Myanmar Saga + Extra Double-Feature Daredevil Language Mission!

Tomorrow I head off to the Golden Land (Myanmar / Burma).

As a Yiddishist I am actually amused by the fact that a popular Yiddish name for the United States was (and remains) “di goldene medine” (also meaning “The Golden Land”, or somewhat more accurately, “the golden country”). I’m hopping one from Golden Country to another, so it seems.

On one hand, I feel significantly confident in my ability to say a lot of “touristy” things in Burmese, although I’m not fluent (and I have problems reading the Burmese script, too!).

This is my first tonal language that I’ve taken seriously since my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 or so, and as a result I’m quite worried about whether I’m getting it right but luckily the fact that I have a musical ear certainly hasn’t hurt.

Where am I? Well, let me put it this way: part of me feels that I’m walking into a test that I haven’t studied for. At all. And that this test determines my future.

But another part of me feels that I’m entering into the testing room with as many “cheat sheets” as I want.

Now, time for me to tell you that I got caught off guard!

Apparently I have layovers in the United Arab Emirates and in Thailand (and Thailand only on the way there).

So you know what this means:

I’m also on a mission to see how much Gulf Arabic I can learn on the plane to Dubai, as well as elementary Thai on the way there.

(This, in addition to Burmese, which will be in quite good shape, I think, after three weeks).

Time for me to layout my plans:




I’m gonna have to memorize as many phrases in “Birmanisch für Myanmar – Wort für Wort” to the best of my ability, including how to put sentences together and all that fun stuff. The fact that my life may depend on knowing this stuff means that my memory is probably going to go into Jedi mode. I’ll see how well I do (or how badly I do).

What’s more, I also have five Burmese Memrise courses in offline mode on my phone, including a complete guide to the characters. I know that various Pali loan words are not pronounced the way they are spelled (see my previous post on Burmese here), but I expect to be able to read Burmese by the time I set foot in Mandalay for the first time.

Interestingly this is my least urgent mission. I got time for this. My most urgent mission would be.


Surprise Gulf Arabic EXTRAVAGANZA!



If only I found out that I was having a layover in Dubai literally two days ago, I would have a book (I wasn’t told this due to miscommunication. My parents are the ones that are bringing me along to play translator).

I managed to get the Lonely Planet Middle Eastern Phrasebook purchased online. It will come to me tomorrow, and I hope that it will arrive before the shuttle to the airport does.

But even if that doesn’t happen, I have other tools for Gulf Arabic, namely a Peace Corps Guide (primarily aimed at Saudi Arabia) that is 300 pages long, as well as a Japanese-based Gulf Arabic app, and the free preview for the Gulf Arabic Kauderwelsch book (I wouldn’t underestimate those free previews given how helpful one of them was for me in Iceland).

Thanks to me having done Dari on Mango Languages (to help improve Tajik), the Arabic alphabet isn’t as strange to me as, let’s say, Thai characters.

I’m focusing on the casual Gulf Arabic for this time. Will probably only use in the airplanes or on the airports. But at least that will be enough to write an article on. I hope.

I am reminded of one of my friends, a fluent speaker of Egyptian Arabic, who remarked that Gulf Arabic sounded like “frog talk”. Part of me has dreamed of learning it ever since.

What do I intend to do? Go through the books and the apps on the plane, and the book (that will hopefully arrive!) using mnemonics along the way. Write as much as I can. If there are native speakers I can interact with, great! This will be a challenge I remember!


Thai: Something New




Got an Italki language exchange partner who wanted to learn Northern Sami from me (which I forgot a while ago but am relearning bit-by-bit to prepare for the lessons). She’s teaching me elementary Thai in exchange and I’m enchanted by everything about it, the same way that I am enchanted with…pretty much every language I’ve ever studied.

Thanks to her help I’m headed into this situation with more wisdom than with my “see how much Gulf Arabic you can learn in a day” assignment.

I still have zilch idea how to read. At all.

But I am capable of speaking. A little bit, but I’m capable of that little bit.

And that is something.

PLAN: Same as for the Gulf Arabic one, except for I’ll be studying it on the plane from Dubai to Bangkok. I also won’t be studying this for the “way back” trip.


Vanishing for the Vacation.


I’m not going to be writing posts during my trip to Myanmar (May 10th – May 29th). I’ll even leave my computer at home.

I’ll miss all of you, but I really, REALLY look forward to sharing the results of my daredevilry with all of you!


Another announcement:




“Using Video Games to Learn and Maintain Languages”.


I’ll get to that soon enough. But first I have to take on some adventures.


While I’m my adventures, I’ll be thinking of you, dear reader, and knowing that I can share my ventures as inspiration to make your linguistic dreams come true!

See you in June!

2015-08-20 14.50.06

My New Facebook Quotes Section

On May 27th, 2017, my personal Facebook account turns ten years old.

Thinking of a way I could change the account to reflect my growth / changes since then, I decided to compile a number of quotes, one from each language featured in my video.

Thanks to issues with fonts I transliterated the Hebrew, Yiddish and Burmese. While I did the same for Russian and Ukrainian I also provided the original.

EDIT: I transliterated the Tajik portion as well.

Here you are!

Mervel zo ret, dimeziñ n’eo ket.
(Death is necessary, marriage isn’t)
– Breton Proverb

My a’th kar milweyth moy es ow brithel.

I love you a thousand times more than my mackerel

– Found on Cornish language learning forums for Valentine’s Day.

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
(Not my circus, not my monkeys)
– Polish idiom, meaning “I didn’t create this problem”

Ég skal sýna þér í tvo heimana.
(I will show you the two worlds)

– (Icelandic idiom meaning, “I will beat you up, very badly”)

Paasilerpara inuit kalaallit pissaaneqaqisut.
(This I recognize: the Greenlandic people possess a mighty strength.)

– Nanook (Greenlandic Band)

Tout ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français.
(Everything that isn’t clear isn’t French)
– Antoine de Rivarol

“Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste.”
(Broken Irish is better than clever English)
– Irish saying

“Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon”
A nation without a language, a nation without a soul
– Welsh proverb

Наша мета – знайти щось нове. (Nasha meta – znaiti shchos’ Nove)
Our goal is to find something new

– the Ukrainian Duolingo Course

Я скажу по секрету, между нами,
Самое главное – money, money.
За них сегодня можно все купить
Их нужно тратить, а не копить.

I am telling you a secret between us,
The most important thing is money, money
It can buy anything today,
It is necessary to spend it, not to save it.

– Leningrad, “Money”

Stilla kvøldarmyrkrið lokkar ljósini fram á skipum ið liggja við kai.

(A quiet evening darkness casts light forward from ships resting by the harbor.)

– Terji Rasmussen, Faroese Singer

“Cazi. Doida ja réidne goruda buhtisin. Dan éazi. Doida ja raidne.”

(Water, cleanses and purifies the body. This water. Cleanses and purifies.”)

– Sofia Jannok, Sami singer, “Bali Cahci” (waters of Bali),

Ven Shlomo homelekh volt dikh gezen, volt er gevolt hobn nor eyn froy.
If King Solomon would have seen you, he would have only wanted one wife

– (Michael Wex, in his Yiddish language phrasebook “Just Say Nu”)

Disfala Waes Tisa hemi tok olsem, “Laef blong yumi, hemi no fitim tingting blong yumi! !Ya, evrisamting hemi barava no fitim wanem yumi tingim!”

(Solomon Islands Pijin translation of Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Yu no talem se, wan sel nomo.
(Don’t ever say, ”just one shell”)

-the Ni-Vanuatu Kava Song

(“I don’t have a stable job, but I can give you lots more, now if you want to go away and forget about me, the local boy, I’m sorry, love, I can promise you this…”)

-Daniel Bilip, the “Nambawan hitmaker bilong Papua New Guinea”

Donde hay gana, hay maña.
(When there is something to win, there is a means to get it.)

– Spanish proverb
“Jos et mun tyylii tajuu, se meinaa että sulla ei oo tyylitajuu”
(If you don’t get my style, it means that you got no sense of style.)

– Cheek, Finnish rapper

“Jag vill ha en egen måne, jag kan åka till
Där jag kan glömma att du lämnat mig
Jag kan sitta på min måne och göra vad jag vill
Där stannar jag tills allting ordnat sig. ”

(I want to have my own moon that I can travel to,
There I can forget that you left me.
I can sit on my moon and do what I want
I’m staying there until everything gets better.)

– Ted Gärdestad, Swedish singer

“Leser aldri bøker, og se på TV er jeg lei
jeg liker Zappa, men Zappa liker sikkert ikke meg”

(I never read books, sick of watching TV,
I like Zappa, but Zappa sure doesn’t like me.)

Lars Kilevold, Norwegian singer, “Livet er for kjipt” (Life Sucks)

Du skal ikke tro, du er noget. Du skal ikke tro, at du er lige så meget som os. Du skal ikke tro, at du er klogere end os…

(You are not to believe, that you are something, you are not to believe that you are as worth as must as we are, you are not to believe that you are cleverer than us…)

– Law of Jante, Danish literary touchstone

Nu, az ma yihiyeh?
Well, so what? (Common Israeli idiom)

„Ich kann zu meiner Reisen
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen
In dieser Dunkelheit.“

“I cannot choose the time
For beginning my journey.
I must show myself the way
In this darkness”

Wilhelm Mühler
April doet wat ie wil
(April Does whatever it wants)
Dutch Proverb

Em tempo de guerra, qualquer buraco é trincheira.
(In wartime, every hole is a trench.)

– Portuguese proverb

“Mu südames oled kirjutatud luule,
mida nüüd vaid loen.
Kuid ma tean: need sõnad heidan tuulde
ja vaikselt peitu poen,
vaikselt peitu poen.”

“In my heart you have written poetry,
That I am now reading
But I know: these words I cast into the wind
And I go into hiding
And I go into hiding.”

Ott Lepland, Estonian singer, “Sa Ju Tead”,

“Aki mer, az nyer”
(He who dares, wins.)
– Hungarian Proverb

Биёед, канӣ санҷем!
Let us try it.

(By-yo-ed, kanii sanjem!)

– Tajik sentence from the Tatoeba sentence database.

mooj\wa bemA dOO kheji\ shä’ mä.
(Even though it is raining, we will travel onwards.)

– Myanmar Word for Word.

Italiano – La verita ha una buona faccia ma cattivi abiti
(The truth has a good face but bad clothes.)
– Italian Proverb

polyglot moi

Absolutely no connection to the last quote there. Nuh-uh.

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.


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.


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!


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?


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.


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!


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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?”


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.


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!


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.


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

What Yiddish, Tok Pisin, Irish, and Not a Few Other Languages Have in Common


In two days, this blog will celebrate its first birthday, and I recognize that for a handful of reasons I have not been updating this enterprise particularly well, although my own language adventures have been energized even more vigorously.

Throughout those adventures, I have noticed that there is a significant break between the languages that UNESCO notes as “Endangered” and those that it does not (and those listed as “Vulnerable” are on the borderline).

For those of you wishing to see the Atlas:

It is not about the number of speakers. Yiddish has more native speakers than Icelandic does, if you take into account all Yiddish dialects (UNESCO’s atlas as well as its Red Book notes individual dialects—suffice it to say that the boundary between dialects and languages deserves another post). Faroese has more native speakers than Irish or Breton does, yet Faroese is only “Vunerable” whereas Irish is “definitely endangered” and Breton “severely endangered”.

And before you ask, what the languages have in common in the title is NOT that they are endangered: Tok Pisin actually is not (for those curious, it has over 1 million native speakers , 4 million fluent speakers at least, as well as government support).

I detect two factors between all endangered languages:

  • The fact that every single one of them has had their usage suppressed by a government. One significant horror story is that of Breton, which in 100 years went from the sole language of Brittany to being spoken by 10% of the population of the region natively…the quickest decline of a usage of any language that did not involve genocide.

The Celtic Languages in the United Kingdom, largely the poster children for Endangered languages in the Anglophone world (next to Yiddish), have similarly had their usage restricted or punished. Even now, there are some British politicians that deem the study and speaking of Celtic Languages as something tribalistic or even pagan.

To go outside Europe (but not far away from it), the story of Yiddish in Israel is well-known, deemed the language of the ghetto in the early days of the state to receiving state support in contemporary times. Israel was far from the only state suppressing the usage of Yiddish—the communist nations sought to integrate their populations into a single standard, and sometimes this vision involved “no minority languages” (although obviously this was notoriously inconsistently followed).

  • Now I get to answer the question at the beginning of the article: a lot of endangered languages (of which Tok Pisin is not, although it has this feature anyway) feature usage of components from various nations that have had an occupying presence or the like. In Irish, there is even a word for Irish that is influenced heavily by English: “Béarlachas” (the word for English is “Béarla”).

Yiddish-speakers in a place like Boro Park will notice that there is also an excess of English words that is found in many Ultra-Orthodox communities, words like “blueberries” and “challenges” are taken direction without any changes in this jargon, although you would be hard-pressed to find the equivalent in anything as assigned reading in your Yiddish-class (such as from the Forvertz).

In Tok Pisin as well, there is a split component. English is a composite language (between Norman, Saxon, Norse, Celtic and Colonial influences) as is Yiddish (between Germanic, Slavic, Latinate, other local languages and the Holy Tongue), and Tok Pisin is as well. Like Irish and Yiddish, there are words used to indicate a version of the language with overt European influence. Except for in the case of Tok Pisin, using too many European loanwords can be construed as unbelievably offensive. Not surprisingly, this variety of the language is called “Tok Masta”, which exists primarily in written text and, when it was spoken, was used primarily by condescending colonists in days of yore.

Not all languages that have this feature are endangered, but every endangered language that I have looked at does have a “purist” version as well as a version (or set thereof) that pays a significant amount of homage to the former rulers. The among of Norwegian words in a Northern Sami dictionary, for example, comes as a surprise to those not expecting the two to be related in any way. But when you consider history, it is not a surprise.

I am not someone to believe that languages influence too deeply the way we think about things (more on that in another post, perhaps). However, I am one to believe that learning languages is an excellent way to learn history and the relations between cultures. I was telling my mother, one day, a history of Celtic languages, and she paused my conversation and said, “are you saying that the history of every language is affected by who invaded where?”

It isn’t difficult to disagree or to say why. But yes.

Polyglot Report Card, March 2015 Edition, and Diagnoses (Part 1)

With the constant notion that the Polyglot Conference is coming up in October, I have to be mindful of how I focus my energies with my projects from now until then.

Having a routine is good. Keeping the routine is better. So I published this post to reflect, as well as to “poke” me into following that routine.

English: I have to get that true American accent back. Somehow. Right now it sounds like a “mixture”, and almost everyone I know has remarked on that fact. People that knew me from before my big trips abroad and met me afterwards have noticed that my voice has changed. But can I change it back?

That’s worthy of another blog post in its own right…

Hebrew: Thanks largely to a lot of classes, I feel very confident. It seriously slipped when I was living in Germany, but thanks to the JTS folks I feel good about it again…

What I need to do: just browse the dictionary at points. I’ve had enough exposure to the language that I should be able to think of contexts without trouble…

Yiddish: Almost the exact same situation, except for the fact that on very rare occasions I worry about mixing up German and Yiddish, although it almost never happens now. (A friend of mine said that his professor said that when he wanted to speak German, he just used Yiddish with a British accent…hmmm…)

So what I also need to do for Yiddish is browse dictionaries and keep a good exposure with books and texts. The fact that I’m enrolled in an Advanced Yiddish texts class right now ensures that I have that.

With German, it is pretty much the exact same thing.

And now comes Spanish, the language that I feel I screwed up on more occasions than any other. As a very sensitive person, I have difficulty separating it from some of my failures involving it (not passing an AP exam during my senior year of high school has been a sort of never-live-it-down moment).

Right now, I know what I need:  my passive understanding is very good, and so I can watch television without problems. I need to convert that into active understanding by ensuring that I watch that television more often. Oh, and somehow divorce the negative experiences I’ve had with the language. Otherwise I’ll never get good at it…

Danish, in part because of my obsession with Greenland, has surged with progress ever since I got back to the United States. I never thought that I would get this good at the language while I was living in Sweden! I’ve had enough exposure via television that watching Danish TV now seems like as much of a waste of time as watching TV in English.

Now I’ll need to turn my attention to reading. And not on the computer! Print the articles or find books and get readin’ em.

Norwegian is a bit similar, although I’m not really as confident with it. I don’t believe that Norwegian TV is as much of a “waste of time” as watching English TV, so I still have to get to that ultra-confident point yet. In the meantime, using the same strategy as I have for Danish (getting articles) isn’t going to hurt at all.

Swedish has weakened. Significantly. I’ve just been lazy. On a side note, I do encounter a LOT of Swedes in New York City. I can’t really say that I can be proud of my progress in that language. And my accent still needs improvement…

My core vocabulary is strong, however. A lot better than it ever has been, especially when I was living in the country…I need to watch a lot of television in Swedish, and then, when I feel as good about it as I do with Danish, then I get more reading practice. I remember buying a Swedish-language book about seals when I was there. It is probably somewhere in that book stash in Connecticut…that would be just what I may need!

Dutch. Neglected. I almost considered forgetting it altogether. But the fact that it is similar to German and Yiddish ensured that it was pretty much a non-option. If I want to get better, then I know what I need to do: get a dictionary, and browse it. And watch TV in Dutch.

I only have one real problem with Greenlandic at this point: I need a stronger vocabulary than what I have. My accent is really good, I can get the flow and I’ve had a bit too much exposure to the language. I found the vocabulary for this language the hardest to acquire out of any of I’ve studied. I’m going to have to break out comprehensive vocabulary lists and start putting them into Memrise!

Northern Sami: I’m not as used to the flow of this language as I am with Greenlandic. My grammar could also use some brushing up (the cases I’m good with, I don’t even need to worry about consonant gradation anymore…if you want to know what that is, just go to the tag categories and click “Northern Sami” and read until you encounter something about it. Or ask me in the comments). My vocabulary could use some strengthening, primarily by…exposure to more Northern Sami language media.

I just turned on NRK Sápmi as I’m writing this. I could read vocabulary lists, but it would be BETTER if I were to expose my brain to the language more often.

And one last language for the time being, Faroese. Grammar is my biggest issue. And sometimes listening comprehension. I have more reading practice than I know what to do with. Listen, listen, listen…and find those scholarly works on Faroese grammar and know it as well as you can.

To be continued in Part 2

kegn dem shtrom

Mu Mátkkis Dávvisamegielain Birra

Odne lea Sámi albmotbeaivi, ja muhtumin mun jurddašan ahte mu dilli Sámi kultuvrain lea hui ártet munnje, ja maid jurddašit nu mu ustibat (muhto ii juohkehaš, mu mielas).

Dávjá jurddašan “Manne amerihkálaš / juvddálaš  ferte hupmat ja čallit Sámegiela? Manne son háliida riepmat dakkár mátkki, jus sun ii leat sápmelaš dahje skandinávalaš?”

Mu ádjá bearaš leat Ruoŧas eret, muhto dađi bahábut eat goassege leat deaivvadan. Mu human ruoŧagiela mu jagi Ruoŧas dihte, ja mun maid lean áigon oahppat buoret mu soga historjjá birra.

Sámigiela oahpahus mus ii leat eakti sivva, ja dábálaččat mus sivva ii goassege leat go mun áiggun oahppat ođđa giela (o.d. Kalaallisutgiella, Kornagiella, Inuktitutagiella).

Mu mánnávuođa áigge, mun ovtto  liikojin muohttagii  ja nai mun lohken stuorrát kárttagirjiid. Mun gehččen Eurohpá , ja jurddašedjen “ Orrutgo olbmot Finnmárkus ja Slavbard:is?”

Ruoŧas (go mun studerejin Stockholmas)  maŋážassii deaivvadeimme—Sámi Kultuvra, Dávvisamegiella, ja mun— Skansen:is ja maiddái  davviriikkalaš museas.

Mun duođas in goassege jáhkkán ahte Amerihkká  lea mu eakti ruovttueana, ja nai mus lea rahčamuš gaskkas mu soga bealit. Mu áhčči leat juvddálaš sogas eret, ja mu eadni amerihkálaš sogas eret (dál mu eadni lea nai juvddálaš , maŋŋil ovdal sin heajat).

Sámi máilbmi áddehaddá munnje oasi mu sielu ja fearána soga—sohka fearániin mii lea maid mu iežas eallimis

Sámi leavga maid lea hui čáppat:


Mu eadni háliida gullat mu báddema “Sámi Soga Lávlaga” ja maid “Sámi Álbmotbeaivvi Lávlaga”.

Danne mun lean almmuhan videoid… didjiide…



Lihkku beivvin!