All About Solomon Islands Pijin, or How I Learned a Language in Two Weeks

Would you believe me if I told you that I became conversational in a language in nearly two weeks? It happened, actually, and it was during Passover 2016 when I was “vacationing” at my parents’ house.

The language I mastered during that “holiday season”, as it were, was Solomon Islands Pijin, which is unique among the languages I speak by virtue of the fact that it was, until VERY recently, almost entirely a spoken language!

Yes, there are translations of the Bible into Pijin, but what really brought about a “writing revolution” in the Solomons was actually the advent of mobile phones.

(Something you should know about mobile phones in the developing world, and I saw this when I was in rural Myanmar as well: they are a LOT more common than you think they are! This is true even among very poor people).

You’re probably here wondering “Jared, why are you writing about this topic today rather than, let’s say, any other day?”

Well, you’ve probably guessed the pattern by now…today is July 7th, the Independence Day of the Solomon Islands—home to a culture of forward-looking and friendly people who also have been responsible for some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my life.

You’ve gotten this far and you probably want to know what Solomon Islands Pijin is. So let’s treat you to a sample, shall we?

Iso an Jekob

Okay, as an English-speaker you probably recognize a significant amount of words, but are probably genuinely confused with the most common words.

You’re probably wondering, “what is this and why does it exist?”

Well, allow me to share the story with you:

When British Colonizers came to Australia and Fiji, they set up plantations and then proceeded to “blackbird” locals from the nearby areas to work at the plantation. Blackbirding did involve forced kidnapping and other morally questionable methods (although there were instances of fair work being involved).

So you have people from a variety of areas—namely, Australia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands—and they’re speaking a huge host of languages with each other but, for the sake of working for English-speakers, they need to find a way to communicate both with themselves and with their colonial masters.

Enter the Pidgin Languages, later to become creoles.

The variety of English that was created as a result of these plantation experiences was a Pidgin English, one that was used to communicate between the locals and the British who ran the plantations.

However, given as there was no formal language training for the workers, they made significant shortcuts in order to learn how to communicate as quickly as possible (you can probably guess from this that Creole Languages can be mastered in a very short time in comparison to other languages!)

The pidgins thereby developed were noted by the British as being highly efficient, although no doubt they were made fun of by English speakers very frequently (and, in some cases even today, continue to be).

Now the story continues with the pidgins turning into creoles.

The primary difference between a pidgin language and a creole language is that a creole is a pidgin that has acquired enough vocabulary to be someone’s native tongue. A pidgin language is just a fusion of various languages, usually with a base in a European tongue (Portuguese, French and English are the most common for creole languages) used to communicate, but its vocabulary does not have to be extensive the way a creole does.

Even so, creole languages usually have significantly smaller comprehensive vocabularies than many other languages (again, efficiency).

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Solomon Islands?

So when the plantations ceased to be, the various workers often found their way back home. But as a result of the experience in the plantations in which various ethnicities that had not been in contact with each other developed a means to talk with each other as a result of the pidgin, that language followed them home.

Not only that, it also transformed into creole languages and became widespread enough in places like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Torres Strait in order to become the primary method of communication in those countries.

This also became important because it enabled these countries to develop linguistic identities that were separate from European powers. This is the reason that Vanuatu’s national anthem is actually the only in the world that is written in an English Creole Language. Sandwiched between British and French influence and constantly pressured to “choose teams”, the Ni-Vanuatu national movement opted for its own team…namely, Bislama, one of the “children” of the plantation creoles.

So that you know, Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Bislama in Vanuatu, Pijin in the Solomon Islands and Torres Strait Creole are siblings. There are also related creoles spoken by some aboriginal communities in mainland Australia, although they diverge from these four more substantially.

It makes sense, because barely a few centuries ago these were actually all the same language! But as a result of varying factors (due to [1] what local languages contributed to the creole spoken there and [2] which European powers exerted more influence), these languages are different.

Bislama has French loan words, Tok Pisin has German loan words, and Solomon Islands Pijin is comparatively lacking in both of these.

 

Okay, Why Should I Care? Are You Going to Tell me a Reason (or four) that I should learn it?

 

Yes, indeed!

For one, the Melanesian Creoles (that I’m not listing again for the umpteenth time) are very similar. Given that I studied Tok Pisin before studying Pijin it is no surprise that I became conversational, if not fluent, in record time.

Yes, there are differences, especially with the Pijin-trademarked question word, “waswe”, which goes at the beginning of sentences (probably a fusion of “which-what-where”, if you ask me). It also serves as a “why?” or a “what if?” or a “is it really?” or “do you think so?”. Pijin also relies more heavily on the f sound which does not appear as frequently in Tok Pisin (and a lot of Tok Pisin I’ve heard actually excludes it with noteworthy frequency).

Pijin and Bislama are sometimes even believed to be dialects of the same language (and some would even include Tok Pisin in this dynamic). No doubt they were, once upon a time, but I think that there are enough differences between them to actually separate them as genuine linguistic entities but that essay is a story for another time (or you could ask me in the comments!)

Pijin is an excellent moral choice for your next language, given that a lot of the struggles concerning countries that many people in the world don’t think about (as well as the developing country’s choice whether or not to partner up with developed countries for the sake of resource harvesting or economic development) will give you a truer insight into where the planet stands and where we should go from here.

What’s more, given that English is an official language of the Solomon Islands and is used in business writing as well as in the country’s national anthem, a lot of prospective language learners tend to overlook Pijin. This leaves the Pijin learners primarily in two camps (with exceptions like myself): (1) missionaries and (2) Peace Corps folks.

Your language choice can be morally motivated and it can make you a mini-ambassador for the countries and cultures that you may not represent on your passport but do represent in regards to which cultures you “tip your hat to”. We need more people who can share stories and cultural narratives from all over the world, rather than from the world’s most powerful states. And with Pijin’s similarity to English, you can become that ambassador in no time! (well…in some time…)

Solomon music is also the best I’ve heard from the developing world, period. Sharzy has become an international icon of sorts, and his music may seem uncannily familiar to you. What’s more, if you speak English, especially as a native language, you’ll be surprised how many Pijin songs you may come to understand with a few days’ practice, sometimes so well that you may even think yourself capable of transcribing them!

 

 

There are also a number of resources you can use to improve your understanding of Pijin (and your speaking of Pijin if you choose to “shadow” [repeat after the narrator bit-by-bit]). A lot of religious material for Christians has been published (and you know that “The Jesus Film”, which has been dubbed into over 1,000 languages [not a typo!] is probably going to get an article on this blog one of these days). While I am not Christian myself, I find this material helpful for understanding not only the processes of missionaries (then as well as now) but also concerning how Christianity is perceived and practiced in places like the Solomon Islands.

And another song just because I feel like it:

Another slice of videos you can watch include informational videos about diseases, economic development, science (especially environmental science) and more! Many of these are localized into Solomon Islands Pijin by organizations from Australia and beyond!

I bet “watch Claymation films in Solomon Islands Pijin” was probably not on your to-do list for today, but here this is anyhow:

Yes, there is radio and you can learn a lot about the many cultures of the Solomon Islands by listening to it, but be aware of the fact that, especially in Honiara (the capital) a lot of English is interspersed between Pijin, so you’ll get an “on-off” feeling at times. But even when Solomon Islanders speak English, you’ll be able to hone your pronunciation and may even learn how to speak English the way they do in Solomon!

A lot of ads and other programming are also available and Pijin and you’ll sometimes listen to them quite frequently on the radio! I’ve also heard fantastic things about Pijin-language storytelling (a true art in the Solomon Islands and in all of Melanesia in general), but I’ve had trouble finding links to Pijin stories so if you know of any, let me know!

Lastly, you can actually help! Pijin Wikipedia may happen if you contribute a handful of articles! Have a look at the progress here! (I think if a Wikipedia incubator reaches 50 articles, it gets launched! Maybe I should just write the remaining ones and get it over with as a “birthday present” to the country. Or maybe I have too many other classes to teach today…)

https://incubator.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wp/pis

Anyhow, after listening to all of the songs, watching the films, and having a good dosage of written Pijin, perhaps it doesn’t surprise you that I learned this language well enough to speak it convincingly within two weeks…or does it?

Happy Birthday, Solomon Islands!

solomon

 

“With All Due Respect, I Just Don’t Believe It” – How to Handle Skeptics

Today I’m going to address what is probably the highest quality problem a polyglot could have: having people actually doubt your skills.

I’ll go ahead and begin with this: there are some languages that I speak very, very well (my list is at the top of this page). Then there are those that I still speak smidgets of. And, of course, those that fall in between this, not to mention those that I’d like to learn some day.

If you are one of those who is a skeptic of my skills, I will either invite you to talk to me about my language journey or even see me in “action” at a polyglot event or even on the streets of a city. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of which, I’ve been inspired by Moses McCormick’s “Level Up” missions and thought I should come to do something similar. For those unaware, Moses McCormick collects pieces of enough languages to actually make me look like a novice and interacts with native speakers, filming the results. The extended metaphor involves the acquisition of Experience Points common to Role-Playing Games.

Okay, so what’s the problem?

Imagine you go to a language exchange event with something like this:

come back when you can put up a fight

This is an abbreviated list.

Now, granted, you’ll encounter a lot of very shocked people. And reactions like these:

  • Why don’t you speak language X better?
  • Why don’t you speak language Y at all?
  • Why do you focus on “useless” languages?
  • What else do you do with your life aside from learning languages?
  • Why don’t you speak language of variety Z? (Up until the Myanmar mission, it was usually “I do not see any Asian Languages on here”, despite the fact that Hebrew is, technically speaking, an Asian language).
  • What’s your secret?
  • Can you say “thank you” in all of these, just to make sure that you’re real? (I can do this without any effort at all, actually)
  • How did you pick up every single one of these? (Each one has a different story. I used a lot of animated cartoons to learn Danish, but I literally couldn’t have done that with something like Breton. Living in the country obviously helped with Sweden, but as things stand going to Papua New Guinea to learn Tok Pisin is a non-option for me, so I had to “simulate” the immersive environment via technology…not too hard!)

 

And then a handful of those like this:

 

  • “There’s no way you’re telling the truth about that”.
  • “I just don’t believe you”

 

Thankfully, these skeptics are in the pure minority, and I usually encounter ones like that about once every two months or so.

And if you were to think that it was mostly on the Internet that I encountered folks like these, you’d be completely right.

And I usually don’t respond to them. After I make enough videos and collect enough interviews, there won’t be any more room for skepticism.

Here’s Why I Don’t Pay Attention to Hyperpolyglot Skepticism

 

  • I’m secure in my abilities

 

Here’s how I judge my fluency in non-Native languages and ensure that I’m “on the ball”.

I find videos of non-native English speakers of varying levels on television, etc. My goal, as things stand, is not to sound like a native in all of the languages I speak, but in my best ones I want to be able to speak as well as fluent speakers of English as a second language.

If I can translate everything that they are saying into a language and verbalize everything that they say using my vocabulary, then this means that I am in a good place. This means that my skill in that language is solid.

I realize that at this moment, I should not focus on “catching up” to native speakers. The native speaker of Hebrew or German or Finnish is going to have a permanent advantage over me. I may really like these languages, but Israelis or Germans or Finns have lived and breathed the culture for their whole lives. Unless I commit an ungodly amount of time to the task, I’m not catching up. But that’s okay.

Likewise, I have the advantage as a native English speaker over everyone who is not. I can use idiomatic expressions with more ease than … most native speakers of English, actually!

And this leads to another problem I’ll address on another day: the fact that my vocabulary in English is extremely sharp, and that sometimes I have to hold my vocabulary sets in my other languages to a lower standard. But that’s okay.

(Sometimes it’s even necessary. Bislama’s comprehensive vocabulary is 7000 words and nearly half of those are place names, leaving about 4000 words, which is nearly one-fourth the size of an English native speaker’s vocabulary. Keep in mind that comprehensive vocabulary means all known words in the language! Dutch’s comprehensive vocabulary, for the sake of comparison, is, if I recall correctly, around 400,000, among the largest on the planet).

 

  • Some insecure people want to make you feel bad about your choices. Ignore them.

 

I remember one time I encountered someone who spoke to me with an almost visceral hatred about the fact that I was “dabbling” in a lot of languages.

This person tried to say that it was wiser to invest very strongly in a handful rather than hop around.

But here’s one reason why I know I made the right choice: not only are skills transferable between languages (e.g. my Yiddish and Swedish and Icelandic vocabularies have very detectable crossover between them, and even Tok Pisin and Burmese and Vietnamese have grammatical elements in common!), but memory software is just going to get even better. The possibilities to increase your vocabulary size will be even more endless than before.

Take, for example, the fact that video games have causes some people to play them to develop very good reflexes (I can’t even remember the last time I dropped a glass or plate on the floor, actually). In comparison with soldiers that fought in the second world war, contemporary soldiers, thanks to using software and games, have developed reflexes that would have been considered superhuman a century ago!

What’s more, I know that learning a language is like watering a plant. The plant grows over time with enough care, and some plants grow more slowly than others. In that regard, I know that having thirty plants and watering them all slowly is going to be wiser on the very long term than having three plants that grow quickly.

I am very sure that the case for many languages places me on the winning side. Although if you chose to focus on a handful of languages instead, I respect that choice very much. After all, the maintenance involved on my end can be downright painful! And that pain isn’t for everyone, and neither might the reward from that pain be something that you even want…

 

  • I expect to make mistakes

I don’t advertise myself as someone who speaks a bajillion languages all perfectly, I advertise myself as someone who is solidly conversational in around 17-20.

I’ve heard solidly conversational English speakers in places like Iceland. They were very good and I was extremely impressed. Were they absolutely perfect or using the vocabulary of college graduates? No. But it wasn’t necessary.

Usually people forgive my mistakes, even stupid ones, by chalking up to the fact that being a hyperglot leads to confusion (although I’m constantly working on trying to decrease that confusion). Even speaking a few languages very well can also lead to confusion!

I am someone who chases new experiences with enthusiasm, and I expect there to be mistakes and I ditch perfectionism on the short term.

I look at language learning as a jigsaw puzzle. You assemble the frame (which is the basic structure on how a language words with its basic verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and the most common vocabulary) and then you assemble the rest of the puzzle by just arranging the pieces as noticing how they fit together based on the guide that you’ve seen. Here’s the key difference: putting together the language jigsaw puzzle never ends.

 

Conclusion

I’ve had people throughout my life that doubted my abilities. I’ve had people throughout my abilities that didn’t think that I was smart enough or didn’t think that my skills were well developed enough for a changing world. There were even those that tried to tell me that my religious upbringing during adolescence was like a permanent handicap!

And yes, there are those that tried to get me to doubt my commitment and my attachment to one of the greatest passions of my life, getting to experience the many tongues of the planet.

I’ve been a high achiever since I was a toddler. I’m used to this sort of resentment and I may feel some pang of despair or insecurity at times, but aside from that, I just know that, after enough demonstrations and enough hard work, I’ll be the winner.

And those that doubted me will be the ones having to apologize.

And really, if you have people doubting your skills, especially on the Internet, don’t pay attention to them. This is me telling you that your grand vision for your life deserves to be yours, and you need all of the encouragement and care required so that you can get it.

Onwards!

Some Encouraging Thoughts about Learning Swedish in Sweden

IMG_1297

Today is June 6th, now the National Day of Sweden, formerly known as the Day of the Swedish Flag. As to why that day in particular was chosen, you can read the story about it here.

And if you ever go to Stockholm, I highly recommend a visit to Skansen, which is one of the most genuine experiences you will ever have in your life, guaranteed. It sometimes feels like time travel, given that many of the shops there function exactly the way they did before the Industrial Revolution.

Anyhow, if you have an interest in learning Swedish, particularly for travel purposes, you’re going to encounter a lot of discouragement on the Internet, and this piece will serve as your “antidote”.

I’ve lived in Sweden for a year. I did not leave fluent (I acquired that mantle at around early 2014, when my polyglot visions all started to come together, and when I found myself practicing with encouraging and helpful native speakers very often). But it was a good start.

But chances are if you look around the Internet, you’ll encounter, you guess it, horror stories, the same way I did with learning Danish and Icelandic. Stories from The Local (a newspaper that has English-Language editions in several countries, including Sweden and Denmark) about how “my Swedish spouse won’t talk Swedish to me, she only uses English even though I’ve asked her thousands of times to not use it” and about “why bother, given as I’ve only been answered in English?”.

(Hey, I know I’ve been repeating myself but you have NO IDEA how many hits posts like these get!)

Anyhow, as I detailed when writing about Myanmar, it was actually easier to get answered in Swedish in Sweden than it was to get answered in Burmese in Myanmar (this is taking my appearance as someone who does not look Asian into account). This was despite the fact that Sweden has among the highest rates of English proficiency in the world and Myanmar has 5% of its population as fluent English speakers.

Anyhow…

Reasons Why Learning Swedish in Sweden is a Good Idea

I was told beforehand that learning Swedish just wasn’t necessary. And then my luggage got misplaced at the airport and I couldn’t even pronounce the name of my address. I couldn’t pronounce the street names. I couldn’t even pronounce the names of businesses.

Then my housemates and I went on a shopping tour to buy things for the house (I was in the Paideia Program in Sweden). Thinking that not knowing Swedish wouldn’t be a problem, we encountered several staff members at that store who responded to our English in Swedish.

And then there was another store near Östermalmstorg (a town square near where I went to classes) in which the same thing happened to me.

(My understanding is that they might have been immigrants that underwent Swedish-language immersion beforehand to the exclusion of learning any English at all, or possibly might have learned Swedish from their environment much like I was doing in the early stages).

And to top it all off, the apartment I was in was owned by the Jewish community and we had to follow the guidelines for keeping a kosher home that were written in Swedish and seldom translated into English! (Only a few paragraphs from the guide, if I recall correctly)

Keep in mind: this was before I learned about polyglot cultures, language hacking, or before smartphones were invented. This was before I had access to any decent programs that would help me learn languages (although I would pick them up in the next few months after the events I described).

So…I was going to learn Swedish but…I had no real clue about how I would go about doing it.

The only real thing I had was the phrasebook sections in my guidebook.

I struggled. I got answered in English quite often, but sooner or later it happened a lot less often. Sometimes I encountered the occasional Swedish native speaker that would feel threatened by my level of Swedish and sometimes not-so-subtlely ignored me, treated me not very nicely, or outright refused to use Swedish with me (sometimes this still happens to me, oddly enough, although the overwhelming majority is appreciative!)

I know the feeling as well. I’ve encountered some people who have spoken English to me with virtually no trace of any accent (these have only been a handful, and keep in mind that my ear for accents is very, very sharp, especially as concerns Nordic languages). I felt a little bit threatened too, to be honest. Can’t blame others for feeling the same way.

But anyhow, enough complaining, more about advice about how to make the most of your venture.

  • Sweden is full of people from various backgrounds that all come to the country and learn to speak Swedish. Like Americans, Swedes are more used to hearing their language spoken in foreign accents than people of other nationalities may be.

 

“You pretty much have to talk like a native otherwise they’re going to answer you in English”.

WRONG!

Get good pronunciation, no doubt, especially as concerns the letter “a”, which is pronounced differently when stressed than when unstressed (I spent ten minutes trying to think of English equivalents and between the dissimilarity between English dialects I can’t think  of anything suitable to illustrate the difference. “Ja” = yes = stressed, the a’s in “fattar” (understands) is unstressed.

But don’t feel that you’re under extraordinary pressure to be perfect. They may hear an accent (when I wasn’t fluent yet, I was placed in either Germany or Finland most of the time), but just because they hear an accent doesn’t mean it is English-only city for you.

 

  • Use your smartphone to your advantage

If you know what you want for breakfast, check it up on Google Translate or, better yet, go to en.wikipedia.org, look for the item you want, and then change the article language to Swedish. If you do the latter, look at the article and notice how the word pluralizes (if you haven’t gotten the hang of the flavors of the Swedish plural form yet).

If you don’t have coverage, make sure to download the Swedish language packet on the Google Translate app so that you can use it even when offline. It may not be perfect, but thanks to the fact that there are a lot of Swedish speakers in the Google Translate online community, your luck is better with Swedish than it is with something like Irish or Burmese.

Simple phrases will, more often than not, work.

For an app with very good simple phrases that will be useful in travel, I recommend the Transparent Language app that can come with many US library accounts (I don’t know if it is available outside of the US, however). For more information on how to find a library that supports the service, write a comment and I’ll help you. All of these phrases are accompanied by native speaker audio.

Mango Languages is also good for getting the hang of simple conversations that will be useful on a daily basis. It, too, is available through libraries.

 

  • If you have Swedish-speaking friends, even if you primarily use English (or another language) with them, get their help! 

One of my best friends in Stockholm was a priest in the church of Sweden. Being a Swedish teacher himself, he really helped me with irregular verbs as well as assisting me with commonly mixed-up words. He helped me have my first-ever conversation in Swedish!

Even the Hebrew teacher in Paideia, who picked up Swedish later on in life, helped me as well! So you can enlist the help of your Swedish-speaking friends even though not all of them may be native speakers!

Swedish language enthusiasm is a very contagious bug (as is Swedish-culture enthusiasm, must I add). Those who get addicted get in for life. Swedish people lecture foreigners about Sweden and the Swedish language all of the time. (Admit it!) So if you have friends who have been affected, they’re going to affect you too!

And my, my, is Swedish a useful skill to have! Especially in Internet comment sections 😛

 

  • If you get answered in English and know what to say next, just continue in Swedish as if nothing happened.

I actually learned this trick from watching my monoglot family members interact with people who don’t speak English, as well as other people like the shopkeepers I mentioned above (who didn’t speak English).

Keep in mind that, in some places, native speakers get mistaken for tourists at times (I’ve heard multiple stories about this happening in the Netherlands). If you know what to say next in order to ask for directions or order food, then say it. If you don’t use English you’ll give no one any pretense to answer back in English.

But keep in mind: if you are in the company of Swedish-speakers and English-speakers, use English unless necessary so as not to come off as rude. Swedes are more sensitive towards that sense of exclusion than members of other nationalities (or so I feel).

I’ve had times when I’ve just kept using Swedish after accidentally hesitating (and getting responded to in English) and then it just continues in Swedish as if nothing happened.

  • Don’t dwell on mistakes

You aren’t your mistakes. Your mistakes are like the various blows of a hammer that mold you into what you are about to become.

IMG_0275

And this will soon become the sigil of your success resulting forthwith!

  • Use filler words and make your sentences longer than normal.

You don’t actually want to sound like a phrasebook, you want to sound like a native speaker (or close to it). But the phrasebook stuff actually serves as a “springboard” to sounding like a native speaker.

As a result, I’ll direct you to my article here, which is valid for learning how to avoid being answered in English anywhere (taking into account that I’ve had most of my language immersion in European countries as of 2014).

  • Realize that Swedish People are, on the Whole, Supportive and Want you to Learn Their Language

Swedish pride is very strong. Like with other cultures, Swedish culture rewards those who have an active interest in it. You will make new friends, you will get complimented, you will be treated with awe and respect if you master conversational Swedish.

But the road to that can be difficult, but here’s the thing: looking back, picking up Swedish wasn’t too difficult in comparison to having picked up many other languages. And looking back, Sweden had among the most encouraging native speakers I’ve encountered anywhere, especially among its younger generations.

Was my immersion journey in Sweden hard? Yes

Would immersion journeys be hard anywhere else? You bet.

Did I leave Sweden fluent? No.

If I came back there, would I avoid English the entire time? Of course I would.

And when I would come back, I would remember that the last time I was there, in 2013, I was struggling an awful lot, and realizing that that fulfillment from having come a long way…could also be yours, be it with Swedish or any other language.

You’ve got an exciting journey ahead!

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Uppsala, complete with a very Swedish indeed truck in the backgrond.

My Journey Through the Danish Language and How It Changed Me Forever

dansk i graekenland

We sure did!

It’s Danish Constitution Day, and I thought it would be a good idea to write something of a different flavor in honor of this (quasi) national day.

I began studying Danish in 2013. Being a novice polyglot at the time, I turned to the Internet for advice and virtually none of it was encouraging and even less of it was encouraging about the prospects of a foreigner learning Danish. And even less of that for a foreigner whose native language was English.

Being honest: when I heard the Danish language for the first time, I was not too enchanted by it. I thought it would be something I would “pass” on, in favor of Swedish and Norwegian.

This was in addition to the fact that I was heavily intimidated by the prospect of the pronunciation of the language, in which, as I like to tell my friends and students, “half of the language is not pronounced”.

I’ll pass, I thought, although sometimes, even then, I was feeling masochistic and I would try watching some things in Danish on the Internet and see how little I would understand.

And then in encountering Danish people in my travels (and Danes travel a LOT!), somehow I was enchanted by the mentality, the accent, the culture, and a dozen other factors I still can’t articulate. (And “in my travels” I mean “on the plane on the way back from Sweden to the United States”).

I already had a significant amount of Norwegian under my belt, although I wasn’t fluent yet (that would come in due course, however). One reason this was important was that I didn’t really need to learn Danish from word lists and books the way that I had with Norwegian and Swedish previously.

(Note to those unaware: Danish and Norwegian are very, very close in their written forms, a handful of times I’ve speed-read a Facebook post and didn’t even know which of the two it was until I chanced upon one of the orthography differences. I’ll give you one such difference: the –tion at the ending of international words is kept in Danish but transformed to –sjon in Norwegian. This is also a sign that I may be speed reading too quickly.)

As a result of having my Norwegian experience, I could immerse myself in Danish freely, while keeping track of (1) differences I encountered in the writing systems, (2) differences I encountered in word choice (“måske” in Danish means “maybe”, but a Norwegian speaker would opt for “kanskje”) and (3) the way certain Norwegian words that I could recognize became changed when pronounced through Danish (pronouncing “v” as something like an English “u” sound is something that some Indo-European languages do, Ukrainian, Slovak and Latin as taught in some classics departments have something like this as well. Danish does this with regularity as well).

Thanks to me sight-reading food labels in Sweden (which are commonly translated into Finnish and / or Danish), I recognized a lot of words and orthography patterns before I even started.

Given how different the pronunciation was from any other language I had encountered, I thought that immersion was the only way to even get a decent Danish accent (and by “accent” I mean “ability to actually pronounce the words in a way that is even half-way normal for a native speaker of the language”). I was so right about that.

Now, let’s pivot back to the discouragement.

The idea that there were so many expatriates online that struggled, that said that Danes demanded that they spoke English instead, that they got told off by locals that there was “no point” to learning the language, and dozens of other horror stories.

(Granted, this happened only once or twice to me in Sweden, interestingly, and usually once I brought up the fact that I had to know the language for heritage reasons [reading the letters from my deceased family members] this usually made people [somewhat shamefully] retreat from the idea that Swedish was or is “useless”).

Thanks to these stories, I was under this impression that my pronunciation had to be nigh-perfect, otherwise I would get laughed at and made fun of.

Thanks to these stories, I also was feeling more masochistic, the idea that I should take on a hopeless project, and even if I didn’t succeed, write about it someday.

I just kept going. Kept imitating the people on the screen, kept looking at phrasebooks to get good pronunciation tips, kept reading and realizing that Danish wasn’t nearly as hard as the Internet (or I) had imagined it to be.

Sooner or later, the slurring and the glottal stop actually became normal for me.

In Greece as well as in Germany I encountered non-native speakers of Danish who picked it up from their friends or living in Danish-speaking areas. This was a huge boost to my confidence (although a lot of them said that they were in the minority but…yeah, people who pick up the local language in places that are not English-speaking countries tend to be the minority anyhow.)

And then, later on, I actually encountered native Danish speakers who were actually not only not making fun of me but actually conversing with me like a normal person! And actually complimenting my efforts! And only in this past year have I been told that my Danish was “fantastic” and “unbelievably impressive!” J

 

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A victory pose, if e’er there was.

What’s the big lesson of all of this? Apparently it was the Internet horror stories that emboldened me, rather than turned me away (as what also happened with my journey to Iceland in 2015).

The various people who would “hate” me for speaking their language I never ended up encountering. The people who would belittle my attempts I didn’t cross path with (okay, there was that one time, but it wasn’t a native speaker).

SIMPLY PUT: I IMAGINED IT.

However, the legends of “Danish being harder to learn than Chinese” did help me in one regard: they caused me to put a lot of ungodly time into exposing myself to the language, and, as I tell my students, the more you invest in a language, the sooner you can get fluent and feel a full member of the culture!

2014 was the year I had my first conversations in Danish, and I deem it no coincidence that having acquired Danish led me on a road to my polyglot awakening. Simply put, I put pessimism in its place, and my willpower and desire to succeed and turned it away.

Granted, I still have a while yet to go. Sometimes my mom encouraged me during my Myanmar trip to “practice with the Burmese people at the hotel” and sometimes I was too paralyzed with fear of judgment in order to do it. Sometimes I still have that paralysis in talking to native speakers of even my best languages, worried that somehow I’ll slip up for that my nervousness will get the better of me, or that I have to live up to a Michael Jordan-like reputation that I honestly don’t think I deserve.

But one day, I know, these fears will go the way of the ones that I had imagined along this journey I had described.

And this is Jared Gimbel, telling you that your fears, whatever they are, will disappear soon in due time.

I’m here to help.

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Don’t worry, be happy

8 Important Lessons I Learned Speaking Elementary Burmese in Myanmar for 2 ½ Weeks

My goal: learn Burmese well enough to get by. Did I succeed? Yes I did! Did I leave fluent in Burmese and being able to talk about philosophy and politics? No, but that’s okay.

More importantly, I did pick up some very important lessons.

Shortly before taking off, I got a message from one of my friends who is a native speaker of another East Asian Language, saying “now we’ll see how our Western polyglot fares with our Eastern languages!”

(Full disclosure: my only other Asian Language up until that point was Hebrew. Even then, there are those that would consider the languages of the Middle East, Central Asia or even most Indo-Aryan Languages as “Western”)

Burmese was VERY different from every other language I’ve studied (although interesting it had grammatical similarities to the Melanesian Creoles like Tok Pisin [of all things], which gave me an advantage, as well as odd similarities to many other languages I can speak as well). It was a challenge. Obviously I would have fared better with languages more similar to those I knew already, but it is what it is and I’m glad that I did it.

 

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Victory. Is my Destiny.

 

It seems that, after this enchanting experience, I’m likely to want to pick up more languages from outside Europe in the future. That is…if I could even manage the whole maintenance thing or have the heart to actually abandon some of my previous languages…

Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!

 

  1. Just because English isn’t widely spoken where you are, doesn’t mean that your chances of being answered in English are any lower. Actually, you’re probably MORE likely to get answered in English in such a country!

 

“Burmese people speak terrible English”. That’s what I read once on a Swedish-language travel site. Part of me was surprised (former British colony? Bad English? Really?), part of me wasn’t (all that isolation is probably responsible for that). But I thought, “I don’t need to worry about getting answered in English at all! Yippi”

WRONG!

Actually, looking at it neutrally (and this is taking into account the fact that I am a white person who would, under almost all circumstances, not be mistaken for a Myanmar local), I got answered in English more frequently in Myanmar than in SWEDEN.

(And, looking back on in, Sweden wasn’t really all that bad in that regard, unless I hesitated / made a grievous grammar mistake / did something very un-Swedish. Even with my English-speaking family members nearby and even when I handed the cashier my American passport at Systembolaget, I still got answered in Swedish!)

I did encounter fluent English speakers in Myanmar, but only near high-end places in Yangon (and these were the richest areas of the whole country).

With most Burmese (including these fluent speakers as well as those what spoke elementary English), it seems that they wanted to prove that they knew English (to whatever degree they did). In a place like Sweden or Iceland, with heaps of hackneyed articles being written on why they speak English so well, it seems that most feel no need to prove it.

In Italy and in France (back when my Italian and French was even worse than my Burmese was when I took off), the situation was very comparable to that of Myanmar, with the English of the locals usually being a lot higher than most areas of East Asia.

That said, all hope is not lost, because…

 

  1. With the exception of places where global / popular languages are spoken, few foreigners will even attempt the local language. This, already, makes you stand out.

 

In Myanmar, it is common for local to greet tourists with “Mingalarbar”(မင်္ဂလာပါ).

Some tourists respond in kind (and only once did I hear a group of tourists profess any knowledge of Burmese beyond that, my only interaction with expatriates [who , according to my knowledge, spoke Burmese about as well as I did], was at the “Myanmar Shalom” Expatriate Shabbat. Yes, there are Jews living in Myanmar! More on that some other day.)

But I noticed something whenever I would interact with restaurant staff or locals on the street and there were other tourists nearby. Often they would stare at me with amazement. Locals would also react differently to me, even though I was travelling with people who didn’t even know a lick of Burmese. Even if I had trouble understanding what was spoken back to me, or even if I got answered in English, I still got complimented very heavily.

In Iceland, I also had a very similar reception as well when I spoke Icelandic to locals. This is what knowing the local language does (even if you speak a little bit, which would mean “I can order food in this language and ask how much things costs or ask for directions”). It gives you an aura of enchantment that those who don’t make the attempt and even those who have been speaking the language since birth. This is even truer with languages that are more rarely studied.

 

  1. Your Skills Fluctuate as a result of Travel, as well as of the Learning Process

 

At some points during my Myanmar trip, I was “on a roll”, I was getting all of the tones right, I was not making pronunciation errors, no hesitation and sometimes didn’t even need to peek in my books for a vocabulary refresher!

Sometimes I was too tired and “wasn’t feeling up to it”, and therefore wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic, able or confident. But interestingly, if I had to interact in a language I was consistently good with (like those that I teach), I wouldn’t have had an issue even if I was tired or sick or being eaten by bugs (this didn’t happen to me, thankfully).

Only once or twice was I so “out of it” that I defaulted to English.

But only a few hours later did I use my Burmese skills that actually resulted in me getting free water bottles! (This was at Shwedagon Pagoda, no less!)

You are learning. Until you are consistently good, your skills are going to fluctuate wildly. And even with your native language, your ability to apply grammar or come up with meaningful expressions is going to fluctuate (to a lesser degree). And this is true even if you are a monoglot who only speaks your native language.

 

  1. Use What Resources You Have. Obviously for Less Politically Powerful Languages, You’ll Have Less. But Take Your Disadvantages into Account in the Learning Process.

 

I looked at the Google Translate App in frustration, wondering why on earth I wasn’t able to download the Myanmar / Burmese translation package (the way I was capable of doing with Icelandic).

If I were headed to somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, I would have had my work cut out for me more easily, with more books, more tips and more technological resources to deploy.

My books for learning Burmese, however, weren’t nothing (and I had two that I carried on my person at all times).

One thing I learned to do within the first few days was keep a ready mental note to use the index if I saw a certain situation was coming up. For the Lonely Planet book, this was easier. But for the Kauderwelsch book, I often had to remember page numbers where I encountered certain phrases or use the mini-images at the top of the page in order to serve as a guide to when I would need to use what.

And speaking of books…

 

  1. Use your books or your tech resources during your downtime (at the hotel, waiting for a meal, etc.)

Something to note: as of the time of writing there are a lot of people, especially older folk, that will get visibly irritated if you use your phone excessively. Interestingly, they will have no such reaction to you referencing a book (unless you are really engrossed in it).

That said, keep in mind that whenever you are having an “I’m bored” moment, get out your book and look at something you think you may need or otherwise look at something related to a consistent weak point.

For Burmese, one consistent weak point I had was numerical classifiers (fail to use these well enough and this means you’ll get answered in English in a yap). For those who don’t know what a classifier is (they exist in a lot of East Asian Languages across the board), it is a word used to indicate a number of a measurement of something. That something comes in various “flavors”, and you choose what “flavor” depending on what class of thing you are talking about.

So when I was in a hotel or waiting for a meal, and it seemed that conversation was slow or that there was an aura of laziness in the air, I would take out my book, review classifiers, and do so until circumstances required me to do something else.

But just reading the words off the page isn’t going to do much…so you’ll need…

 

  1. Memory Devices are your Best Friends. I used (1) similarity to words I already knew in other languages and (2) using the memory palace technique in order to mentally “place” the word where I knew I would use it.

 

 

Let’s look at the Burmese classifier list on Wikipedia, shall we? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_numerical_classifiers)

Now, how exactly would I remember the first entry in the list (ကောင် / kàuɴ), a classifer used for animals?

Well, it sounds like “cow” and I would remember a cow falling, but there’s also an “င်” at the end which is pronounced like an “ng” sound. I kept in mind “kong” (whether exactly you may be thinking of King Kong of Hollywood Fame or the Kong Family of the Nintendo Franchise is entirely up to you)

Then, of course, there were my first evenings in a restaurant where I was required to remember words for what I wanted to order. I took in the surroundings and I “placed” the various words on the tables in my mental space. That did the trick.

 

  1. Discouragement and “Why Did I Even Try This?” May Come. Resist these feelings and don’t dwell on your mistakes.

 

You are almost certainly going to be making mistakes on your immersion journey. Back when I was in various European countries from 2011 until 2014, I sometimes dwelled on my mistakes too often. Now I’ve known better.

Misunderstood? Eh.

Answered in English? Bleh.

Didn’t know how to respond in a conversation? Meh.

I usually don’t get too vexed when I’m playing a video game and I lose a life. I expect losing lives to be the natural course of playing a video game. Similarly, I don’t think I should overreact when the same thing happens in language learning.

And this leads to my final lesson…

 

 

  1. Be easy on yourself and take what you can get.

 

I didn’t leave fluent in Burmese. That’ll take a while yet. What I did get, however, was motivation, practice, and tips for the road forward.

Knowing that one day I will look back on these days when I was making mistakes more frequently, knowing that I would remember “back when I couldn’t speak Burmese all that well”, and that I would probably laugh at it with a smile…fills me with determination.

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I know. I said I would knock off the Undertale Jokes. Come to think of it, I think I made the exact same joke some twenty-odd posts ago?

It’s easy to compare yourself to other learners, including those who have lived in the country for a brief while and left fluent (I can only think of a handful of instances, I think Benny Lewis in Brazil was one such occurrence, but obviously learning Portuguese as a Native English speaker is going to be nothing like learning Burmese as a native speaker of … any European Language, actually).

Take what you can. You have plenty of time to get to the rest later (and “the rest” is actually of infinite volume, and this is true for any language). And even if you don’t return, you’ll have the chance to interact with native speakers, wherever you meet them, for the rest of your life.

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I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.

Gulf Arabic and Thai Airport Mission Results: Minor Successes, Not Optimal, but Important Things to Reflect on

Here I am in the United States, more tired than I have ever been in my entire life. Nearly two weeks of absence from my blog, and I have finally returned.

The last I wrote on this blog, I committed to learning a tiny bit of Gulf Arabic, a tiny bit of Thai, as well as Burmese to a Tourist Level.

Gulf Arabic for my Dubai stopovers? Well…I did prepare a significant amount of very essential vocabulary (and yes, the Middle East phrasebook arrived on time!), but, as it turns out, given how (1) I wasn’t buying anything in any of the shops and (2) expatriates outnumber local significantly in the United Arab Emirates (this was even MORE pronounounced in the Airport, where it often felt significantly more Southern Asian at times…I should also note that I heard Hebrew spoken at the airport!)

When I tried to engage security personnel in Arabic, they virtually ignored me. But maybe I’m missing on something. I’ve heard that in Jordan (for which I failed to prepare Arabic on account of my school schedule), even a few words may get you the response “You speak Arabic better than I do!” from a local (I think it was the Rough Guide to Jordan that said this…)

Anyhow, it seems that I’ll pivot from Gulf Arabic to the Iraqi variety (but it’s not going to be my main focus). Why? I told someone at a language exchange that I would like to learn Iraqi Arabic out of curiosity, and because I studied Ancient History (among other things) in college, and I got told (on multiple occasions). “WHY? ISIS practically destroyed everything there…” (Keep in mind that I have no intention to travel to the country at this point at all, although interacting with Iraqis everywhere else would be a fantastic endeavor!)

So, did I fail? This was a surprise mission after all, but I managed to learn quite a lot under the circumstances, and I think I would be able to hold my own in an emergency situation.

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Also the first time I’ve spent Ramadan (for any amount of time) in a Muslim Country. Would have never predicted that I would have arrived at 3 AM in an airport. Wowie.

Now, as for Thai…

Yeah, WAAAY too tired to have prepared it properly on the plane. And I decided to go with an app that I wasnt used to (the Japan-based LingoCards) rather than using the sturdy Mango Languages (which I think is fantastic for “activating” a basic language, actually).

That said, I was capable of using “Hello” and “Thank You”, as well as “Where is…?” The phrasebook helped.

Lesson Learned: If you expect yourself to be tired in a given situation, prepare yourself. I remember that I used to be a fire dancer and fire stuntsman in college (True story!) One thing I was told…that when you are ACTUALLY dancing with fire, expect it to go more quickly. Same here. Expecially if you haven’t had experience with a language, expect to be slower and a lot less quick-witted when using the language with other people in comparison to your exercises by yourself. This is doubly true if travel is weighing you down.

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Bangkok’s Legendary Airport + Self-Proclaimed Legendary Hyperpolyglot

Now, ordinarily, I would write something about how I managed with Burmese during the two-week-plus trip, but that’s worthy of a post in its own.

The bad: I got answered in English more often there than any other place (with the exception of the Netherlands), and this is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that few Burmese are fluent in English.

The good: managed myself using Burmese in almost every single situation (with the exception of the hotel, which is an anomaly for multiple reasons I’ll discuss in another post). I can plainly say that I have mastered basic Burmese although I am not fluent.

And, of course, next week will feature posts on Danish (in honor of the…closest thing they have to a national day) and Swedish (in honor of the Day of the Swedish Flag). Neither of them will follow the patterns I’ve laid out for the previous National Day posts.

And I should probably get some rest.

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:

 

Burmese:

myanmarsaga

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!

UAE

 

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

 

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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:

 

I WILL BE PRESENTING AT THE POLYGLOT CONFERENCE IN REYKJAVIK, 2017!

 

“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!

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