Some Encouraging Thoughts about Learning Swedish in Sweden

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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.

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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.

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.

5 Reasons You Should Learn Polish

 

Today is May 3rd, the Day of the Polish Constitution, and the third day in a row I’m writing a Language-specific article.

If you have Polish-speaking friends, there is no doubt that they will bring scientific papers and studies and BuzzFeed articles that prove that Polish is the most difficult language in the world, bar none.

I remember the first time I heard that, and I thought “well, why not Czech or Slovak or the Sorbian Languages?”  (Note to those unaware: these are the closest relatives of Polish, as they are all Western Slavic)

Polish pronunciation is tricky for the uninitiated, probably the biggest hang-up I had as a beginner was the fact that there are “n” sounds that are pronounced but not written, one example most commonly used is “ja pamiętam”, meaning “I remember”. The “ę” is a nasal “e” sound. Polish is the only Slavic language to have retained these nasal vowels in the present time (they are originally from Old Slavonic).

As a result of this combination, it is actually pronounced like “pamięntam”

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Anyhow, you came here for an article and that’s what you’ll get:

  1. The Tongue Twisters are Probably the Most Difficult in Any Language

Polish tongue twisters are among the most “get ready to throw your computer out a window” in the world. For the truly masochistic, I recommend the short verse “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie” (“A beetle buzzes in the reeds in Szczebrzeszyn”).

The sz is a sh sound, the cz is a ch sound, and you can combine them (other Slavic languages do so as well) to create a “shch” sound.

Rz is pronounced like a combination of a sh sound and a z sound, like a French J.

Ch is the classic guttural sound, like the “ch” in Bach (too many other languages have them, Hebrew and Dutch are probably best known for theirs).

C or s followed by an i is pronounced “chi” and “shi” respectively.

W is a v sound in English.

The letter “ą” is also nasal.

Now you know everything in order to pronounce that sentence.

Good luck.

Impress your friends today!

  1. In Poland, I felt as though Polish-speakers were comfortable using Polish or English to whatever degree I was comfortable with. Other countries where English is commonly spoken (some would classify Poland as such) need to learn to do this, too.

 

In some places, like Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, I felt considerably afraid about messing up, knowing that if I did I would get answered in English without a second thought (thankfully the better you get and the more natural you sound, the less of this will happen. Fun fact: in the Netherlands I’ve even heard stories of Dutch native speakers being answered in English!)

Poland’s not like that! Especially if your pronunciation is good!

Even as a beginner, you’ll get plenty of encouragement (aside from being told that Polish is absurdly difficult all of the time) and you seldom need to worry about being answered in English. But even if you DO want to speak English, the locals will gladly accommodate that, too!

The more I look back at my time on Poland, I saw that there was a nigh-PERFECT balance between using global languages (like English and German) and using the local language (although Polish is also a global language as well, because…)

  1. Polish People Live Everywhere as Expatriates

 

Maybe it had something to do with lots of people fleeing the country during the tribulations of the 20th century, but you’ll run into Polish-speakers all over the globe. As far as I can tell, Poland is the only country that has Polish as its official language (despite the fact that there are sizeable Polish minorities in all of the surrounding countries and even further afield).

Despite that, the Polish diaspora will ensure that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice!

Not only that, but even now there are Polish citizens that are discovering that they have distant family members everywhere, from the United States to the British Commonwealth countries to…well, everywhere else, actually.

People of Polish heritage have brought their culture everywhere. The various histories of the United States and Poland, both countries that had constitutions guaranteeing full religious freedoms, are also intertwined, and they share a lot of the same mindsets and struggles.

Polish culture (as well as the language) also influenced Ashkenazi Judaism and the Yiddish language to no end, and thanks to the fall of communism as well as drastistically improved relations between Polish people and Jews all over the world, the true extent of how much they share is finally being revealed to all.

 

  1. Polish Music had a Fantastic Reputation during the Communist Period

A lot of people are feeling uncertainty with the global politics of the present moment. It wasn’t the only time, and I doubt it will end up being the last time.

 

 

My favorite Polish band is Republika, one that masterfully captures a lot of lyrics that encapsulate rebellion, the tragicomedy that is hoping in despairing times, and fantastic musings that can be applied to personal hardships as well as those on a global scale:

 

Here’s a taste of the lyrics of the above song, “My Lunatycy” (“We, the Lunatics”)

 

My lunatycy  – coraz więcej lunatykó pośród nas

my lunatycy – każdy własny wulkan na Księżycu ma

tabletki na sen to komunia święta dla każdego z nas

my lunatycy – coraz więcej lunatyków pośród nas

 

We, the lunatics – even more lunatics among us

We lunatics – everyone has his/her own volcano on the moon

Dream tablets, this is our worldly communion for every one of us

We, the lunatics, even more lunatics among us

 

Somebody understands politics better than most.

(Sadly, the leader of Republika, Grzegorz Chiechowski, died in his forties as a result of heart disease.)

And a song you are probably guaranteed to hear after an extended stay in the country:

 

It’s a tongue-twister song!

 

On the other side of the quality spectrum, I wrote a piece (for April 1) about Disco Polo here. But maybe there is some of you that actually like that stuff. If I didn’t have a class to teacher right after finishing this, I’d actually, y’know, translate the lyrics in that post.

 

  1. Recognizing and Appreciating the Culture of Poland will instantly earn you friendships!

 

“Everyone thinks my country is backwards”

“Everyone hates my country”

And the quickest berserk button? Blindly associate Poland with anti-Semitism and/or xenophobia.

(Truth: it is no different than the US in this regard. Poland was, up until World War II and then Communism, an astonishingly multicultural society, although not without tensions, it should be mentioned)

The best way to show that you are willing to engage with the culture is to take up the “absolutely impossible world’s most difficult language”. Even if you know a few words, it will help build trust. In a lot of Central-Eastern European countries, there is a culture of a silent distrust sometimes unless you actively choose to build that trust. (Being sandwiched between multiple empires will do that to you!)

A lot of political problems with many countries have to do with a sense of national victim mentality (see the quotes at the beginning of this section). You can help alleviate it, even just a little bit, by choosing to show that you are willing to engage!

I got asked at a dentist office if Poland was still communist (in 2012). I can imagine that Polish nationals throughout the world have probably gotten something similar and sometimes plenty worse.

Learning this language is like a cupid’s arrow, except for friendships instead of infatuation. Trust me on this one!

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

 

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

 

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

 

Some ways you can assist the memorization project:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

And here are some general pointers:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

No, Americans are Not “Worse” or “Better” at Languages Than Anybody Else

While there are some certain realities that cannot be denied (that every member of my extended family that is still living, with the exception of myself, is a monoglot), it has little to do with reality and more to do with attitude.

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Austin, TX, home to speakers of Spanish, Japanese, Upper Sorbian and Northern Sami, among others

Think about it. If you were raised with everyone telling you that learning a language is a waste of time, hopeless beyond a certain age, and that “everyone speaks your language anyways”…why would you expect very stellar results?

Let’s say, for the purposes of a thought experiment, that all the countries on earth, instead of the 190+ there are in reality, are the current and former members of the Danish “Common Kingdom” (Dan. “Rigsfællesskabet”). So in this world, the only countries that exist are Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m not mentioning Norway and Sweden here, that is taking the exercise a bit too far and possibly extending into controversy).

As you well know, Danes do visit and have employment opportunities on Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and in both places Danish is the second-most common language after West Greenlandic and Faroese respectively. In Iceland, Danish is still learned commonly as a foreign language after English.

In the real world, while there is some interest among Danish-speakers in learning Greenlandic and Faroese, the majority does go with the idea that “they speak Danish anyways, why bother” , not unlike what some English speakers do in the real world with where their language is commonly spoken (most of the developed world, more or less).

In this thought exercise, in which the English language does not exist, who do the “worst” language learners actually become?

The point you should take is this:

No one nationality is better or worse at learning languages than any other. But some nations do have better or worse ATTITUDES at learning languages than others.

It has little to do with age of beginning education either. The Netherlands, very high English proficiency indeed, does start its English language nearly later than any other country in the EU (I regret not remembering nor writing down the source). The earliest is Belgium (3 years, if I recall correctly).

But there is no correlation between age and English proficiency or proficiency in any other languages.

Often I read articles about how wonderful the Luxembourgers / South Africans / Nigerians / Scandinavians / Dutch are at “linguistic ability, and then sometimes I feel pain. Why did I have to be born into this nation?

But at a certain point, I realized, especially coming from the Northeastern U.S., that I had advantages in picking up languages that people from these countries and others do not.

  1. English may be everywhere in certain countries, but in many American Cities, nearly EVERY major language is everywhere.

In Heidelberg, I struggled to find speakers of official EU languages of smaller countries. In New York City, I once encountered two Faroese speakers over the course of a single weekend! (P.S. that was NOT the Polyglot Conference).

Furthermore, the neighborhoods of many American cities are known for being, to some degree, ethnically divided, with regional languages dominating alongside English. Yes, this does exist to a degree in many other developed countries, but given as the United States still remains the world’s most popular immigration destination, you can imagine the variety you can help yourself to!

This is the U.S.’s hidden treasure that it has lying out in the open. But will you take it?

  1. American English has its accents taken from the various countries from which its immigrants came. You probably have a variety of foreign accent without knowing it.

 

This is somewhat self-explanatory. Upon returning from Germany to the U.S., I noticed exactly how many American accents owed themselves to German. I also noticed significant Slavic strands (especially Polish) as well as Scandinavian strands among American accents in general. Sometimes I could even tell what an American’s ancestry was based on listening to their voice, and you’d be surprised how right I was!

As a result of this, you’ve been exposed to a plethora of voices that you somehow need to convert into the many accents of the world. Again, the fact that so many immigrate and have immigrated to the U.S. can make this a boon.

  1. American English has a colloquial speech taken from words and colloquialisms from all of the immigrant languages.

“Long time no see”, “you hear?” as a question, and “this here book” all started out as immigrant mistakes, and then they became fossilized in correct, although slang, English. In literally EVERY language I have studied, I have seen an influence that the language has played in English, or, alternatively, that English has influenced it. (This holds true even for minority and/or smaller languages!!!)

As a teacher of languages myself, I make a point of showing how much of the target language a person knows already, without extensive effort. I point out the various connections between that target language and English.

If you ever hear me do it during a lesson, your conception of “Americans are bad with languages” will be banished forever to the hinterlands, never to be heard from again.

For learning a language as an American, it is merely connecting the various familiarities you already have from certain popular culture phenomena or slang expressions and then you have a stable base in a language upon which you can grow fluency.

4, No American I have met has ever decried any language as “useless”.

You’d be surprised how often I get in some countries a “why would you want to learn that?” response. You’d be surprise how, when I used to speak English in some countries, there would be those that put down the local language as useless (hint: if you speak the local language well, or even not so well, no one will ever say anything bad about it! On either side!)

Americans, thanks to a general open-mindedness but also a very friendly demeanor, NEVER judge you on your language choices. Furthermore, they are never skeptical about the idea of a polyglot (some people, especially in Europe, see the idea of learning lots of language an extraordinary waste of time. I heartily disagree because the skills between languages are more transferable than you may think, especially within the same families and sub-families!).

You’ll encounter learners of the rarest languages at American polyglot gatherings (as I’ve seen last week) and you won’t hear any scorn among them. In fact, scorn will be heavily discouraged! In fact, more often than not, a rare language is seen as a thing of extraordinary pride. True, when I was in Germany and Iceland, there were those that marveled about the fact that I could understand Greenlandic (which I then forgot and am now learning again!), but the awe shown is only a fraction of the praise that Americans, polyglots or not, will shower upon you for your efforts and commitments.

You are really encouraged to pursue your dreams in this country. Language learning should be no exception.

And the only thing holding America back from being the greatest multilingual powerhouse the world has ever seen is an attitude, paid for by pseudoscience and fear.

Get rid of that, and a wonderful, new ultra-omniglot United States will come into being, unlike any other country that ever existed!

Polyglot Conference Excitement, Plans and Hopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

grand central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hochdeutsch

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

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

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

idishflag

The Lesson: Shut out your native language = progress

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

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

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

max mekker scream

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

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

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

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

And so it was.

dansk i graekenland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

norden

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

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

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

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

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

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

STOP SOUNDING LIKE A LEARNER.

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

vlaanderen

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

maamme

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

Hebrew:

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

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

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

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

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

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

yisrael

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

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

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

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

sapmi

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

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

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

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

rf

The Lesson: Something is better than nothing.

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

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

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

ay yay yay

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

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

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

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

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

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

kalaallit nunaat

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

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

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

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

eire

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

 

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

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

foroyar

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

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

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

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

kernow

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

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

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

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

png

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

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

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

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

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

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

breizh

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

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

island

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

Delete These Ideas from Your Head About Language Acquisition

I am shocked how I have heard even very educated people, experts in their field, even, repeat the notion that learning a language to fluency is impossible as an adult.

ei kay

This mythology tends to be especially prominent in the United States, and I think it is more of a political reason than a scientific one: if you keep your own population monolingual (or try as hard as you can to keep it the case), you can ensure economic dominance more easily.

(Note: countries known for being “Economic Powerhouses”, [Germany is one notable exception] are “known” for being “bad with languages”, such as Russia, China, Japan and Brazil).

Do you know how many people believe this “critical language acquisition” idea in countries such as Sweden or the Netherlands? ZERO! Or, at least, none that I have met…

As of yet I cannot create world peace or stop climate change. What I can do, however, is ensure that this dangerous myth about “being bad with languages” is put in its place: namely, outside of the realm of credible ideas.

People tend to treat me like some variety of demigod (not a joke!) when they hear me sample a number of my languages (my regrettable recording software ensures that my polyglot video isn’t coming for quite some time yet). They think that I must have a “special brain” or a “special talent”.

I think I might be repeating myself from a previous blogpost, but for a mythology as dangerous is this, I will repeat myself as many times as I have to: I AM NOT TALENTED. I just spent a lot of time with the tasks that I wanted to achieve. If that meant sidelining English-language entertainment from my life completely, then so be it.

If that meant being tripped up endless times and being responded to in my native language and making grammatical errors and significant laughable malapropisms, I would be willing to take it.

One of the most transformative experiences of my life was when I found out that I could learn a language to fluency as an adult. Once that happened, I applied myself significantly – not with an excess of textbooks, but with surrounding myself in a virtual culture, even for languages that are official in only one country that I have never visited. Textbooks were a part of that, but songs, cartoons, and news reports were more important.

And as for the accent? There’s no way you could learn that convincingly well?

Ha.

Here’s what I tell people: if you can imitate a voice, then you can do an accent well. Even for the hardest ones. (Full disclosure: hardest accent for me was “Rikssvenska”, or Standard Swedish. Easiest for me were Tok Pisin and Norwegian. Odd how that works…)

I am not saying that you could gain all of the benefits of speaking just like a native in little time. That takes thousands of hours (although you could definitely do THAT if you tried). All of my professors who spoke English as a Second language? Sometimes they were reaching for words that they had trouble with and made grammatical mistakes. No one said you would be perfect. The only thing that counts is that you are good enough.

Which do you think I can understand better? A Faroese Folk song or an English scientific text?

Fact is, you don’t need to know everything, and there are still things that I am learning about my native language, often through the lens of my other languages: for example, a slang term for a garbage can in a workplace is a “circular file”, which appears in both German and Swedish (and I may most likely encounter them in other Germanic languages, too).

Will you let myths steal your dreams away?

I know I won’t.

May we live in a day in which everyone is free to pursue his or her own goals, without “science” telling them what is possible and what isn’t.