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. 

Myanmar Saga: Burmese after 1 Month

Once upon a time I went to a bookstore and I was chanted by the fact that guides to Southeast Asia seemed to be everywhere. In libraries all around Manhattan, as well as in too many store shelves to list, it seems that the region is headed in the same way that Iceland is: the travel destination(s) that everyone talks about and almost everyone dreams of visiting.

(This is true about all of the countries in the region)

That was late 2014, shortly after returning from Germany to the United States.

Years since the day that I saw a Lonely Planet guide on a library shelf, I am pleased to announce that in less than one month I will be setting foot on the Golden Land after a very long journey from…the other Golden Land.

(Fun fact: Yiddish speakers called the United States “Di Goldene Medine” [the Golden Land], which is also a title used for Myanmar/Burma/”That Southeast Asian Country”)

The last few times I tried to play “language tourist” in France (seeing how far I could get with Duolingo alone…hint…DON’T DO THAT!) and Jordan (didn’t put almost any effort into it at all due to things I was going through with school), I failed extraordinarily.

I won’t let it happen this time.

And, of course, I am reminded of the time that my father expected me to know a lot of Spanish as a result of being halfway through Spanish II in high school. On a trip to various cities in Spain, he used my floundering as a validation for “Language learning for adults is impossible” hypothesis. Thanks to what happened in Iceland, he adjusted the goalposts (saying that I was capable of my okay Icelandic because I was exposed to French and Hebrew as a child), and I guess the goalposts are sorta…stuck there for the time being.

ANYHOW. BURMESE.

 

Burmy

If you can get this, then you should be my best friend. Obviously not my picture.

 

SUCCESSES:

Here’s what I’ve mastered so far:

  • Thanks to the “Burmese by Ear” course, the tones are not a problem for me (although when listening to them in singing they become an issue)
  • I can ask for the hotel and I can say that I want things and that I want to do things.
  • I can address a lot of tourist functions, including asking for food, how much something costs, and, of course, essentials such as basic greetings.
  • I got used to the sentence structure (particles at the end indicate grammatical context, such as whether it is a question with or without a question word, or what tense it is)

 

FAILURES:

 

I feel that my burnout and my laziness are intensifying with age, as is fear. One result of this is that my knowledge of reading the Burmese characters is not as strong as I would like. And I haven’t even got around to the confusion of the various words in Pali that can sometimes be spelled differently in Burmese.

What is Pali?

It’s the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, a bit like the Ancient Hebrew / Quranic Arabic / Biblical Greek of the Buddhists of Southeast Asia (this branch is dominant in Myanmar / Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia).

Liturgical language influences are common to many of the world’s languages, and, as with Yiddish, this phenomenon in Burmese actually creates words that do not conform to normal pronunciation rules.

I’m going to have to read a lot of signs in Burmese and I have less than a month to fully get to reading them well.

Here are my other blindspots:

  • Numbers (a bad blindspot to have! Very bad!)
  • Understanding of politeness systems.
  • Understanding of colloquial vs. formal speech (although I understand this at some level).
  • I don’t feel that I can put together very complicated sentences.
  • Listening to Burmese music and radio is a complete joke, I can barely understand any of it.

 

HOPES:

 

If I were a weaker person, I would chalk up my failures to the fact that “Burmese doesn’t have a lot of learning materials” (in comparison to the most popular languages of that region, which would probably be Thai and Vietnamese).

I won’t do that.

Yes, it might be harder for me on the short term (and that’s where I am headed at the moment), but I can always do something. And something is better than nothing.

I have my work cut out for me at the moment:

  • Be able to read signs (esp. street signs. This is important because the transliteration systems are inconsistent across guidebooks and tourist materials!)
  • To that end, possibly make cartoons and other drawings, like “Chineasy”, to help OTHER people do the same.
  • Know your numbers.
  • Rehearse and role-play various situations more often.
  • Read more about people like me learning Burmese online, whether for scholarly purposes or travel.

Who knows? Maybe Burmese will end up being one of my favorite languages down the line!

Any advice is highly appreciated!

Have you studied any language for travel purposes? Success stories about that? Share them in the comments!

grand central

Definitely not Southeast Asia here

On Having Had Bad Experiences with a Language

 Interestingly, the Queens Library System has proclaimed this week “Broken Heart Week”.

Also interestingly: Finland’s Valentine’s Day is actually called “Ystävänpäivä”, or “friend day”.

(One could imagine the conversation. “I’m sorry”, said Finland to 14 February, “but I don’t see it like that…”)

Anyhow, this article is about something tangentially related…and it is one that a lot of my language-learning blogger friends haven’t touched on, namely…

What if, for whatever reason, you may feel emotionally weighed down by the thought of a certain language, even if part of you wants to learn it (or re-learn it)?

just-visiting-in-jail

This can come in many forms:

  • General negativity associated based on past experiences. Some of you know that I had a very stringent Jewish education in my teenage years (not from my parents). While I am grateful for a significant amount of knowledge given by this experience, in the long run, especially emotionally, it caused a significant amount of harm in too many ways to count. Luckily, I am repairing my relationship with my Jewish roots not only with Yiddish and Hebrew but also with various events in New York and beyond catered to curious open-minded young people like myself. Sometimes I couldn’t read certain Hebrew texts without being vexed or irritated.
  • Cultural dissonance. My relationship with American culture has been difficult, given as due to the fact that I never really understood it from the inside. I deliberately avoid a lot of contact with English-Language entertainment and news and, as a result, my accent has sometimes shifted to a hodge-podge of everywhere that I’ve lived, not also to mention the many languages I’ve studied.
  • Being bullied by speakers of a certain language at one point.
  • Having gotten out of a relationship with a speaker of that language and having the end go badly.
  • Having studied that language at school and having had bad experiences learning it there (everything from discouraging teacher to having done poorly in the class or on a standardized test.)
  • Having been discouraged by other learners or native speakers along the way. Spanish and Swedish were among the worst for me in this regard, with some speakers telling off my efforts as well as, in the case of some Swedish speakers, either refusing to use the language or belittling my efforts. Thankfully, and I should make it clear, these are a minority among human beings! I want to let you know that anyone who treats you this way in regards to language learning is painfully insecure about his or her own goals!

 

In my polyglot journey, I’ve felt all of these at one point or another. These feelings are difficult, ones that almost administer an electric shock whenever you want to somehow cure them or even look at the problem.

Here are some possible things to keep in mind:

 

  1. Sometimes you need to take a break.

Perhaps you may need some time apart from the language or culture that you may have had bad experiences with. Recognize these feelings, and then consider separating.

It doesn’t have to be forever! You can easily come back to it when you “calmed down” significantly, when time has healed you a little bit (or a lot) more.

During this time (and I should know, given how many languages I’ve learned to high levels and then forgotten), you may have memories pop up now and again about the times you had together.

Perhaps one of these memories may be strong or meaningful enough so that you may want to come back. And coming back is always an option when you feel up to it.

 

  1. Learning a language to a level lower than sturdy fluency is okay.

 

I play favorites. Back when I was a less seasoned polyglot I tried to pretend as though I couldn’t, and let me tell you that any polyglot who says that he or she doesn’t play favorites is almost definitely lying.

I like Scandinavian and Celtic Languages a lot better than a lot of popular global languages. That’s okay.

I feel that I may not know Spanish to the same degree that I know Yiddish or Bislama or Swedish because of the pain of a significant amount of discouragement form learning throughout the years. And that’s okay. Who knows? Maybe it will be my favorite language one day…

I may have been attached to Russian culture in the past and have moved onto new horizons. My Russian is nowhere near as good as it was and now it’s quite pathetic. But that’s okay as well.

 

  1. Each Culture has many cultures within it, and one of them will fit you somehow.

 

This also ties into another issue I didn’t mention before, which is “I can’t speak or learn language X because of historical baggage Y”.

This also ties into the other unmentioned issue which is “I can’t have a resonance with language X because of the actions of a certain government or political figure”.

Within any culture, no matter how small, there are many more subcultures than the ones seen in guidebooks or in the history books.

If the issue of cultural resonance is lacking, look for another culture or subculture associated with that language.

This may serve to change your view of that language completely.

 

 

  1. School Performance and Grades have constantly diminishing importance as you get older.

 

The sort of bad performance that brought me to tears a decade ago would be something I would laugh at now.

If you so will it, you can change your view of the world, so that the tests means nothing, the negative feedback of any of your peers mean nothing, and that the only thing that really does matter is whether or not you are on the path to acquiring the dreams you want.

 

  1. You’ll show them one day!

 

That one time that was told my “Norwegian accent was awful”?

That one time I was told that I spoke “a bit of Swedish” when I was putting together complete sentences?

That one time I was told “you obviously don’t know any Spanish, she told me you couldn’t be understood?”

And the many, many times I got answered to in English?

I just turned around, with some bitterness, and I said, “I’ll show them”

And that is what I did.

And that is what you will do as well.

And you know that if you encounter those people again, with your hyper-leveled up skills, they will not treat you the same way they did before.

 

  1. You don’t need discouraging influence in your life, much less have it affect you in the long wrong.

Here is something I want you to read carefully, okay? Can you remember it?

The people who discourage you from language learning of any sort are always wrong.

There.

Okay.

No more worries about that.

There may be the time in which they may genuinely want to help you, in which case that is okay and they will make it clear from the outset that that is what they are doing. But as to mean behavior, belittling your skills, they’re wrong. And this is Jared telling you to let you know that they’re wrong.

And that your dreams are right.

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.

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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.

“It is Never Too Late”: How Successful Language Learners Engage the Question of Age

Between the area where Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic intersect, there is an area called “Lausitz” (in German) which is also the home of the Sorbian / Wendish peoples, who speak not one but two Slavic minority languages in Germany (“Upper Sorbian” and “Lower Sorbian”).

(For those curious: the name is “Łužica” in Upper Sorbian and “Łužyca” in Lower Sorbian)

In one of my first exposures to this minority culture, there was a montage (on one of the Sorbian cultural websites or so) of various Sorbian people saying in the Sorbian Languages, German that it is “never too late”.

This is the attitude that any learner requires and should attain.

By contrast, many of my American friends (including members of my own family) believe that the only true way to have gotten good at a language was merely to “start earlier”.

If only it were that simple…because if that were the true solution, it would have been implemented already by everyone to maximum effect!

This should be said: Anglophones are not the only ones that learn languages in school and then forget how to use them completely…I’ve seen people make confessions of this sort everywhere I have been. Even those fluent in a number of languages in the double-digits!

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The idea that childhood usage = adult usage can be refuted by noting the case of the Kindertransport, Jewish children adopted by other families from Nazi Germany, many of whom forgot to use German entirely. I’ve even encountered people in my age demographic who have forgotten their native language completely as well!

Well, then…you may say…certainly starting earlier means that you speak with a perfect accent, right…? Right?

That may be the case, but also ask anyone who has worked with accent training for singers and accents…

Once you learn how to position your mouth and tongue accordingly, you can imitate any sound on the planet, regardless of what you may have heard about your mouth taking its shape at age 10 (or so) and refusing to morph any further (or learn any new sounds).

These positions can be learned. And there is one thing I tell anyone who says that he or she is “not a language person”:

If you can imitate a voice, you can do any accent.

I’ve heard countless young people imitate their co-workers and peers on the streets of Manhattan. Certainly they have no excuse as far as the accent is concerned.

There is one argument that I will concede to the “earlier = better” crowd. In a way, it makes the racking up of hours in your target language easier. Learning a language isn’t exactly about early exposure nor is it about courses taken. It is the amount of hours plugged into the task.

Here’s the good news for you folks reading this on the internet:

Thanks to the Web, your chances to get your hours for your target language are extraordinarily common, more than your parents certainly would have ever had it when they were your age.

There are many reasons that people that undertake language projects don’t reach their goals. Having started too late in life isn’t a serious issue. The list of serious issues will come in another article (and I hope that language teachers especially will be reading it).

To conclude, there is one thing…ONE mindset, that American society will need to adopt it ever it seeks to overcome its reputation as notoriously monolingual…and it most definitely is capable of it…

Learn from the Sorbs, and repeat after me…and them:

It is Never Too Late!

P.S. Ah, I found that video!

How to Get a Really Good Accent in Your Target Language with the Help of Only One Word or Phrase

My tactic revolved around a quote from Bruce Lee which said that he feared not the man who practiced 10,000 kicks, but rather one kick 10,000 times. Come to think of it, it has been a while since I picked up a quote dictionary.

I blame quote infographics on Facebook.

Unrelated fact: when I was in high school I had this “quote of the day” feature in my creative writing classes, which I recall shamelessly having ripped off my peers at previous institutions.

Moving on…

rgmf

When I was in Paris, I remember that one of my sibling travel companions kept on saying the phrase “les hommes d’équipage” (the ship crew) aloud in a dramatic voice at vaguely regular intervals (there was no occasion that called for the recitation whatsoever). It apparently had some unclear connection to a poem about an Albatross that escapes me.

I had heard “les hommes d’équipage” about seven times a day on average, and interestingly said travel companion had a very convincing accent indeed, without even trying, after a significant amount of recitations of the phrase.

True story: sometimes I catch myself saying the phrase out loud, too. Even now!

Now during the few weeks between Paris and New York, in which I found myself in my parent’s place alongside all of my siblings (first time in a long time), the habit rubbed off on me too. When in very, very casual conversations with my family members, I would throw in a phrase with virtually no context and with a very non-American accent indeed.

Except for this time the phrase was Greenlandic, and the words were “Kalaallisut oqalusinnaavit?”(Can you speak Greenlandic?)

It probably was annoying to them as “les hommes d’équipage” was during my Paris venture, but I certainly managed to experiment with a different Greenlandic-sounding accent every single time, until I got one that stuck and made sense.

And once I had that accent for the two words, I was capable of splicing the accent onto the rest of my speech in that language.

I speak a number of languages but my accent strength in them is not equal.

And here’s why not:

Because I haven’t had this accent training drill with a phrase in all of them.

One thing I used to do with Danish was say the word “Hvad?” (what?) at points in conversations with my family members and some friends when the English “what?” was appropriate. As a result, I practiced this word many, many times indeed, and even if my Danish accent or my ability to replicate the stød is not perfect, it certainly became a lot better.

Now that I think about it, I really should be doing this more often…

So here’s what you do:

  • Identify a certain phrase or word in your target language that sticks with you.
  • Make it a bit of an inside joke / exclamation / etc. and get in the habit of using it. If you don’t want to do it in public, then just feel free to use it when frustrated at your computer, etc.
  • Let the word or phrase grow on you, and then one time, you’ll find yourself having said the word with an accent that sounds perfect.
  • Now you have the accent. Try using it on other words in your target language, and possibly even in your native language / other languages to ensure that it sticks.
  • It may not be utterly perfect and may require some refinement, but…voila! There you are.

Happy practicing!

1000 HITS!!! My Gift to You: 10 Vital Lessons from My Language Adventures (Part 1)

Two days ago, the hits for this blog hit the quadruple digits!

This list needs no further introduction except for the heartiest “thank you all” that I can muster…

tusen tack

  1. Confidence and Peace of Mind are the Most Essential Ingredient

 

“Everyone speaks this language better than I do, everyone’s gonna hate me, everyone will just see me as the stupid American anyhow…”

 

This is how I had to endure my semester a year ago, in which every single course of mine was held in German (although sometimes the instructors let me answer questions in either English, Hebrew or Yiddish).

 

I was self-conscious about my accent in the language. I was self-conscious about my grammar. I thought that people would correct me excessively.

 

It was a mind-numbing experience, one that made me feel tremendously stupid! My self-esteem was in another dimension and you can imagine the relationship I had with my American upbringing at that point.
As it turned out, one fine day I met Isabella the Italian, who turned out to not have any of this self-consciousness in regards to her language journeys, even if it meant using words in English while speaking German or using Italian while speaking English. Even while doing this, she laughed, she kept her peace of mind, and wouldn’t let a single mistake or slip-up faze her.

 

I wasn’t going to let this difference in passports phase me. I took up the same variety of carefree learning spirit, and with this came the final transformation in my soul from polyglot-wannabe to genuine speaker of many languages.

 

No matter how many words you learn, no matter how many mistakes you make, without a certain peace within yourself, you cannot speak any second language well.

 

You don’t need perfect confidence or inner peace. You just need enough to ensure that you can communicate and that people won’t judge you negatively. Which brings me to my next point…

 

  1. Most…Make that…ALL…People want You to Speak Their Language

 

I will never forget the time when I was surrounded by a bunch of students in Heidelberg from various countries.

 

Hopping languages from Hebrew to German to Swedish to Spanish and English again, I had some people begging me (cutely, not desperately) to pick their native tongue as my next language.

 

Whatever you might have heard about “being answered in English” might tell you, the fact is that everyone craves whatever attention may be given to their native languages, however badly it may be spoken.

 

I’ve seen Greeks light up in jubilation with just a few words of the language. Not even the nationalities with the reputation for being the most emotionless of all are immune to this charm.

 

Admittedly there are some countries where the local language(s) are put down, but if anything you should take this as “playing hard to get”…not also to mention that every place that comes to mind where this is the case has people who put on vastly different personae outside of their home countries.

 

Even if you had to stutter (as I did when I first ordered a drink on a Finnair flight), even if you have to mix up a gender (as I did with Swedish for the first time) or use an incorrect idiom (too many times in German and in Hebrew to count), your effort will matter, and people will notice!

 

There is a special phrase in Finnish that I like to use when trying to sell an idea: usko pois! (literally: “believe away!”) That is to say: take it from me, and you can thank me later.

 

  1. With Multilingual Friends, Juggling Languages is Very Helpful

 

I certainly found this a lot easier to do in New York City than anywhere else, but gone are the days where I felt that having a foreigner speak English to me at all is an insult.

 

What I sometimes enjoy doing is juggling various languages between someone who speaks several in common with me, and it can be surprisingly easy to keep this precedent going!

 

Usually you don’t even need to ask to switch the language, just make the switch and then the conversation will follow accordingly.

 

  1. Translations Create an Entire New Dimension for a Text / TV Show / Etc.

 

I remember a popular sport that my flatmates and I had at the National Yiddish Book Center—to watch the same portion of a Disney Musical Film in a series of different languages one after another. This can be surprisingly addicting, although the quality of dubs is, in the case of most languages, all over the place.

 

With every language grounded in the source of its origin, the translations can diverge significantly.

 

Imagine something like ice cream sundae with different toppings or flavors. The language alters the flavor of the work accordingly. You can experience the same text or episode in a different way and actually notice other things that you haven’t seen before, perhaps highlighted by a well-delivered line or by an oddity that becomes more apparent in one translation than another.

 

And then there is news media and how that diverges in accordance with the language…

 

  1. Less Common Languages Have Their Place

 

“Obviously you don’t encounter speakers of Scandinavian Language in Heidelberg, because generally there aren’t many of them

 

I got this over and over and over again during my time living in the city.

 

In New York City, however, I was met with a surprise. From the very first week, I had certainly heard Spanish and Chinese being regularly used, but now that it is nearly two months that I have spent here, I ran into more Scandinavians on the streets of New York than I have Slavs and Germans and Romance Language Speakers (other than Spanish) put together!

 

“That’s odd”, I thought, “I was expecting very much a similar mix to Heidelberg in regards to what European nationalities I would find here, I was not expecting to be regularly encountering Swedes and Danes with such an extraordinarily high frequency!”

 

Truth be told: every language as its place. If it isn’t where you are, then it is definitely somewhere else. Somewhere, someone will thank you for your effort…