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!

jared gimbel pic

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!

 

be like miguel

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.

2015-07-06 11.22.31

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

Reflections on Language Courses

“Language courses are crap”.

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

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

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

How silly I was back then.

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

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

Guess which one I’ve found more useful?

Moving on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you can probably guess which one.

My First Adventure at New York City’s Polyglot Bar

My image of the Polyglot Bar NYC that I conjured via the articles written about it was a place that had every major language in the whole world represented among its attendees.

As it turns out, I was fairly surprised to find out that there were about thirty people present, and half of them spoke Yiddish (myself included). There were more Yiddish speakers than speakers of Italian or Portuguese present, actually!

Wonderful. A bit odd. Cute. I really liked it. Will do it again in two weeks.

Some of my reflections:

  1. As a general rule, Americans never gave me the “why did you learn this?” spiel.

 

My name tag listed the languages that I knew and Northern Sami was among them (which I was definitely willing to practice, even though I consider myself quite weak). I was heartily congratulated by someone for having taken on that task. Apparently the only reactions I had from having the very rare languages listed were amazement.

 

There were those that asked me why I had the desire to learn Finnish or Dutch however. I could easily mention my Masters’ Thesis as my motivation to learn Finnish, but for Dutch I was left completely out in the cold. I went to the Netherlands as a tourist, yes, but so do many other people. And I think I’m the only person I know personally who went to the Netherlands as a tourist and learned the local language to an okay degree beforehand (my discipline wasn’t nearly as strong then as it is now…)

 

While in Heidelberg I got the “why did you choose this language?” question quite often…about pretty much anything that wasn’t too commonly studied. While in Europe, I got this from quite a few people:

 

“How did you decide upon that? Did you just wake up one morning and then decide, ‘y’know what? I’m gonna learn Greenlandic!’”

 

Yes, part of me thinks it is cute, but I’m also very grateful that I don’t have to put up with it here. Or, at least, not as much.

 

  1. I was the only speaker of any Scandinavian Language present

 

During my first semester in Heidelberg in which I was Sprachcafe-ing, this was also the case, but in the second year in Heidelberg this almost never happened. Swedish-speaking Germans from the University courses would show up, sometimes the occasional Dane or Norwegian as well (as well as native Swedish speakers, of course).

 

Interestingly I was not the only speaker of a Finno-Ugric Language present. As for Inuit languages, I usually expect to be the only one in the room that has any knowledge of them. Part of me likes it that way, but another part of me would be thrilled if and when it weren’t the case.

 

  1. People really were interested in trying out phrases in other languages

 

An Italian Speaker wanted to know how to say some basic things in Danish. Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish similarly got sampled by some of the people I spoke with. (Why is it always the Nordic Languages that have this appeal?)

 

Here’s the thing, though: don’t expect to say “God Morgen!” (Danish, not Norwegian) correctly on your first try. But come to think of it, I would pay good money to hear Danish spoken in an Italian accent…or maybe I should just watch Disney films dubbed into Danish? (Lady and the Tramp comes to mind…)

 

  1. The most enthusiastic small crowd I’ve seen all year!

I almost wrote “the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen all year”, but then it occurred to me that I was in Germany in July 2014 when they won the FIFA World Cup…so much for that title…

  1. Duolingo really worked wonders for me

 

I actually got laughed at when I told someone that I learned Portuguese from Duolingo (translated from the conversation, to my vague recollection: “That must have taken you an awfully long time, week after week of practicing…”). I was so comfortable with some conversations, one in particular in which I didn’t flinch at all, that I realized that I needed to, in accordance with some advice I had received, get into native learning materials.

 

Therefore, as of this morning, I have quit the Duolingo Portuguese course (because it was a bit of a hassle for me to complete the tree) and will train the language solely with television and conversations from now on. The training wheels are gone!

 

Therefore, two things: (1) My Portuguese is now at a conversational level and (2) I replaced the Portuguese with the New Irish course!

 

Brief aside about Irish: my professor (Viktor Golinets from Heidelberg) told me that Irish had the same sentence structure as Biblical Hebrew. He’s totally right!

 

  1. I didn’t feel nearly as self-conscious about German as I did most of the time when I lived in the country. The confidence difference really showed.

 

If only I trained myself to not be so scared as early as April 2013. But old habits die hard. This lack-of-confidence thing is hopefully dead for good. If it wasn’t before, it certainly is after last night.

 

  1. Sometimes I feel self-conscious with native speakers, but no self-consciousness at all with people whom I did not sense to be native speakers.

 

This will just required a pinch of mental discipline on my behalf.

 

  1. Near the very end, I began mixing up languages because I was a bit tired and overheated. But I’ve noticed something: only within the same families.

 

German and Yiddish were the biggest offenders, but interestingly I never mixed up the West Germanic (German, Yiddish, Dutch) with the North Germanic (Scandinavian).

 

Obviously part of this has to do with the fact that I am a hopeless romantic for languages (and lots of other things, too) and sometimes I just need a bit of focus.

 

But I obviously know what the cure is…

 

Going to the Polyglot Bar a SECOND TIME!