My Finnish Language Journey: Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland!

finnish ain't hard

Yesterday and today buildings throughout the world were illuminated with blue lights in honor of the birthday of a country that has developed a stellar reputation well outside its borders in recent decades.

My journey with Finnish has been an interesting one, because it’s one that I learned how to speak well while leaving me in complete mystery in exactly HOW I pulled it off.

I’ve used all of the following:

  • Reading dialogues out loud
  • Reading grammar notes out loud from textbooks
  • Watching Disney film snippets and Pokémon in Finnish (dubbed versions)
  • Clozemaster
  • Transparent Language
  • Writing exercises
  • Later on (once I acquired B2 level) teaching the language to other people.
  • Language Exchange Groups (I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Finnish with real people in comparison to Swedish, Danish and Norwegian [especially the first two])
  • Songs (including passively, with lyrics and actively with karaoke)
  • Radio
  • Let’s Play Videos with Finnish commentary
  • Writing to people who speak the language.
  • Video games

 

Too often I get asked the question “what do you use to learn so many languages?”

The question should not be “what do you use to learn” them but “what DON’T you use to learn them?” I became successful with Finnish (despite the fact that I still feel as though I have a long way to go with it) because I threw EVERYTHING at it.

And that’s what a successful attempt to learn a language LOOKS LIKE! You don’t’ just expect to use “Duolingo” and get fluent (it’s in all likelihood not going to happen). You need to use AS MANY tools as possible to make a language a part of your life. The most successful of my language missions have had that, while those that were / are lacking are those in which I still have yet to use EVERY available means of using the language.

Looking back on the journey, here’s what I wish I told myself in 2012 when the Finnish Language and I seemed like we had a future together (which we DID!)

 

  • Throw Out Limiting Beliefs Immediately

 

Too many people are stuck with ideas that they’ll never be good, or that they won’t even be manageable. Others are stuck with ideas that they’ll just get answered in English all of the time. Yet others enter the world of Finnish and other target languages with a negative mindset, thinking that it is something they intend to lose as soon as they enter it.

I entered at first saying “I’ll see what I can get. I can always learn something and I can always learn more later”. But all the while I never DREAMED that I would be capable of mastering the grammar of the language, both colloquially as well as formally, the way that I did. And I should have thought even more than “I’ll manage”, I should have thought “I’m going to be GREAT!!!”

And this leads into another point…

 

  • Finnish (or any other grammatically rich language) is a giant feast. Savor each ingredient separately and don’t expect to gulf down EVERYTHING at once.

 

Many of the cases are straight-up prepositions (as is the case with the other Finno-Ugric Languages), but some other elements are more idiomatic. One that trips up my students regularly is the –ksi ending, which indicates that you are talking about a noun, and more specifically “given that it is that noun” or “into that noun” (e.g. transformation).

 

englanniksi sanoja – English(ksi) words(partitive)

 

English words, or, more accurately “given-that-they-are-English” “words-some-of-them”.

Okay now you have ONE concept, now see if you can manage personal endings for nouns (Kaveri [friend] + ni [my] -> “Kaverini” – “friend(s) of mine”) or the fantastic conjugating “no” (en -> I … not, not I. et – you (sing.) … not, not you, ei -> he/she/it …. Not, not he/she/it, etc.) usage of nuanced suffixes, verb conjugation, AND variant forms of verb conjugation and other grammatical features in colloquial speech! (These might not be in your textbook!)

Oh, and manage all of these concepts at once spoken by a native speaker at quick speed. Sure, the fact that Finnish words are always accented on the first syllable is going to help you, to some degree, as is the fact that some Finns speak very slowly in comparison to Romance Language speakers, but the grammatical buffet of Finnish is going to OVERWHELM YOU.

Unless, you take it in, bit by bit, and count every single one of the small victories.

This is true with other languages, but this is even MORE true with languages in which you might struggle with forming a simple sentence for weeks!

 

 

  • Use Flashcards and Other Similar Apps WITH Immersion for Progress

 

Memrise helped me reach my goals with Finnish but I couldn’t have done it with only them. I also had to use YouTube Finnish in order to bring words that I “vaguely” memorized in the app into a genuine context where they made sense.

Often when I was watching any amount of fun things in Finnish I would remember a word that I had seen in Memrise matching the context EXACTLY.

Unless a language is VERY closely related to one you know, or one that you’ve had experience being exposed to but have gaps in it (as is the case with Polish for me, for example), the flash cards by yourself are not going to be ideal.

But pair with other methods, everything builds off each other.

 

  • Being disappointed with your language progress means that you’re either studying too much or using the language without studying too much.

For all of my languages regardless of level, I noticed that there are some languages that I’ve STUDIED too  much to the exclusion of using them for fun (Irish) and others that I’ve USED too much without studying too much of them anymore (Greenlandic). To correct this imbalance, apply one or the other, depending on what you HAVEN’T been doing.

For much of my Finnish studies, I managed that balance PERFECTLY, more than with any other language I’ve studied. And I’m glad I did.

  • Small words mean a lot in making you sound like a fluent speaker.

 

Thanks to me having watched a lot of Pokémon in the Finnish dub (more than I care to admit) as well as a lot of gaming channels in Finnish, I’ve really learned how to use simple one-word expressions that make me sound believable when I put them in my speech (some of these qualify as “filler words” but not always).

 

Think about it: how often have you heard non-native English speakers say “very good” as opposed to “cool beans!” or “that’s great to hear!” (the latter of which are very American indeed, I think).

 

I got a lot of simple expressions like these thanks to me using Finnish in these “controlled environments”. They didn’t make me fluent, but they made me confident and believable with great regularity.

 

  • No language is too hard.

 

I don’t necessarily say “no language is too unlearnable” because I’ve tried to find some languages to learn in which I can almost seldom find ANY materials for them.

But even though a language like Greenlandic (and Burmese, later on) got me to almost doubt this, you need to keep in mind that, especially with more politically powerful languages, your L2 is learnable, even to near-native fluency. You just need to find methods that work, and utilize EVERYTHING you have in order to make it work.

The apps themselves are great, but they won’t make you fluent alone. Same for the books, videos and TV shows. Bring them altogether, and you’ll become someone who impressed almost EVERY native speaker you’ll meet.

 

That day can be yours! Go ahead and take it!

 

Let’s conclude with this, now, shall we?

 

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Think Human Translators Will Be Replaced By Machines? Not So Fast!

In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:

Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)

My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.

Iso an Jekob

I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?

I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.

But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.

I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)

If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.

Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.

Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).

And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!

When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.

 

  • Gendered Speech

In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.

What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).

Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?

On that topic, there’s also an issue with…

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!

A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).

If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.

A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.

Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.

If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).

In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.

In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.

What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)

Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.

The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!

 

  • A Good Deal of Languages Haven’t Been Touched with Machine Translation At All

 

And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)

 

And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).

 

For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.

In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)

Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?

 

Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.

 

 

ga

In My Opinion, These Five Countries Have the Best Contemporary Music (November 2017)

 

I’ve tasted music from well over FIFTY different countries and at least that many languages

I’m sorry to say but, after having tasted music in a lot of the rest of the world, it seems to me that contemporary American music more often than not seems uninspired, shallow and formulaic. Granted, other places do have their share of bad music as well, but ever since college I’ve been looking abroad for musical hits and I’ve never, EVER looked back.

As of late 2017, here are the countries whose music of contemporary times (1980’s to the present) have left me significantly impressed and have changed my life. I also judge primarily for lyrical content as well as for how often I find myself humming or thinking about these tunes when I’m away from any music player or while walking in a field or down the street.

Here we go!

 

  1. Finland

 

One month from today this fascinating country will celebrate its 100th birthday!

It seemed to me in 2013 that I would just learn enough Finnish to “get by” during my venture to meet the local Jewish community in Helsinki and I would promptly forget it. Fate had other plans…

After having discovered a website that offered Finnish Language music 24/7 shortly after my trip, I got hooked. Finnish remains one of my favorite European languages and many of the song lyrics and tunes have been a potent look into what Finnishness (“Suomalaisuus”) entails.

That website, by the way still exists, and it comes with complete song ID’s for everything that plays during a 24-hour period. Check it out, it may prove fun even if you don’t speak or understand any Finnish at all: http://www.radiosuomipop.fi/

 

  1. Solomon Islands

 

I know what you’re thinking, maybe some of you have visibly said “WHAT?!!?” out loud, but Solomon Music is unbelievably refreshing and heartfelt. What’s more, a lot of the music does tend to mix together standard English, Pijin and many of the local languages of the Solomons.

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

 

 

By the way, I asked Dezine how their name was pronounced and they said it was pronounced “de-ZYN” (my understanding is that it’s a homophone with the English word “design”). Yes, I’m FB Messenger contacts with one of the best known musical acts in a country on the other side of the globe. Long story.

 

  1. Myanmar / Burma

 

I still distinctly remember the withdrawal I suffered when I went back from Yangon to New York City and the music I hear from boom boxes and smartphones was noticeably different and not in a good way. Even in very poor regions of the countryside (in Bagan I noticed that this was particularly common), I heard farmers using their smartphones to play music that seemed as though it was vaguely inspired by Chinese pop ballads and classical British radio hits.

Did I tell you about the time I found 100+ Burmese-language songs for $10 on the iTunes store?

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/greatest-hits/id1222130595

There are totally no American, Russian or Chinese cover songs anywhere in that album. Nu uh. No way. [/s]

I also hear that many aspects of the punk music scene in Myanmar have been essential in ensuring inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation, especially important given current events throughout the world but especially in Myanmar.

 

  1. Iceland

You can’t have a landscape like that and not have it inspire you on a very primal level. Sometimes I listen to bland music in grocery stores and at parties and then I listen to the likes of  Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró and I am thereby reminded that there is plenty of originality left in contemporary music, more than many people may give it credit for.

I think that every American alive will probably recognize this tune from somewhere:

And my love of Icelandic rap is literally no secret to anyone who knows me at all. Did I mention I got to see Emmsjé Gauti in concert the day before the Polyglot Conference? Be forewarned: he does demand a lot of audience participation in his events! (He even had an 8-year old boy from the audience join him on stage and sing the chorus to one of his songs!)

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Papua New Guinea

I played a family member some songs from Daniel Bilip the “nambawan hitmaker bilong PNG”. I have a distinct memory of nearly having the phone and the earphones yanked out of my hands when I tried to take it back (the music was THAT addicting!)

 

Trinidad and Tobago

Trini Carnival music is adrenalin in mp3 form. And that’s a very good thing for me. Also, in case you can’t tell, Trinidadian Creole is heavily utilized in these songs, in ways elude the understanding of the average English speaker.

 

 

Israel

At the Hebrew University in the Ulpan I have memories of doing “group singing”. They are very good memories, but the songs are plenty times more memorable.

 

 And now for the coveted no. 1 spot…(that is no surprise in the slighest to anyone who knows me…)

 

  1. GREENLAND

 

Thousands of songs throughout my life, dozens of CD’s, and the most moving music in my life has almost consistently come from one place.

 

 

Greenlandic music tends to contain poetry and musical elements that capture the magnificent feeling of the great beyond in ways that other places’ music just CAN’T.

Ever since I began studying Greenlandic in 2013 (and despite my meager progress), I listened to Greenlandic music and couldn’t get enough. A lot of the styles encapsulate the essence of the many feelings of the human experience.

Some songs have been so beautiful that when I’m listening to them on the subway staying composed is a difficult task.

My personal favorites include Nanook, Rasmus Lyberth and Marc Fussing Rosbach (who just so happens to be the author of a lot of the music for my upcoming video game). I had the chance to meet both Nanook and Marc during my Greenland trip in October (and narrowly missed Rasmus!)

And even if pop ballads and game music isn’t your thing, Siissisoq (“The Rhinoceros”) has come out with literally the best heavy metal I’ve ever heard in my life, and in recent memory they got back together after what was nearly a two-decade hiatus. (I do NOT attribute this to the fact that I wrote a fan letter to the lead singer shortly before hearing this news!)

I’ve written about Greenlandic music in detail elsewhere on this blog, have a read about it here and expect your life to be changed completely.

 

 

How to Do Polyglot Karaoke, Even If There are Only English-Language Songs in the Catalogue

I’ve performed Karaoke songs in a total of thirteen languages to date, not only have I done languages like German and Swedish but also Breton and Greenlandic. In an era in which English-language songs seem to be taking over everywhere, how do I do it?

This piece has been requested for a long time no one has ever written a piece on this before, so I’m going to relate my procedure as best I can.

For one, let me detail the variety of karaoke events I’ve been to thus far in my life:

  • The ones that take place in a bar with many people that sign up and take turns. (In some Chinese ones, you also pay one dollar per song).
  • The room that you rent with your friends, and
  • The living room variety in which you and your friends scramble for what you can find on YouTube or other video services.

For (3), the process in singing songs in other languages can be fairly straightforward. Find songs in your target language that you know happen to exist in Karaoke versions and just sing away (given that I’ve never heard a Breton-language cover song, this is how I got that language on the list).

For (1) and (2), as I already mentioned, you’ll usually need to rely on foreign-language covers of English songs, although you may be lucky and find songs in western European and East Asian Languages in your catalogue (e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). This is particularly common in establishments in international cities owned by people from Latin America or East Asia.

If you are in another country, you will usually expect to find hit songs not only in that country’s language(s) but also in the languages of nearby countries. (One example that is hardly surprising is that Swedish songs can be found in many Finnish karaoke establishments. I have a vague memory of Polish ones having some German- and Russian-language songs as well, and had I been more astute at the time I might have noticed ones from other Slavic-speaking countries as well, such as Czechia or Ukraine.)

You can use your smartphone in order to have the lyrics on reference, or otherwise you can memorize them beforehand if you’re feeling committed.

So, where do I find foreign-language cover songs?

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

Ah, yes, these have been covered in a vast host of languages, almost all Asian and European (although The Lion King was dubbed in Zulu and Moana / Vaiana was dubbed in Tahitian with a Maori dub on the way). What’s more, these covers are due to the official localization efforts of the Disney Corporation.

You can find many of the lyrics for these versions available online, and even if you can’t find them on lyric websites, you could find them in videos (in which the localized language in subtitled) and then you can type them out and post them online or just e-mail them to yourself.

These are usually by go-to songs in multilingual karaoke, although there are some things to know about:

 

  • Some songs require very fast-paced singing or chanting (“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, “You’re Welcome” from Moana / Vaiana). Unless you’re okay with messing up in front of other people, rehearse these beforehand. Obviously the better you know the language the more readily you’ll be able to use it quickly.
  • Some languages are “latecomers” to the Disney localization game (the Baltic languages [Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian] as well as Vietnamese come to mind). Interestingly many of the Nordic dubs (and some from former communist countries such as Hungary) were actually done in the 1990’s. Interestingly while the voice of Bianca the The Rescuers was a native Hungarian speaker (Eva Gabor), she could not actually voice the character in the Hungarian localization because she was deceased by the time it was in production. Some of the localization collections cover the whole collection of Disney films (even Icelandic, oddly enough) others start from a certain point (I think the Baltic Languages were from 2010 onwards).

 

  • YouTube / iTunes Store Fiddling Can Actually Turn Up Some Interesting Song Covers Across Many Languages

 

Yesterday I purchased a Burmese music album (10 USD for 101 songs, that is NOT a typo!). Across that album (entitled “Greatest Hits”), I encountered past Eurovision Songs, Britney Spears, “You Raise Me Up”, and ABBA…in BURMESE.

I’ve come across a number of very surprising covers, including Chris Brown in Tok Pisin, “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a host of languages, and “You Raise Me Up” in GREENLANDIC:

 

 

There’s seldom a chance that typing in “covers in (INSERT LANGUAGE HERE)” is actually going to turn up meaningful results. You’ll just have to play around with recommended videos, playlists and what-have-you until something interesting comes to you. When I bought that Burmese album, did you think I was getting a bunch of cover songs? Well, it was in the iTunes store, but I don’t have the time to listen to 101 song previews and I hadn’t purchased any new music since early July.

This is one way that the fact that English songs are “taking over the world” can be used to your advantage: you can find fan-covers and fan-translations of a lot of these online. Sometimes you may encounter “singable translations” via lyricstranslate.com or even find them in YouTube Comments(!) And this time, you have many, MANY more languages represented.

Also, one thing I should mention is that a lot of English-language pop songs are commonly translated with singable versions into Irish, which probably has among the richest collection of cover songs out of any market out there (except for maybe Myanmar or other East Asian countries that, as of the time of writing, I don’t know a lot about).

 

 

A lot of these Irish songs also come with full lyrics and English-language translations of these Irish-versions.

 

Other Comments

 

You’re probably wondering, “won’t people think I’m a weirdo for doing this?”

Well, let me tell you, in the United States, I’ve got NOTHING but positive reactions from doing this (from the audience, at least). Some organizers have had mixed reactions but nothing wholly negative (one encouraged me to “sing in Klingon next time”)

I’ve even got some prospective students and friendships out of it, not also to the mention the time I was stopped by a stranger in a bar saying that he saw me sing the Lion King in Icelandic…five months ago! (I do an awful job at being forgettable…)

And, of course, if you’re together with your polyglot friends, you’re with people who think like you, so what more is there to want?

Also, people are not going to be judgmental about your accent, even if you encounter native speakers of the language (happened once when I sung a Polish song), you’ll actually get more enthusiasm from THEM than from anyone else out there.

One of my big life lessons from a few years ago was that “different always does better in the store”. In the store of life, as long as you abide by the social contract, being different and doing it differently will only do you wonders.

Happy singing!

How Long Does It Take You to Learn a New Language?

 STA_4339

Yes! The question that I hear on a daily basis finally gets to be addressed!

For one, let me begin by saying this: often I get asked this question point-blank, as if most people do not realize that languages that differ from those you already know actually take more time to learn.

What I usually say in one sentence is: “it depends. I learned Solomon Islands Pijin to a conversational level in nearly two weeks. There are those languages, like Greenlandic and Cornish, that I’ve been struggling with for YEARS and while I can speak them to various degrees, I wouldn’t really call myself consistently fluent.”

The short answer is that there are just too many factors to list in how much time goes into a new project, and further complicated by the fact that people measure timelines for skill acquisition in years rather than hours (Benny Lewis wrote on this topic, so I should definitely give him credit).

You’ve probably all heard it before from people with self-defeating excuses. “I’ve studied language X for Y years, and I still can’t speak any of it”. I can guarantee you that if you were quantifying your studies in hours rather than in vaguely defined “years”, you would see where the issue lies.

I have NEVER heard: “I’ve put Y hours into language X, and I’m still struggling with it”

Interestingly, in my case that statement has somewhat been true with Greenlandic, but obviously I think that it has to do with my study methods (as well as the handicaps that come in place by speaking an extremely rare language that is related by family ties to no other language that I know well).

If I were to look at the YEARS I’ve put into it, some assorted timelines would be like this:

 

Hebrew (Modern): January 2009 – Present

Yiddish: August 2008 – Present

Spanish: August 2003 – November 2015 (when I got Lyme Disease) revived July 2016 – Present

Finnish: April 2013 – Present

Cornish: December 2014 – Present

Lao: August 2017 – Present

Solomon Islands Pijin: April 2016 – Present

Faroese: July 2014 – November 2015 + March 2017 – August 2017 (currently paused)

 

If the sheer amount of time I “put” into the language in terms of YEARS would indicate how well I spoke the language, Spanish would be my second-best language and Lao my weakest. But it actually isn’t the case (I have neglected Faroese to the degree that my very meager Lao is now better than it…)

Does more time help? Most definitely, but also the quality of time put into it is more helpful. My three weeks in the Yiddish Farm program did more for my Yiddish abilities than anything I did in high school did for Spanish.

I’m not saying anything new when I’m saying the following: (1) measure your progress in hours, not years and (2) measure the quality of those hours (the more ACTIVELY engaged you are, the more results you’ll see). Benny Lewis has said very much of the same thing.

But you’re probably come for something else, namely “how long will it take me to get fluent?”

And, in a pure sense, I can’t answer that question, despite the fact that I get it asked so often (or perhaps because of it).

The more time you put into it, the sooner you’ll expect results. So one thing I would recommend is set aside about 30 minutes every day for 1-2 languages you’d like to get better at and you’ll start to see results build up. This is not something I learned just from Olly Richards but also from my parents who wanted me to practice piano every day for 30 minutes as a kid (except on Shabbat).

It also depends on more factors, such as what sort of other jobs you have or whether you have a family to attend to in any capacity (not also to mention other languages you may need to maintain on the side).

And, of course, those related to languages you already know will come more easily to you.

Solomon Islands Pijin is very close to English but Cornish is not, so I was capable of “breezing” through one of them and not the other. Could I have learned Cornish to conversational fluency in two weeks? Maybe if I did absolutely nothing else aside from what was required of me to keep living or if I was on an extremely relaxing vacation and had more than an hour to spare to the task every day…the idea of Daniel Tammet learning Icelandic in a week isn’t far-fetched to me in the slightest (and if I knew the in-depth methods of his study, it would probably be even less surprising).

Another thing I haven’t really touched on is the fact that people learn differently. 30 hours of total study may bring various different personalities to different levels.

 

So Jared, HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME?

 

(Because I know how much people really, REALLY hate overcomplicated answers…)

For a language closely related to one you know, if you devote 30 minutes to an hour every day for three months, you’ll be able to have small talk conversational about your life. For a different one, if you do the same, probably expect about four-to-five months. If the language you are learning uses a new alphabet, it make take you another two weeks to fully master it in all of its forms, or a month if it is hellishly complicated (although there are some people who may be okay with being “illiterate” on the short-term or even the long-term. After all, even nowadays I’ve met people who can’t write in their native language but can write in other languages!)

Then there is the issue for a language being EXTREMELY closely related to one you already know, in which case two weeks or even ONE WEEK would suffix. (English and Spanish aren’t as closely related as Danish and Norwegian are, to give you an idea).

And then of course there is another issue (as what happened with Cornish during…well, almost all of the time I’ve been “studying” it) in which you can’t make the full time commitments or big pauses cause you to forget things. Remember: the more you falter in your commitments, the more “days” you’ll need to catch up.

But can you really commit yourself to thirty minutes every day? I’ve encountered so many acquaintances that usually get stuck in the beginner or the intermediate plateau for a very long time. Often this happens because of being stuck to a set of materials without diversifying fully into the great spectrum of usages that a native speaker would have. (Imagine: if there was one person learning a language from three learning-books and another one learning it from those same books and also TV shows, music, and conversational opportunities, which one would have the advantage?)

I have a feeling that people who read my musings are determined people indeed. You’ll be fluent in your dream language before you know it!

Go! Go! Go!

Wesleyan University: A Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, enough about me, more about college:

What did Wesleyan make possible for me?

 

  • The Kaleidoscope of Truth

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

  • The Value of Exploration

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

  • To Embrace a Quirky Personality While Maintaining a Social Contract

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wes U

Happy Birthday, Rasmus Lyberth!

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

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

1. Siimuup Nipaa (Simon’s Voice)

2. Sooruna Oqarnak (Wedding)

3. Asallunga Oqaravit (Annette’s Song)

4. Innuneq Asaguk (Love Life)

5. Kuussuup Sinaani (The River)

6. Hey Hey

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

Happy birthday, Rasmus!