing it?

 

Imagine you have a giant pizza or other fantastic meal you like right in front of you. You wouldn’t try to shove a whole piece in your mouth…(I would hope…)

 

Some ways you can assist the memorization project:

 

  • Memory devices. This is easier for languages closer to English, obviously, but even with something like Greenlandic I made it possible (Even something like “sumingaaneerpit?” [“where are you from?” In Greenlandic] I memorized in this fashion.) Memrise.com has it as an in-built function that you can store your memory devices in. I imagined that the word resembled “some gunner pit”, and while it didn’t even make sense, it got the job done. (If you have a notebook, feel free to put your “mems”, as Memrise refers to them as, next to the words)

 

  • Repetition. The same Burmese learning audio every day for a week sure doesn’t hurt…

 

  • Funny incidents. True story. One day I got “Colloquial Hungarian” shipped to me, and that day there was a Jewish event (Lab / Shul in New York City, for those curious). I met a Hungarian native speaker that evening and I told her that the book arrived today. I asked her how to say “pleased to meet you”, and I hear “örülök hogy megismertelek”. After nearly destroying my tongue after four attempts (and a lot of laughter), I explained that I got the book earlier that day. When I heard it again a few days later, having it associated with that incident made it stick better.

 

  • Mental Images from TV or Audio “Images” from your Dialogue Tapes. When I was learning Dutch from watching a lot of the Pokémon Anime in it, I remembered a lot of key phrases by virtue of remembering certain poses of characters or certain plot points that I would remember. If you do something less visually oriented (like a dialogue tape), you can note anything unusual about a certain phrase or intonation and you may remember it better.

 

 

And here are some general pointers:

 

  • Do NOT be hard on yourself! This includes: (1) do not compare yourself to other learners who have had more time than you (2) do not compare yourself to native speakers of your target language and their English skills and (3) do not expect to know all vocabulary. No one ever knows all vocabulary in any language (true story!). 10,000 words will net you something very close to a native speaker, 2,000 words will get you through almost all conversations with significant ease (others would even argue that 600-1,000 would suffice)

 

  • Start off by simplifying your language. You may be tempted to think of everything in terms of flowery English idioms, instead, at this stage you should train yourself to simplify your speech and once you’re assembling that puzzle you’ll acquire useful phrases and idioms along the way for which English has no equivalent for.

 

  • If you have to lapse into English, do so confidently. A perfect example includes how people from places like India and the Netherlands may use English phrases in casual speech to make a point.

 

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions of native speakers. Almost all of them want to help you, actually, even though they may not explicitly express it.

 

  • Don’t get discouraged from native speakers. Some of them may have no intention of becoming polyglots and may be threatened. Anyhow, if you encounter any amount of discouragement from a native speaker at any time, it is thoroughly their This is different from constructive criticism! Constructive criticism: “this word is too formal, be aware of that”. Destructive criticism: “your accent is awful”.

 

  • There will be hard times ahead. There will be a lot of people that may belittle your efforts or unknowingly make you feel bad. Just keep on going forward. The more forward you’ll go, the more you’re hear native speakers ask you in amazement. “How on earth do you speak such good (XXXX)?”

 

And then you’ll think of the times that you were struggling, that you thought of giving up, or even times that people were not very nice to you on behalf of your choices. But congratulations! You won!

IMG_2807

You, someday, with twice as much happy and the fact that you’re probably not an orange if you’re reading this. 

Myanmar Saga: Burmese after 1 Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

I won’t let it happen this time.

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

ANYHOW. BURMESE.

 

Burmy

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

 

SUCCESSES:

Here’s what I’ve mastered so far:

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

 

FAILURES:

 

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

What is Pali?

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

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

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

Here are my other blindspots:

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

 

HOPES:

 

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

I won’t do that.

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

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

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

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

Any advice is highly appreciated!

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

grand central

Definitely not Southeast Asia here

How Similar are Icelandic and Greenlandic?

 this-is-the-article-youve-all-been-waiting-for

This is probably THE most commonly question I get asked about languages, interestingly, and it all has to do with the development of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, which is a mobile game that I and others are working on right now, set in Greenland, and slated for release either in late 2017 or sometime in 2018.

Now my mischievous side just wants me to write this:

 

NOT AT ALL

 

And be done with it.

But I won’t do that.

Because if you clicked on this page, it means that you are curious and I should reward curiosity rather than punish it. (Too many people and organizations do the opposite, I fear).

 

So what do Icelandic and Greenlandic have in common?

 

Not long ago, Iceland was actually a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, not unlike Greenland and the Faroe Islands are now. This changed as a result of World War II, in which Denmark was invaded by Nazi Germany and, as a result, Hitler could have used the Faroe Island – Icelandic – Greenland route as a quasi-land bridge to North America.

So the allies needed to seize these areas as quickly as possible, and as a result it was primarily the Americans that wound up in Iceland, bringing along their culture, way of life and broadcasting until 2006, when they left. Iceland is one of those countries had has tasted American culture with closeness that most other cultures in the West, yet alone beyond it, still can’t fathom, no matter how many English words they use or how much American television they watch. (The only other ones that come even close are Germany and Israel).

But in 1944, Iceland becomes independent, and the Faroe Islands did have a VERY short-lived independence as well (and by “very short-lived” I mean “a matter of days”).

Nowadays, Iceland is (proportionally speaking) the most visited country in human history with the Icelandic tourist “mafia” growing by the hour. (I am a proud member myself).

2015-08-20 14.50.06

Case in point

Icelandic is indeed very purist, but it also took words and structures from other languages as well, most notably French, Spanish and Danish (in addition to the more recent English loan words that popular musicians of Iceland, such as Emmsjé Gauti, tend to use very frequently.)

The one thing that Greenlandic and Icelandic do have in very much in common is their shared experience via being a member of the Kingdom of Denmark. (What’s more, there was also an American military presence in Greenland during the Second World War and beyond it, but nothing remotely of the same scope as existed in Iceland).

Keep in mind that Kingdom of Denmark does not necessarily equal the country called Denmark, the same way that there are dependences of the British Crown that are not in the UK (such as Papua New Guinea).

Greenlandic, perhaps thanks to missionaries as well as being from a different language family entirely, borrowed Danish idioms more heavily than Icelandic did, a comparatively fewer English words (although they obviously exist in Greenlandic, too).

To summarize: Icelandic and Greenlandic both have Danish and American influence (including loan words and idioms), despite being very purist and having reputations from the outside for being impossible to learn.

And that is where the similarities end.

Greenlandic is an Eskimo-Aleut language that is about as similar to Icelandic as Russian is to Chinese. In Russian and in Chinese you may hear similar words for vegetarian, the same way that in Greenlandic and Icelandic you will hear similar words for car.

I think that one reason I get asked this question a lot is because people see Greenland as a place of the Norse settlers first (the ones that died out in the area that is now Qaqortoq in the far south), sadly leaving the Inuit out of the picture—the same Inuit who brought “Kalaallisut” (or West Greenlandic, the standard and the official language of Greenland) to the island.

And yes, it goes without saying that people do, in fact, live on Greenland. Nothing near the scale you may encounter in much of the rest of the globe (it has the lowest population density out of anywhere), but if you want to read more about Greenlandic, look here.

Hope this answers your questions.

Have fun!

greenland asanninneq

 

Polyglot Conference Excitement, Plans and Hopes

After getting back from Iceland (and even before that), I got into a series of tangles that was more dangerous than Hercules’ Hydra. Luckily, the end of result of these tangles was that I published a game, which you can look at and/or purchase here.

(And for those of you wondering, there will be a future installment of “Kaverini” that will serve primarily as a language showcase. Oh, and social commentary too)

Ever since I registered for the Polyglot conference back in June, I had decided to build up a collection with very few new additions so that I could feel confident and secure that I belonged with the “best of the best” in the language-learning world.

For those of you unaware, this is the first time the Polyglot Conference has entered the Western Hemisphere. The conference will be held in October 10-11, and one of my friends from the New York Polyglot Bar scene (Alex Vera) will be presenting on third-culture identities. He is a personality whose lecture you will feel guilty about missing.

So in the coming days, I’ll have a series of posts, inspired by others that I’ve seen, about the essential lessons about learning and life I got from each of my language journeys.

You know what? I’m just gonna go for it right now. And consider this my list of languages that I will use for the conference.

 

English: The journey to acquiring my native language was, nonetheless, a journey. It was different because it took a lot longer but it was the same because it involved the same methods of learning words, for the most part.

When I was a child, I obviously learn the “core vocabulary” from talking to my parents and family members (the 300 words that most commonly appear in a language), but when it came to more complicated words (like “complicated”), I usually learned them from VHS home videos, and it always helped that whenever I encountered a word that I did not know, I asked either of my parents.

grand central

The Lesson: having exposure, in any form, is everything. And even if you don’t understand everything, guides, in any form, will help you. Human ones are obviously the best.

German: Along with Spanish and Hebrew, this was the one language that I felt I “tripped and fell” with the most. I had learned Yiddish to a significant degree beforehand, but what happened as a result was that I had a lot of gaps in my German vocabulary.

Namely, whenever “loshn-koydeshdike verter”  (words from the Holy Tongue), would be used in Yiddish, I blanked on the German equivalent. Lots of words indicating time relations in Yiddish come from Hebrew. Permanently is “l’doyres” (literally, “to / for generations”), during is “be’es” (literally, “in the time [of])

And then there were times that I had to give presentations in class, in German, in front of native speakers, and I slipped up terribly, often having to substitute Yiddish or English words for words I didn’t grasp. And my self-consciousness discouraged me from using German in all social situations, when I very well could have (well, in most).

There was a time that I used a Yiddish word, “landsmanshaft” (namely, the togetherness felt by people who live in the same place), and one of my friends told me (kindly) not to use in in German because some people associate it with Nazism (!)

I felt utterly ashamed at not having tried hard, but I was also struggling with many other things aside from culture shock and not also to mention a fair amount of discouragement from learning from some people, and from my own doubts.

But in the last few months, I found out that a lot of the fear of judgment was just imaginary. I began to buy lots of German-language books for learning other languages. And that was the magic trick that, perhaps long overdue, sealed my journey to fluency.

hochdeutsch

The Lesson: Books are important. Reading is important. And never, ever, ever give up.

Yiddish: The first language I thought that I genuinely got good at, the only time I recently struggle with it was when I was asked to explain a development of a video game I was then working on (and am still working on) and just…could not…

But the reason that I got good at it was because of the Yiddish Farm summer program, in which English was banned in an informal capacity.

idishflag

The Lesson: Shut out your native language = progress

Norwegian: There were few times I fell for a language as hard as I did for Norwegians. My Swedish friends all loved the sounds and the rhythms of the Oslo dialect, and there were many other fluent English speakers that said that it was very easy to get to grips with, not also to mention quite useful. (The amount of Norwegian-related requests and jobs on the market is surprisingly shocking to anyone who expects it to be “useless”. It has probably been the most solicited of my language services).

I had trouble with all of the languages I learned, but surprisingly, I had the least with Norwegian. Supportive native speakers, an accent that was very similar to that of British English, and enough learning materials to choke on.

But what really helped me the most was my enthusiasm, which made effort effortless.

max mekker scream

The Lesson: If you “fall in love” with a language, act immediately, and act passionately!

Danish: A sheer mention of this language will strike fear in the heart of a Swedish-learner. I know, because I’ve seen it happen many times. The swallowed letters, the glottal stops, the plethora of vowel sounds (but not a plethora of vowel-letters).

Put it shortly, I could read Danish, I could understand it (but that took a LONG time, and a LOT of hours of TV to do so), but at several points I consigned myself to the fact that I would never manage to have any active usage of it. Especially when spoken.

But thanks largely to the amount of exposure which I had, not only from the TV but also from the product labels in Sweden, I realized that I had a lot more power in the language than I thought I did. I remember having my first few conversations, and my thoughts all throughout was, “I thought I would never get here…ever since the beginning…”

And so it was.

dansk i graekenland

The Lesson: It’s always impossible until you actually do it. Therefore, true impossibility in regards to language learning = nil.

Swedish – Oh Lord. My first exposure to Swedish was shortly after my maternal grandmother died, leaving behind, among other things, letters from my ancestors written in Swedish.

At that time, I was gearing up for a work opportunity in Stockholm. So my goal was twofold: (1) complete the work and (2) learn Swedish, if for nothing but the letters.

There were those Swedes who were VERY supportive of my efforts, and others (a minority, I should add) who deemed it to be a waste of time.

Even in the United States, my results were mixed. Some were just barely impressed, others were positively infatuated. I was told that I spoke like an American, a German, a Finn, and like a long-time resident of Stockholm. All throughout the same journey.

But all the time, I kept on making progress, regardless of what anyone told me or how anyone reacted. The fact that it was more “difficult” for me to impress Swedes than those of many other nationalities actually added to my motivation!

And at some point, I thought that the importance for myself (being a fourth-generation Swedish American) outweighed any criticism I may receive.

And another thing? The better you get, the less skepticism you’ll encounter, and the chances of people forcing English upon you will reduce to nothing!

I should also add that without the helpful folks at the Heidelberger Sprachcafe, it is likely that I would have forgotten the language altogether!

norden

The Lesson: Don’t worry about not impressing people or discouragement. Just get better. If you just keep on going, you’ll get good enough to impress everyone. Eventually.

Dutch – The first thing that I bring up about my Dutch journeys is this: In 2013, when I visited the Netherlands and Belgium for the first time, I had a fair (although not really fluent) Dutch under my belt (I really didn’t get that until earlier this year).

But in the Netherlands, I did get a lot of people responding in English, but in Belgium, I didn’t. Outside of the country, however, I got the opposite: I got Dutch people responding in Dutch but Belgians responding in English.

After a significant amount of practice (which is always easier written than done…imagine no English media for weeks on end…), the responding in English problem just…disappeared…

It occurred to me after my Icelandic venture exactly what I did wrong.

The biggest problem you are having in getting people to respond in the language?

STOP SOUNDING LIKE A LEARNER.

I remember when I ordered in Dutch for one of the first times that I emphasized every single word a bit too much. When I offered it quite quickly and without hesitation (without. Emphasizing. Every. Single. Word. Like. This), then I didn’t have to worry about being responded to in English.

vlaanderen

The Lesson: Learn to stop sounding like a learner. Varies from language to language, but you want to sound composed, and “like you know what you are doing?” And speak in complete sentences as often as possible! I cannot stress that last bit enough!

 

Finnish – A funny story during my stay in Helsinki. I ordered a shot of Vodka, in Finnish, using the English name for the flavor (it didn’t have the Finnish name on the menu), and I got responded to in English.

Less than five minutes later, I ordered a beer, without a word of English, and he responded to me in Finnish, as though I weren’t even the same person!

Another thing I accidentally did was I overdid the “don’t say words unless you have to” thing, because some English guidebooks told me I was in the “land of the Silent Finn” (an image that can be disproved if you ever heard FinnAir stewardesses talking amongst themselves for more than a minute).

When I toned it down to not saying anything, I got answered in English, because that was taken as a sign that I didn’t know what I was doing / saying.

Your ability to say something (or your inability to say something) will indicate whether using the local language on you is a safe move. Give enough signs to show that it is, and you’ll never worry about being answered in English again!

maamme

The Lesson: Regardless of what other components may be present, the biggest thing that ensures whether or not you get answered in the local language as opposed to English is your choice of words, your delivery, and, in some cases your behavior.

Hebrew:

This lesson is one that is tied up with both Ancient Hebrew and Yiddish.

There are lots of words that mean one thing in Ancient Hebrew and another in Modern, and, even more jarringly, a word that has two different meanings in both Modern Hebrew and Yiddish.

“Agala”? Hebrew for “Vehicle”. Spell it the same way in Yiddish, “Agole?” A hearse!

And most of the other examples that I can think of are not suitable for a family blog.

But from between the two Hebrews, “Teyva” is a box in Modern Hebrew. In Ancient Hebrew, it also refers to…the Ark…as in Noah’s Ark.

The idea of Noah’s Ark being a cardboard box. Now that’s something.

yisrael

The Lesson: When a word gets taken from one language to another, it takes on another identity, that is separate from the one it has in another language.

Northern Sami: One time at Scandinavia House NYC, I went to a Sami Theater presentation and I actually encountered a player from one of my favorite TV shows. Upon conducting what was my first-ever conversation in Northern Sami, I got stared at by a lot of the audience, as though I were a celebrity!

I was told afterwards, “I just love the sounds of that language…” and just one compliment after another…

And this was for a language that sometimes I got told was a useless endeavor!

sapmi

The Lesson: Learn Somebody’s Language, Become Somebody’s Hero. True Story.

French Unlike many other polyglots, I have to admit that my command of French is very sub-par indeed. But hopefully, thanks to its similarities with English and the endless possibilities to use it, I’ll get conversational by the time October rolls around.

Back in July 2014 I committed to learning both French and Faroese. I became fluent in one and I became just barely capable to speak another. Interestingly, my ability to read French is quite good, but when it comes to a Polyglot conference that sadly doesn’t count for much.

I did not pour hours into French (either learning it or getting exposure) the way I did with other languages. But given the relative lack of progress, I’m glad to say that I know at least something and can say some things and have a good accent, too.

rf

The Lesson: Something is better than nothing.

Spanish – I messed up with this language more than any other. Fact. I had trouble making myself understood to some, I had problems using correct grammar, I certainly had problems communicating with native speakers. Part of this may be due to the fact that, as an American, I realize that many other like me have attempted to learn Spanish to fluency and didn’t hit anywhere near the mark.

But I will play no blame-game of the sort.

Thanks largely to high school but also living in New York City and my experiences with “hispanohablantes” in Poland, I realized that I couldn’t erase my progress completely with this language. Even if I tried. Which is one reason why, however poorly I may speak this language now, it will come back in October with a vengeance!

ay yay yay

The Lesson: You never truly forget a language. At least, you always remember something.

Greenlandic – Trying to navigate this language was like trying to navigate a dungeon controlled by a maniac. Always another trap, always another thing to look out for, but some sense of logicality present overall…

The only real problem I have with Greenlandic grammar (maligned by many, even in Greenland, as being extraordinarily difficult) is choosing what order to stack suffixes, but even that only becomes a minor issue that can largely be sidestepped. I’ve written enough on Greenlandic as is. I can’t spend too much of this blog post to write more on it.

I found vocabulary throughout my Greenlandic journey more difficult to process than for any other language.

Despite all of the shortcomings, and the fact that sometimes I worried about whether my abilities were good enough, I carried on.

I cannot say that I speak Greenlandic absolutely perfect. But I could have very well folded at any point. Good thing I didn’t.

kalaallit nunaat

The Lesson: Above all, focus on what you do have. That which you don’t have will come.

Irish – I deemed this my hardest language of the bunch a significant amount of times. But after getting used to its significantly, the pronunciation, the orthography, the clash of dialects, and, of course, the grammar, sometimes I wonder why I even thought it was hard to begin with.

I see a lot of words in common with the Romance languages, a pronunciation system that, with lots and lots of practice, actually comes to make sense and, in short, nothing that I should be afraid of.

Oh, and also a lot of English words that Irish-speakers tend to throw into their speech. But this is also the case with about half of the languages on this list.

eire

The Lesson: It doesn’t seem so hard when you’ve done it. Then you wonder why you were so scared.

 

Faroese – I learned Faroese pronunciation through songs and, to a lesser degree, my German-Language Faroese book. There are lots and lots of beautiful songs written in the language and ones that will no doubt enchant all of you as well.

But looking back, this was a journey that I would have ended as soon as I started it if it were not for the new songs that I would otherwise have no clue existed. And with each language on this list, my collection of songs keeps on growing.

foroyar

The Lesson: Media in a Language is an all-around good: It keeps you motivated, it helps you learn, and it helps you maintain the language.

Cornish – Ah, the comments I got about this one. “Don’t just five people speak it?” “Why bother if only a few hundred know it?”

Sometimes I found myself affected. But then I kept in mind that Cornish is being heavily promoted in Cornwall and is basically a free ticket to employment if you know it well.

I’m not very good with Cornish right now, in fact, it is without a doubt my weakest language, but if I were stronger I would end this with the words “who’s laughing now?”

kernow

The Lesson: Don’t let others tell you what is a useful language and what isn’t.

Tok Pisin – I made quick progress in Tok Pisin because I would use it with my family members (some of which now “hate” the language quite passionately…ah, what can I do…). My family members, all of which (sadly) speak only English (and many have convinced themselves that this will always be the case), could understand the basic ideas of Pidgin English phrases, so I used this to get quick practice.

I couldn’t do this with too many of the other languages on this list.

I made sprints in learning this language, a lot less so because it resembled English and had simple grammar and more so because I actually used it more often than many others.

png

The Lesson: Use your skills at all possible times for maximum improvement.

Breton – This is a funny one. I remember having my first conversation in Breton over the summer. I actually went to an event in Brooklyn, but I misunderstood the brochure—I thought it was going to be a Breton Conversation Hour. Instead, it was Breton for absolute beginners.

I show up, but I had limiting speaking practice at this point .While speaking to the teacher, there was one key point that I knew from when before I even spoke my first word of the language…namely…

In Breton, you should (in general) ALWAYS accent the penultimate syllable!

It was shocked how much effort I put into learning lots of phrases on the train, but when it came to the flow of conversation…I was put off by the simplest detail!

Nevertheless, the teacher was pleased. Not only that, but the teacher was late, which meant that I had to teach the class for a bit until she showed up!

breizh

The Lesson: The small things you don’t notice can count for a lot.

Icelandic – I told the entire story here. I’m not really repeating it. TL;DR: the Internet told me that I would never get answered in Icelandic if I used the local language. The Internet, for one out of many times, was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, the amount of times I got answered in English I could count on my fingers. And all of them were at the hotel.

island

The Lesson: Don’t believe language-learner horror stories.

Icelandic, Iceland and I

Here’s a tip: with the exception of a select amount of polyglot blogs (the likes of which you are now reading, don’t expect any encouragement for your language-learning project from the Internet.

Especially when your target language conjures questions along the lines of “everyone there speaks English”.

In the case of Icelandic, which I began studying this past November, and then dropped it on and off until about July or so, in which it became a good fixture, this was particularly marked.

Iceland, or so the likes of Yahoo Answers and their ilk noted, was THE HARDEST PLACE ON EARTH to get people to speak their local language to you. There were horror stories shared of students studying in Iceland who wore shirts and buttons saying “speak Icelandic to me”, because otherwise, if you messed up with your grammar, you would stand the ghost of a chance, getting the dreaded “response in English”.

Wait, wait, wait! This story has a very happy ending. Keep reading until the end of the post!

I figured, “y’know what? I’m just going to try anyhow…”

2015-08-20 14.50.06

A self-diagnosis of my Icelandic abilities prior to my trip: Grammar quite good, quite good control of core vocabulary, having an educated conversation? Forget about it. Simple phrases? Good as ever.

In short, perhaps “somewhere between proficient and fluent” worked.

So I had my expectations set up for me. As much as I distrusted (and continue to distrust) the Internet, I knew that I was in for a challenge for language tourism in Iceland. But that doesn’t mean trying is out of the question!

I remember thinking as I was schlepping my bags to the car, ready to head to the airport, “if I get can keep people answering in Icelandic, then that means that I will NEVER be able to worry about being answered in English anywhere EVER AGAIN, and that my language confidence will go to into space and never get down from there!”

What Happened in Iceland

The most important thing to remember is that I was travelling with three monoglot English speakers (members of my family). I often get asked, both by people within and without the polyglot club, if my family members are also as interested in languages as I.

The short answer: no. The long answer: not in the least, and actually some of them believe that it is useless and/or hopeless, while still respecting and admiring me.

I let my parents handle a lot of the business on their own accord (I have enough times when I’m the boss of my own circle as is).

So we meet the taxi driver to take us to the airport, and I say, in Icelandic, “pleased to meet you” (“gaman að hitta þig”) After which she responds in English, I respond nervously, “…did I get that right?”

“Yes, it seems that you’ve been practicing”. In English. Although with a smile…

“Oy vey”, I thought, “they’re right…”

All throughout the hotel, people only responded to my pleasantries in English, I have to admit: while sleeping, I thought that I was in for an awful ride and that I would suffer a permanent blow to my language confidence from which I would never recover.

Well…just keep trying…

The Next Chapter

After getting up at 15:00 local time we go to a restaurant nearby. My family orders in English. Quickly having rehearsed some vocabulary from looking at the Icelandic menu, I order in Iceland, and I ask the waiter if he has Jólabjór. For those unaware, this is a seasonal beer that comes out at around Christmastime, changing the label and the name every single year, as well as the flavor.

And the waiter, much to my elation, responds to me personally in Icelandic, in the presence of my English-speaking family members.

He returns to the kitchen, and then comes out to clarify my order (whether or not I want sauce on my sandwich.) And this time…in…Icelandic! Again!

At this point, I think to myself, “I wonder how long I can keep this up for…”

Chapter 3

Scene: Tourist office in Reykjavik.

My parents are booking a tour, and there is an ice cream parlor right underneath the travel agent’s office.

They’re gonna be tied up for a while. So my parents tell me that, if I want to, I can get some ice cream.

I order the ice cream (chocolate and oreo in a cone), in flawless Icelandic, without a word of English between the server and myself. I pay with the credit card. No slip-ups.

Thereafter…

The tour involved the Icelandic tour guide speaking mostly in English. I did not have enough Icelandic to speak at length with him, but I did try to use it whenever possible, such as telling him I was ready or that I had a problem.

He told my parents behind my back that my Icelandic was “surprisingly good”.

And after that, the reality was, with the exception of the hotel staff and the one time that another tour guide (of another group) told me not to get too close to Eyjafjallajökull, (or “E15”, as the Icelandically challenged have called it….

I DID NOT GET ANSWERED IN ENGLISH A SINGLE TIME!

Jared Language Missions: 1

Internet Pessimism: 0.1

Conclusion:

We went back to that first restaurant one time, and the waitresses, without any English at all, asked me how I learned my Icelandic and in how long.

They brought out the entire staff of the restaurant to marvel at what the Internet and my conviction hath wrought.

I hadn’t been happier during my entire language life as I was during that moment.

Giving credit where credit is due, I think that if it were not for this little gem, which I discovered in the German language “Isländisch Wort für Wort” (Icelandic Word by Word) language guide, then this happy ending wouldn’t have come about:

die islander

Translation: The Icelanders speak quickly and slur often, that is to say, the letters (…) fall out now and then. So, for example, the sentence … (meaning “that must be somewhere”) is spoken like…

This simple piece of advice was not addressed at all in any other book that I had read! And it possibly turned out to be essential.

Thinking back to when I tried to speak Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgium, one thing I did too often was pronounce each word individually, making me sound like a learner. With Icelandic, I was told never to do that, which made me sound natural!

And one last piece!

Celebrities often visit Iceland. It is one place where presidents of the United States and famous actors are treated like everyone else. Icelanders tend to not give too much thought to any type of celebrity culture, which is one reason these famous people turn to Iceland time and again to escape the stress of their recognition.

If I were president of the US, then they wouldn’t have brought out the entire restaurant staff to show me off. But given had a firm grasp of Icelandic (however far away from ideal that might be right now), I was treated like a hero in their eyes.

A tourist of the highest order.

A friend of Iceland.

I intend that this friendship continue for much longer than this trip did.

2015-08-18 12.26.00

Where in the World are the Faroe Islands?

Upon mentioning anything about the Faroese Language, I always expect to get asked, “where is that spoken?” Upon mentioning the Faroe Islands, I expect to get asked, “where are they?”

My go-to answer, before we go any further: a group of 18 islands (17 of which have people living on them), which are located roughly between the North of Scotland and Iceland. They have their own postage stamps and are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark but are self-governing and have their own language (Faroese) although knowledge of Danish is also common there (as is knowledge of English in some circles).

Here they are:

føroyar

Most people in the United States (and a good deal of folk elsewhere) that I have spoken to have absolutely no idea where they are. This is why I thought I would write this post in my own words and develop my own introduction to the culture and image of the Faroe Islands, and why such things became a hobby of mine.

Disclaimer: as of the time of writing, I have not visited the Faroe Islands, although one day I definitely hope to.

Wherever you are on the islands, you are no further than five kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean.

I will use this point to drive into the various images that the Faroe Islands has when abroad. One of these is sports.

There are about 47,000 people who live on the Faroe Islands, even though there are more people than these who have knowledge of Faroese (mostly in Denmark).

The Faroe Islands have a football (soccer?) team that is internationally recognized and, as such, represents the country at large-scale events like the World Cup and the Euro Tournament. Given their relative size to many of the other countries of Europe, you can imagine the sort of things that are said both by the Faroese and their opponents whenever the Faroese National Team wins a game.

One of my friends in Germany told me that the Faroese National Team is not composed of professional players, but rather people from other professions that choose to undertake the sport as a hobby. Not only that, but soccer balls are weighted to avoid the likelihood that they will be kicked into the Atlantic Ocean.

Another thing that the Faroe Islands is stereotypically known for is rainy weather, and a guidebook I read yesterday in the Columbia Bookstore advised that visiting the Faroe Islands at any other time than summer was ill-advised unless you are a “meditative” type.

Because the islands themselves are not suitable for farmland, although are suitable for grazing sheep, the traditional food of the Faroe Islands has been consistent largely of sheep, birds, pilot whale meat, rhubarbs, and other slight fauna capable of growing in such an area. (Side note: the coat of arms of the Faroe Islands actually depicts a sheep).

baa

When I bring up the whale thing, I usually get asked in disbelief…

“They…eat…WHALES?!!?”

Which brings up to another popular image of Faroese Culture, the Grindadráp, or the hunting of pilot whales, which is what the Islands are best known for in some circles. (Do not put that word into Google Images unless you have a strong stomach! You have been warned…I’m serious!)

For those of you who would prefer a less graphic introduction to this side of the culture, I redirect you to this cartoon, courtesy of Scandinavia and the World.

I’m glad we are away from that topic.

The islands are also known for being quite heavily Christian, with many Faroese language textbooks teaching the primary source text about how Saint Ólav converted the Faroe Islands to Christendom. The national holiday of the Faroe Islands themselves is Ólavsøka, a two-day National Holiday (July 28th and 29th) named in his honor. There is also a beer associated with this festival as well.

Everything on the islands is closed on these days. I remember one time I brought this up in a conversation, and I was asked, “how many things are there that would be closed? Three stores and one church?”

On a side note, the Lonely Planet guide mentioned something about homosexuality being legal on the islands but that discriminating against them isn’t against the law. Moving on…

Lastly, before I go into the language and some of the history, I should mention the fact that the Faroe Islands, in circles where they are known, are renowned for a noteworthy beauty worthy of a fairy-tale land and untouched by hordes of tourists. (I’m certain that the fact that it rains very often in the Faroe Islands could very well be a cause!)

Now, I have already written a bit on the Faroese Language here. As an introduction for those of you who might not click on it: Faroese is related to Icelandic but is quite distant in terms of its pronunciation and is not mutually intelligible (except sometimes on paper).

The grammar is of noteworthy difficulty and the pronunciation takes time getting used to. If you know another Germanic Language (especially a Scandinavian one), then Faroese will become a lot easier to come to grips with and the secrets of pronunciation of the other Scandinavian Languages won’t be secret anymore (the “g” before front vowels in Faroese [e.g. “I” or “E”] is pronounced like an English “j”, and in Swedish it is pronounced as an English y but with a hint of the Faroese “g”. This is just one example).

And this is the flag:

foroyar

It was recognized by Winston Churchill during World War II (he was the first to recognize the flag internationally) as a result of Denmark falling to Nazi Germany and the Faroe Islands (along with Greenland and Iceland) being occupied by Allied soldiers. Flying the Danish flag wasn’t acceptable any longer and so the “Merkið” (as this flag is called) became the substitute and stuck until the day. April 25 (note: Denmark fell to Nazi Germany on the 9th) is thereby “Faroese Flag Day”.

The Faroe Islands also has a broadcasting service that is only in Faroese, and you can see it here.

And allow me to sate the likes of you with some music. It may remind you of some Scottish music and points, and I am reminded of what TV Tropes said about the genetic makeup of those who inhabit the islands: the majority of the female genes are Scottish and the majority of the male genes are Norse. Draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, are you going to close the page or are you going to treat yourself to beautiful songs you’ve probably never heard before?

Here you are:

Vit síggjast!(See ya!)

 OH…I will announce the new language in the next post! It has fewer native speakers than any other native language I have studied to date. This is your clue.