Myanmar Saga + Extra Double-Feature Daredevil Language Mission!

Tomorrow I head off to the Golden Land (Myanmar / Burma).

As a Yiddishist I am actually amused by the fact that a popular Yiddish name for the United States was (and remains) “di goldene medine” (also meaning “The Golden Land”, or somewhat more accurately, “the golden country”). I’m hopping one from Golden Country to another, so it seems.

On one hand, I feel significantly confident in my ability to say a lot of “touristy” things in Burmese, although I’m not fluent (and I have problems reading the Burmese script, too!).

This is my first tonal language that I’ve taken seriously since my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 or so, and as a result I’m quite worried about whether I’m getting it right but luckily the fact that I have a musical ear certainly hasn’t hurt.

Where am I? Well, let me put it this way: part of me feels that I’m walking into a test that I haven’t studied for. At all. And that this test determines my future.

But another part of me feels that I’m entering into the testing room with as many “cheat sheets” as I want.

Now, time for me to tell you that I got caught off guard!

Apparently I have layovers in the United Arab Emirates and in Thailand (and Thailand only on the way there).

So you know what this means:

I’m also on a mission to see how much Gulf Arabic I can learn on the plane to Dubai, as well as elementary Thai on the way there.

(This, in addition to Burmese, which will be in quite good shape, I think, after three weeks).

Time for me to layout my plans:




I’m gonna have to memorize as many phrases in “Birmanisch für Myanmar – Wort für Wort” to the best of my ability, including how to put sentences together and all that fun stuff. The fact that my life may depend on knowing this stuff means that my memory is probably going to go into Jedi mode. I’ll see how well I do (or how badly I do).

What’s more, I also have five Burmese Memrise courses in offline mode on my phone, including a complete guide to the characters. I know that various Pali loan words are not pronounced the way they are spelled (see my previous post on Burmese here), but I expect to be able to read Burmese by the time I set foot in Mandalay for the first time.

Interestingly this is my least urgent mission. I got time for this. My most urgent mission would be.


Surprise Gulf Arabic EXTRAVAGANZA!



If only I found out that I was having a layover in Dubai literally two days ago, I would have a book (I wasn’t told this due to miscommunication. My parents are the ones that are bringing me along to play translator).

I managed to get the Lonely Planet Middle Eastern Phrasebook purchased online. It will come to me tomorrow, and I hope that it will arrive before the shuttle to the airport does.

But even if that doesn’t happen, I have other tools for Gulf Arabic, namely a Peace Corps Guide (primarily aimed at Saudi Arabia) that is 300 pages long, as well as a Japanese-based Gulf Arabic app, and the free preview for the Gulf Arabic Kauderwelsch book (I wouldn’t underestimate those free previews given how helpful one of them was for me in Iceland).

Thanks to me having done Dari on Mango Languages (to help improve Tajik), the Arabic alphabet isn’t as strange to me as, let’s say, Thai characters.

I’m focusing on the casual Gulf Arabic for this time. Will probably only use in the airplanes or on the airports. But at least that will be enough to write an article on. I hope.

I am reminded of one of my friends, a fluent speaker of Egyptian Arabic, who remarked that Gulf Arabic sounded like “frog talk”. Part of me has dreamed of learning it ever since.

What do I intend to do? Go through the books and the apps on the plane, and the book (that will hopefully arrive!) using mnemonics along the way. Write as much as I can. If there are native speakers I can interact with, great! This will be a challenge I remember!


Thai: Something New




Got an Italki language exchange partner who wanted to learn Northern Sami from me (which I forgot a while ago but am relearning bit-by-bit to prepare for the lessons). She’s teaching me elementary Thai in exchange and I’m enchanted by everything about it, the same way that I am enchanted with…pretty much every language I’ve ever studied.

Thanks to her help I’m headed into this situation with more wisdom than with my “see how much Gulf Arabic you can learn in a day” assignment.

I still have zilch idea how to read. At all.

But I am capable of speaking. A little bit, but I’m capable of that little bit.

And that is something.

PLAN: Same as for the Gulf Arabic one, except for I’ll be studying it on the plane from Dubai to Bangkok. I also won’t be studying this for the “way back” trip.


Vanishing for the Vacation.


I’m not going to be writing posts during my trip to Myanmar (May 10th – May 29th). I’ll even leave my computer at home.

I’ll miss all of you, but I really, REALLY look forward to sharing the results of my daredevilry with all of you!


Another announcement:




“Using Video Games to Learn and Maintain Languages”.


I’ll get to that soon enough. But first I have to take on some adventures.


While I’m my adventures, I’ll be thinking of you, dear reader, and knowing that I can share my ventures as inspiration to make your linguistic dreams come true!

See you in June!

2015-08-20 14.50.06

Reflections on Language Courses

“Language courses are crap”.

Or so one Spanish TA confided to me during my college years.

After about two years of not having any language courses, although having many others self-taught via immersion and conversation, between this week and next week I was thrown back into that world.

There was a time in which I thought that a language course was the only true gateway to learning another tongue.

How silly I was back then.

I’ve noticed something very different about U.S. Language Material shelves and those in various European countries.

The U.S. ones are often stocked with big books and expensive programs, and the variety of languages is regrettably small. However, between brands such as Assimil and Kauderwelsch, the rest of the world does seem to focus a lot on reducing the introduction to a language in a small book.

Guess which one I’ve found more useful?

Moving on…

I’ve had a few days of Hebrew classes since my full-grown polyglot chrysalis hatched earlier this year (I place March-May 2014 as the rough time frame of the hatching).

The one thing that I found the most telling is the fact that, in the Intermediate class (that I was asked to leave because it was too easy for me), the teacher used English more than I was comfortable with, rather than the target language, and spoke particularly slowly.

At literally no point in any of my language learning processes, except for at the very beginning, did I subject myself to material for learners that was deliberately slow (okay, except for Duolingo’s turtle feature).

This sometimes became a bit of a challenge, especially with highly inflected languages (Finnish was my first of the lot), because I remember that trying to process all of the cases took too much mental energy for me during my early stages. But, with persistence and the “just one more episode” mentality, I grew into them.

Another thing; many students just don’t try putting on a separate accent. To be honest, I sometimes find myself guilty of this in Hebrew. Efraim Kishon famously called Israel a land where everybody has an accent and, therefore, nobody has one (very true indeed, but probably truer in his day).

For most of my languages, however, I feel that speaking with too strong an American accent really isn’t an option (hence, I keep a collection of how many nationalities I’ve been mistaken for…but that’s for another time!) I think that, for the benefit of language learners everywhere, I should write a piece about accent reduction.

But for the American crowd: you guys are not alone. One thing I’ve noticed about most language learners (from literally everywhere!) is that they tend to not put on any accent at all.

For whatever its worth, even people from the nations that have a reputation for being “good with languages” (a term that is misleading on all accounts and serves no purpose aside from to comfort lazy efforts) tend to have virtually no different accent when speaking other tongues (English spoken in a Dutch accent is a case in point).

Perhaps as a native English speaker, it becomes a necessity because my goal is to reveal myself as “good enough” so as to keep the conversation in the language that I want.

Now, as to the advanced class: it truly is going to teach me how to deal with texts. But what it doesn’t let me do is “speed up the process”. There is a syllabus spread over the course of several months, and that syllabus doesn’t allow me to go at my own pace.

The fact that I know several other languages well enables me to become more confident when I speak the target language among my classmates. And this confidence really shows (interestingly I felt too self-conscious in my European travels to put this air on most of the time…but maybe when I’m out of the country the next time!)

It is also telling that, in a course, I don’t use the materials that I find the most “fun” to learn my languages (as I did on the immersion roads to fluency). I do what the teacher wants.

On the one hand, this helps my self-discipline. On the other hand, this will complicate my relationship with the target language, because the one thing that will kill all “chemistry” I have with a foreign tongue is the idea that it is being force-fed to me.

Now, as to whether I agree with the idea that language classes are “crap”:

I also have a bit of a suspicion that there might be some in the class that just see the course itself as the road to becoming “good” with the target language.

If I were a language teacher, I would preface my first class with this: it is my goal to guide you through the target language, but if you are to become good, you must do MOST of the work on your own. And that means truly making it a part of your life.

Americans aren’t the only ones who take a language for “x years” and forget it all. This happens everywhere I’ve seen.

I don’t have any talent for what I do.

If I want to learn something, I make it a part of my life. I make it a part of my routine. And the class is certainly part of my routine, but as an obligation upon which a grade of mine is dependent, there is no way that any language course will make me like a certain language more. If anything, it would make me care about it less.

That isn’t to say that I don’t care about the languages with which I have taken classes in (Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish, and given how many languages I’ve learned without even setting foot in a classroom, this list will probably remain that way forever).

But between an act of love and an act of obedience, there is one task that will always win for me in my heart.

And you can probably guess which one.

Lost in the Føroyskt: My First Impressions of Faroese

Richard Kölbl, the author of the Kauderwelsch Faroese Phrasebook/Mini-Textbook, writes in a tongue-in-cheek manner that the Faroese People spent the long winter nights in the Faroe Islands convoluting their written language and creating making their pronunciation system complicated.
That sounds like something that came to my mind upon receiving my very first impressions of Faroese (via the Lonely Planet Guide—the same one that featured this hilarious excerpt). Back then, I could not possibly comprehend how the written language corresponded to the spoken one. Not surprisingly, I had a similar struggle with Danish as well, and am undergoing much of the same with French (although I think that French has the most sensible system of the three).
Thanks largely to Kölbl’s book, my struggles with pronunciation have been readily been put at ease. Each word is usually provided with the phonetic German transcription that I will need.
The most important obstacle that comes out when I learn a language related to those that I already know well is the fact that I am sometimes less inclined to practice if I can recognize things easily (Dutch was the worst offender, by far—immersion sometimes didn’t help, because I would understand a lot of it already, even if I couldn’t actively call upon a good enough vocabulary to use it in conversation most of the time).
Faroese vocabulary in its simple bases presents almost no surprises at all. I found out that the word “ej” (no, none, not having any) and its ilk in the more modern Scandinavian Languages could be related to the Faroese word “einki”, (“ayn-tscheh”). After Swedish, Danish and Norwegian the words that I recognize actively are usually just written down in my notebook without definitions—“eldur” (fire) and “kanska” (maybe) are easily recognizable from “ild” and “kanske”, which mean the same (I used the Swedish examples here).
The grammar is the main reason why I have trouble building sentences. Interestingly, the book hasn’t been too helpful with that, but I did manage to find some other books with the verb tables and declensions that I will need.
Thankfully after Classical Greek (and many other languages), Faroese grammar can’t really surprise me anymore. That isn’t to say that it isn’t scary—I find the tables intimidating, but it isn’t nearly as scary as the guidebooks I have read make it out to be.
(An aside at this point: too many travel guide books make out various languages to be a lot scarier than they actually are. But most of you already knew that. Other travel guide books may make a point of saying that you should just use English anyway, if possible. I think I should address these issues in another post…)
I can’t help but think of the modern Scandinavian languages every minute of my studying Faroese. For one, “ein” (one) is both masculine and feminine, as opposed to the “common gender” in Swedish/Danish/Norwegian/Dutch. There is a neuter in Faroese as well: “eitt”. In Swedish, you have “en” and “ett”, and the connection is obvious.
Okay, Jared, stop talking about things we may not understand and get to something important. Like feelings!
Very well.
For one, Faroese has been a welcome break from many other languages that I have struggled with. I had no head start with Greenlandic (to say the least), save for a handful of Danish words. I listened to my first Radio broadcast in Greenlandic back in early 2013 and didn’t understand a word.
Faroese is different—thanks largely to my prior knowledge of Scandinavian Languages, I do have an extraordinary head start—and this accounts not only for the vocabulary but also for the accent as well. I think that Kringvarp Føroya’s voices do resemble some vague form of Swedish.
I do have another bit of a battle as well: so far, I haven’t encountered too many Faroese programs that I like very much (yet). KNR’s Greenlandic media I found instantly enchanting, even back when I understood almost none of it. As for Faroese media, I think it will very well be a bit of an acquired taste…or maybe I just need to play around with the site more…
I find Faroese Music very enchanting, very much like that of Greenland, and I have a knack for humming the National Anthem of the Faroe Islands (my first song in the language, even though I haven’t learned the lyrics by heart…yet).
Only yesterday evening did I get my first “remark” (and I usually appreciate things like this when they are delivered with a smile and more than a hint of admiration):
Me: “Next week is the Faroese National Holiday, it lasts for two days and everything in the Faroes is closed.
Friend: “Everything in the Faroe Islands is closed. What is there…three shops and one church?”
My collection of Greenlandic comments of this nature is already quite full. I can imagine that this one will be as well, but I’ll have to be patient…
I’ve even encountered a handful of Europeans who don’t even know that the Faroe Islands exist…so maybe this collection might not be as stunning…but something to smile at, nonetheless!
In summary, my progress (with a few more details that I haven’t mentioned before):
(1) Grammar? I’ve been here before. I don’t think it is too much to worry about it. People made a big deal out of grammar in the Finnish Language being tough stuff and I didn’t particularly feel that it was.
(2) Cognates? Cognate heaven. Moving on.
(3) Control of the language? I have the basics down. I’ve learned a number of interesting details about the culture and drawn connections to other languages that I know (which include the whole of the Germanic Language family, actually!)
(4) Pronunciation? I’m growing into it! And a lot more easily than I remember doing with Danish! Heck, I think it’s even easier than French pronunciation at this juncture! But I think the reason this is the case is because Swedish and Danish are hardly mysteries for me anymore, and Faroese can’t be too much of a departure…although it tries to be!
(5) The keyboard: installed, but painful. Need to really figure out how it works…
(6) Immersion: predictably, there are quotes from Danish politicians that are very clearly kept in Danish and not rendered into Faroese. I’m recognizing many words quite quickly, but sometimes have trouble putting the spoken language together with ease. The written language is far easier at this juncture…
(7) However, I don’t have many shows that I particularly crave to watch. This means: I need to find something that I like. It’s out there…
(8) I HAVE to pass from a passive understanding of the grammar and many aspects of vocabulary to an active understanding. Once I do that, then color me proficient.

As to when I will reach that point, well…depends on many factors…

So far, it has been a good journey! It doesn’t seem like it will be one that will ever end, though (any language learner knows this…)…and that’s a good thing!
Until next time…

Two New Languages…Announced!

Here’s the questionnaire from that other time:

Before 2014 is up, I intend to undertake serious study of two languages, one of which is popularly studied and the other of which very much is not:

(1) They are both the official languages of one nation each
(2) The nations they are affiliated with share the same colors in their flags
(3) The nations begin with the same letter in most European Languages spelled with the Latin Alphabet
(4) One of the languages is endangered
(5) Take one of the countries’ languages and translate the other country into that language. One possible result of this word will sound like a word (not the nicest one) associated with that other country (and that word is in English).

And here is your answer!

FRENCH (European)
Item number 5? “Frakland”, and the word in question is “Frog”.
The riddle was correctly solved less than an hour after it came out by the brilliant and wise Julian Tsapir! Congratulations, Julian!
You are hereby entitled to write a blog post on this site, on whatever topic you want, even if it isn’t related one bit to any of the existing posts! You are also welcome to write it in any language that your heart desires!
As to these two languages, my current attack plan is as follows:
(1) I intend to complete the Brazilian Portuguese Tree on Duolingo to its fullest. Thereupon I will have the energy to continue with the French course. Beginning from there, I will go my normal route of media immersion and reading—and I expect there to be a lot of it, more than there would be for Faroese.

(2) I’ve already looked into Faroese pronunciation a bit, and I’m going to write a bit on my impressions of the language. This week I am going to Karlsruhe to buy the Kauderwelsch Faroese guide, which will teach me pronunciation better than almost anything. I expect to grow into Kringvarp Føroya the same way that I did with KNR (which currently has the biggest collection of Greenlandic media on the web).

As for the third language referenced in the post, the one that my textbook said was a combination of French, Polish, and Chinese—it is on the “back burner” for now, but at some point before 2014 I will bring it up again, definitely in another riddle with more details.
And again, I expect that a set of languages in my current collection may be getting the “axe”, but I can’t say for sure which ones. I’ll know when that happens.
Two things in the near future: (1) a project for when I am back in the U.S. in August and before my semester begins and (2) I will write a post about my first impressions with Faroese!
Until then, wish me luck!

“That’s All One Word?!!?” Learning Introductory Greenlandic


Before I begin, let me clarify by saying that yes, Greenlandic is a real language. Known also as “Kalaallisut” or “West Greenlandic”, it is an Inuit Language with Danish influence (and some English influence as well), spoken primarily in Greenland (obviously) but also by some in Denmark and, most assuredly, other places as well.

Greenlandic is best known for being a “polysynthetic language”, and the only indigenous language of the Americas that has sole official status in a country. (Can you guess which one? I thought so!)

For those of you to whom the term “polysynthetic language” doesn’t really mean anything, imagine something like Magnetic Poetry—in which you can assemble your own poems from magnet pieces of words.

Now imagine that, instead of assembling sentences or verses with words, that you assemble words from word pieces. That’s a polysynthetic language for you.

Let me demonstrate with something right out of Kauderwelsch’s “Greenlandic Word for Word”, which is in German, but this part is translated by yours truly:




Qaqqa(q) = Mountain

Liar- = travel, go on the road

Niar- = Intend

-punga = “I” Verb, intransitive

“I would like to wander around in the mountains”


If you guessed that this could sometimes result in really, really long words, you couldn’t have been more right. The idea of “this is why Germans don’t play Scrabble” is comparatively tame in comparison with what you will encounter on your Greenlandic journey:


“It seems that they were well into the process of talking about founding an association for the establishment of a Telegraph Station”

(Courtesy of the Greenlandic House in Copenhagen)

My first encounter with the Greenlandic Language resulted due to my addiction to travel literature that came to manifest when I was in Stockholm. While visiting Connecticut, I went to the local library and looked at a guide to Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. The language section hereby treated me to this gem:


I didn’t know it at the time, but eventually that line about typewriters would become a running joke in my family, with some people calling Greenlandic “typewriter” or “the typewriter language”.

Reading through the word list, I was entranced—it would be fair to say that it was love at first sight. Within seconds I was dreaming that a day would come in which I would have conversations in this most exquisite language, and hopefully be able to call myself fluent.

Then I got the book out of the library and read almost all of it (especially the part on Greenland). Thereupon did I copy the Greenlandic glossary in the back and created Memrise’s first-ever Greenlandic course for English speakers (even before the Greenlandic category was established on that site, which it now is).

Finding some Greenlandic media was easy enough because a lot of it is in one place: There is news, radio, sports, movie reviews, movie trailers (mostly in English with Greenlandic subtitles), video game reviews, and, of course, children’s programming. KNR, which itself stands for “Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa” (literally, “The Radio of the Land of the Greenlanders”), truly gives you a good glimpse of a culture that many spend their whole lives never thinking about.

Greenland also has an extraordinarily noteworthy musical tradition which has, predictably, reached Denmark with often a lot more than modest success. Don’t expect to find a lot of these songs even in Danish translation, if you can even find the Greenlandic lyrics at all. I find Greenlandic music exciting, tense, modern, and extremely good at a wide range of expression techniques.

The responses I get when I tell people that I can speak a bit of Greenlandic—they are indeed interesting. Usually they fall in line with something like this:


“Greenlandic? Is that even a real language?”

“How many people speak it?”

“Is it Indo-European?”


And my personal favorite:


“How many people live in Greenland…like…three?”


In response to hearing it, either from me or, even rarer, from KNR or a song, I hear things like this:


“That doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before!”

“I’m not even going to try to repeat that…”



And of course, when seeing written Greenlandic, I almost invariably get this (or the equivalent):


“That’s all one word?”


I had been learning Greenlandic somewhat non-seriously on-and-off up until about a few months ago, when my M.A. Thesis was largely complete and I also was on semester break. Afterwards I began pursuing it with more seriousness, despite many people wondering why I could be devoted to something that was, for them, so strange.

Now for some of my hang-ups with Greenlandic so far:


(1)    Resources are scarce. This really goes without saying, and this is coming from someone who reads Danish fairly/very well, depending on his mood. If you don’t have Danish in your language arsenal, you are even more out of luck. But given as all numbers in Greenlandic that are higher than 12 are borrowed from Danish, not also to mention much Greenlandic technical jargon (some terms have both a Greenlandic neologism and a Danish equivalent), you’ll be tempted to dive into that world sooner rather than later, and you Greenlandic journey will be that much easier because of it.


(2)    The “q” sound is something I still struggle with regularly. Its sound, to me, sounds like “Ah-k-huh-r” when slowed down a lot. Almost everyone who learns this language struggles with it, although there are also problems with the “rl/ll” sound, which is probably like “d-l-German ‘ch’” which slowed down. The single “l” smacks of “dl” in English, but the d is very slight.


Hopefully these approximations can ensure that you don’t struggle with these sounds as much as I did. If it makes you feel any better, there are only three real vowel sounds in Greenlandic: a, u, and i. The letters “o” and “e” are shifted formed of “u” and “i” that come about in the fusion of polysynthetic word components.


(3)    Spoken comprehension comes hard. Inuit languages are very different from almost anything you may have encountered (unless you have studied another Inuit Language—as you may know, Greenlandic is the most commonly spoken member of the family, the most commonly studied, and the one in least danger of extinction). Consistency and constant media exposure will be your friends here…as they would be with learning any language at all…


(4)    A directory of common suffixes does not yet exist for free—and I think every student of the language would require it. There are dictionaries to be found, without question, but with over 20,000 words in the most comprehensive ones, and almost no resources devoted to the “most common words” (or pieces), you may be out of luck in finding a quick way to find a list of words that will prove most useful to you. The Kauderwelsch Guide, mentioned above, is definitely as good as it gets.

The plus side is that there are cultural institutions in Greenland and in Denmark that would be more than willing to help you on your journey and answer, with a few internet searches, most of your questions about Greenlandic and Greenland.

It will be interesting for me to reflect on this piece as I continue on the journey (or give it up, which doesn’t seem likely at this point), but as for now, I am looking forward to the day in which all of Greenland’s musical glory and intriguing culture is a lot less of a mystery.