The 2017 Polyglot Conference: Self-Assessment and Roadmap

The most legendary month of my life is about to close, one that brought me to Iceland and Greenland and, by extension, into meetings with some of the most legendary human beings who have impacted my life to date.

I got to meet Nanook, the legendary band from Greenland, as well as the lineup of my favorite Greenlandic TV show from years back, see my favorite Icelandic rapper in a 30-minute concert and, of course, visit and re-visit some of my greatest heroes that have shown be beyond a reasonable doubt that learning to speak a second or third or even twentieth language at any age is ALWAYS a possibility!

I got to use thirty languages over the course of few days and think about where I have been, where I am and where I am going.

Granted, some of these languages are ones that I speak fluently and use in my career. Others are those that I have literally not practiced for months. In the meantime, I’ll have to think about where I under-estimated myself, where I over-estimated myself and what great victories I scored as well as any possible defeats.

The Saturday of the conference had me feeling unbelievably elated at the end. So elated, in fact, that I slept very poorly that night. What’s more, I had to present the following day, making it LITERALLY the worst night of this year to get a bad night’s sleep.

But surprisingly I not only managed my conference presentation on Video Games and Language Learning very well, I was told that the organizers heard “nothing but positive feedback” about it including repeated hopes that I would make encore presentations at other conferences.

My secret to being a good presenter is simple: note whatever your boring teachers throughout your life did, and do the opposite of what they do. Easy!

Anyhow, I’ll write about which languages I think I did very well with, which ones I did okay with and which ones I really need improvement with.

Let’s start with that last one.

For one, I significantly overestimated my ability in Irish and it felt that when I spoke it I had flashbacks to when I was twelve years old and my teacher scrawled “DID NOT STUDY” on my quizzes. (This was in part because I was thrown into a Hebrew Day School where my knowledge of Biblical Hebrew was significant impaired because I was a latecomer!)

I forgot essential words at times and while I did put some sentences together, it occurs to me that I need work.

The same thing very much happened with Lao (although the only time I used it was in a Lao-Thai conversation, something that I have had no experience in doing).

My Welsh which I had neglected for months, obviously, did not even get a sticker on my name tag, but I added it to my list because with some “rewatering”  it will warrant an A1 level again.

I also flubbed Cornish a little bit as well

Three languages which I need to really work on. So what am I going to do?

For one this weekend I will devote entirely to studying these languages, to the exclusion of others.

Now for my “I did pretty well!”

Despite some grammatical flubs at times Finnish was truly something to be proud of and I’m very impressed by the level of L2 Finnish speakers that I’ve seen at the conference.

Hebrew was also very similar as well, although sometimes I worry that I’m a little bit TOO casual and not scholarly enough. This style REALLY impresses some Israelis and manages to vex some others. But it bears repeating that using the language with people who speak it is always a good idea! Regardless of how much you may convince yourself otherwise!

Greenlandic, despite the fact that I remember being just “manageable” in Greenland the week prior, also was a meager success, whatever people wanted to ask of me what meant I was capable of providing. Granted, mostly these were simple phrases but it occurs to me that I knew a lot more of the language than actually came out when I was in the country. Again, my own nervousness holding myself back.

Icelandic and French both involved some significant gaps in my conversational abilities, given the language-learning tornado (and Jewish-holiday tornado) I was in in the weeks leading up to the conference.

Lastly, the one chance I got to use Krio went off better than I expected!

Now the greatest victories of the bunch, not surprisingly, go to my truly fluent languages, the Scandinavian Trio and Yiddish. Being in Greenland the week beforehand sure did help with Danish, but the practice I’ve got while teaching really, REALLY shined through. I also managed to speak significantly better Spanish and German than I literally ever remembered doing, EVER.

Every other language on my list was “not enough chances to use it” (for my fluent languages like Bislama) or otherwise “okay, I guess, but you still need some noteworthy improvement” (pretty much every other language I haven’t named).

The fact that I significantly slouched in my conversational abilities on Sunday is testament to the fact that mental and physical conditions matter in conversational abilities in any language, and languages you don’t use as often are even MORE likely to be impacted. My fluent languages (like Danish and Hebrew) stayed the same, but my less-than-fluent languages (like Hungarian or Polish) got worse.

 

Where do I go from here?

It seems ever more likely that 2018 is going to spell no more new languages for me for the time being. Right now, even though I’d really like something like Turkmen or Tuvaluan or Lithuanian, I have my plate full and now it’s time for me to invest in what I have in significantly more depth. I know it’s possible. I’m good now. Some would even call me very good. But I want to be divinely unstoppable.

Obviously I understand that the “activation energy” required for going to a higher level is more the higher you get (this ties into the idea of “diminishing returns”. Getting my Breton to C2 is going to take a LOT more effort than getting Lao to B1. Looking at the ungodly amount of time I put into my best languages, it’s no surprise.

Right now I just have ideas for a plan, but “improve tons of languages” is not really a recipe. I need a recipe and I’m probably going to need more than just a day to come up with a plan.

We’ll see how my little mini-mission on Saturday and Sunday goes!

NOTE: This is primarily a self-reflection about MY OWN progress rather than anything about the conference itself. That’s likely to come later on, probably when I’m back in the US and have had time to reflect on it!

I wish every day were a Polyglot Conference, actually!

IMG_4725

From my first Polyglot conference two years ago!

 

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

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

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

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

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

Three bad, then three good:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CONCLUSION

 

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

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

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)

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?