The Hardest Things about Learning English Creole Languages

As a teenager I constantly wondered if there were languages closer to English than any of the national languages of Europe I’ve heard were closely related (anything Scandinavian, Dutch, Romance Languages, Afrikaans [despite not really being European in a full sense] etc.)

Turns out they DO exist, not only in Scots but also with English Creole Languages, of which there are many spanning multiple continents. So far I’m fluent in five of them, and my Jamaican Patois book is in the mail (I’ve decided that I’ll be focusing only on Hungarian and Lao as far as new languages are concerned until I’m fluent in one of them, but it occurs to me that given how similar “Jamaican” is to Trinidadian Creole and Salone Krio, I may be inclined to make an exception for it because it wouldn’t be a source of active stress).

I really look forward to learning Jamaican Patois however much of a “snail ride” it is.

However, as much as I sometimes make it out to be that way in conversation, learning English Creole Languages isn’t always very easy.

There were unique challenges they presented that I haven’t seen in the other clusters of languages I’ve focused on (e.g. Scandinavian, Celtic, and soon Southeast Asian and Pacific!)

Let me tell you a bit more about them:

 

  • Slurring and Very Quick Speech is Common to Many Creole Languages

 

After all, Creoles are highly efficient!

Hopping from your phrasebooks or your textbooks (yes, textbooks exist for English Creole Languages, particularly for the Peace Corps) to the “real world” of that language is a difficult task.

The clear words that you saw on the page may be jumbled in ways you didn’t even think possible. Entire syllables will be left out and you’ll need to train yourself. At first it will be like “did you get the general idea?” but then you’ll learn to manage well enough.

The clearest versions of the Creoles tend to exist (1) on radio and TV (2) in materials for missionaries (who partner with native speakers in order to tell stories about Jesus or Biblical characters or what-have-you) and (3) governmental notices that have been localized (often developed countries assist with these productions, also using voice actors who are native speakers or fluent local speakers). These may act as a “gateway” to you understanding your dream creole in its full form the way the locals do.

I’ll give you one example: Solomon Islands Pijin uses “blong olketa” (belonging to them, belonging to all of them, of them, etc.) You may hear it pronounced as “blokta”. And that’s one example of hundreds.

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often use Standard English On / Off in their speech, making it difficult to get a “consistent” stream of it in some areas of Creole-speaking countries.

 

Trinidadian Creole forms the future and past differently from English. There is also no such thing as a passive verb. (These are all things my book says). It’s close enough to English that some people, even Trinidadians, don’t even believe it is a separate language.

Despite that, especially among people who have specialized in medicine or engineering or something similar, you’ll hear a pattern in which they’ll hop between Standard English and their Creole without even thinking about it. This isn’t unique to English creoles and it is called “code switching”.

It may leave you confused. If I used too much English or too little English, what will happen? What sort of situations should I use this much English in? Will I come off as rude?

These are all questions you’ll get a “feel” for and there are so many right answers depending on the community in which you use these languages.

Much like with languages from countries in which English is commonly spoken (e.g. Swedish, Dutch) you’ll have to learn how to mirror how English loans and phrases are used in conversations. Imitating native speakers is your best bet (after all, that’s how we all learn our first language!)

And then, sometimes, you have the opposite problem…

 

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often throw in words from their own native languages you may have never encountered before. This is especially common in music.

A non-existent problem on the radio and TV, this can be an issue in music especially (or if you’re overhearing conversations).

The Creoles of Melanesia and Africa are poised between the native languages and the European languages and have to dance delicately between them (the Carribean Creoles don’t have this dynamic, although they, like the African and Pacific English Creoles, are a fusion between the many languages that the African slaves spoke and understood but in a version that would be comprehensible to the slaveowners.)

Because of this, the people who write the comprehensive dictionaries (even if they’re native speakers of these languages themselves) can’t always keep up. My Yiddish teacher told me that Yiddish was like learning five languages in one (German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian). These creoles are sometimes like learning many, many more of these in one (although their vocabulary loans are more lopsided towards English than Yiddish is towards German).

It’s not uncommon for songwriters singing in Melanesian creoles to hop into their native language or Standard English while singing their creoles in between. Here’s an example:

Related to that is…

  • Some speakers of Creole Languages may have their pronunciation altered due to the phonemes of their native language.

 

As a native English speaker, I have to be careful with my accent in speaking many other languages and I sometimes have to work on it a lot. If I don’t, it may cause a significant amount of discomfort in native speakers who may then be inclined to switch to English if they’re lazy enough (which, sadly enough, most people are).

But imagine if your native language is spoken by 2,000 people on your island somewhere in the Solomons. You will primarily use Solomon Islands Pijin and English to communicate with other people at home and abroad respectively. But you don’t really need to worry about perfecting your accent in Pijin because back from its earliest days on the plantations in Queensland people spoke it with whatever accent they used from their native language. That’s largely still the case (although there are people who speak these Creoles as their native language, Creoles by definition have to have large enough vocabulary to be a mother tongue of someone, that’s what makes them distinct from Pidgins).

The downside? You may hear some vowels, phonemes and individual words mutating in ways you didn’t even think possible. You may hear some basic phrases change into something that is only borderline recognizable to you. Some accents in these creoles can be so difficult that you may actually draw blanks during some areas of a conversation. But as long as you know how to respond with ease and / or get the context, that’s okay.

That’s an issue that primarily comes up when dealing with the spoken language (so when having conversations or watching artistic productions, on radio broadcasts these languages tend to be used as clearly as possible).

 

  • In Some Contexts, You May be Better Off Using English

 

Feel free to disagree with me on this one if your experience says otherwise.

Alas, there are some people in countries where Creoles are spoken that may look down on their local creoles as languages of the uneducated or peasants. In the case of the Caribbean creoles it could be that, depending on context, your attempts to speak their language may be construed as making fun of their accents.

Much like Yiddish was seen throughout a lot of its history as a language that was inferior to both German and the languages of the Bible and the Talmud (and sometimes seen as the language of “women and the uneducated”), in some areas this view of the Creole language can still be present. Interestingly in an age of mass language death this may be changing and there will no doubt be thousands of fluent speakers of these creoles who will be WILLING to practice with you.

Suffice it to say that, despite that, learning the local language is always a fantastic idea. Keep in mind that Standard English plays a role in each of the places where these Creoles are spoken – it’s not like it’s genuinely foreign to people who live in Jamaica or Vanuatu or Sierra Leone. Not at all.

The many languages of these places all play a different role, but the Creoles truly echo the local cultures in unison because, for a number of reasons, they ended up being the languages around which these countries would unify when they became independent. And they continue to play important roles (not a single one of the creoles I’ve mentioned here is endangered, although Trinidad and Tobago does also have this other French creole language that seems to be quite weak as of the time of writing).

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Here’s hoping you meet success in your journeys, wherever they take you!

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”How Do You Know So Much About Everything?”, or How to Build an Encyclopedic Memory

 

Too often throughout my life have people tried to convince me that somehow my mind was “special” and that I was “gifted”.

Later on in life, it occurred to me that the only thing that really made me different was the fact that I “tripped” on some successful formulae on how to memorize things and that I applied them with consistency.

If you’ve had a conversation with me in real life, you’ll definitely know that I am an experience collector that draws in a lot of different histories and cultural experiences from throughout the globe and draws them together in ways that are inspiring at best, intimidating at worst.

Today I decided that I’m going to let loose some of my secret as to how I developed the memory and how you can develop an encyclopedic knowledge of anything of your choice!

You already have an encyclopedic knowledge of SOMETHING

That’s one important thing to keep in mind. Even if it is very simple details about your life, your family or your work sphere, there is something that you know very well in detail.

How exactly did you remember it? I’ll give you some clues.

For one, you associated the various facts and faces and stimuli used for recognition with multiple elements. Some of them were:

  • Feelings
  • Incidents associated with certain feelings (e.g. funny stories, awkward stories)
  • Places (we’ll get to the memory palace in a bit, which is probably the world’s most tested-and-true memory technique)
  • Your senses (you may associate smells or sounds or melodies with them)

Another thing you also did in order to remember these details about your life is the fact that your brain has been convinced (and rightly so) that learning these details is actually essential to your survival. (If you can trick your brain that learning something is essential to your survival, your brain is going to learn it whether you like it or not. Humans are the most successful species this planet has ever seen and your brain is, by extension, served as the key to that success. Trust it).

In places like Germany and Myanmar where I could not always rely on people speaking English or other languages I knew, my brain kicked into second-gear when I needed to learn phrases of the local language, especially ones that would be useful in emergency situations. Even in places like Sweden and Iceland knowledge of the local language could be a survival advantage and …

(I was writing this in Grand Central Station and a fire alarm went off. Despite the fact that the announcement was in English I literally couldn’t understand a single word. Serves to show you that sometimes even “your language” can be completely unintelligible to you and you don’t give it a second thought or become insecure about it!)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

I was having a conversation about multilingualism at (one of) my rabbi’s classes last night. Interestingly I said that a lot of people memorize other things with great success (e.g. names of sports teams and what years they won, names of Pokémon, video games, video game levels, TV shows, episodes and seasons, books you’ve read, names of your teachers throughout your life, etc.) One reason for that is that they associate it with places, feelings and stimuli.

Take the example of sports games. I’ve lived with a lot of students from Spain when I was in Poland (to whom I owe the fact that I talk Spanish like an Iberian). They went to sports bars very frequently and no doubt they associate each game with a different place and a different set of emotions, not also to mention the sort of things that their friends or other company said or did during the game or afterwards. In so doing, they have an advantage in memorizing a “timeline” in their head given that they associate each incident with stimuli that serve to enforce the memory.

Or take video games. I can literally draw of map of the Kanto Region (from the original Pokémon games) from memory. I can tell you where in Kanto to find any of the individual species in the Red Version (I started with a Bulbasaur, for those curious). I can even hum the music from any of the routes or the cities (although this is probably due to my musical memory in general, which is something I may write about another time). What’s more, I KNOW I am not the only person who can do that.

I associated each place not only with the melody but also the type of Pokémon that were found there, in addition to places in real life where I was when I beat certain gym leaders in the game. (I beat Brock in Hamden, Connecticut outside of a place called Wentworth’s Ice Cream store, for example).

Now how exactly can you apply this to ACADEMIC knowledge?

For one, since I was very young, I associate particular places with other stimuli (they were usually visual or musical). I also associate places with individual customs or landmarks. Flags, obviously, became a big help as well.

This was something that I may have picked up later in in my childhood from edutainment games. Take, for example, the 1990’s versions of “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” (I’ll have you know that they depicted some places I’ve been to in real life, including Yafo in Israel, Gamla Stan in Stockholm, and the Old Town in Heidelberg with not a hint of inaccuracy in the SLIGHTEST. Okay, they probably copied the details from panoramic photos, but whatever). In the games, you not only associate the places with hints that the characters give to you but also the landscapes and the musical pieces that echo the “mood” of whatever place you’re in. (Yafo is going to be very different from San Francisco, and Mount Kilimanjaro is going to be very different from either of those).

The places no longer became lists of places I’ve never heard of, they became places of living people, real places and a culture that I tasted, to whatever small a degree, with the game’s soundtrack (I would say that Israel, Iran, Iceland, Zaire (as it was called then), France and Germany probably have the most memorable musical pieces in that game).

Or let’s take verb conjugations, for example.

For Finnish, I associated them with particular sentences that I heard in songs and spoken by characters in dubs of animated movies or cartoons. In so doing, the grammatical “pains” of Finnish (such as conjugations of verbs, conjugations of the “no” verb [in Finnish, “no” is a verb and you have to conjugate it and pair it with the stem of another verb afterwards], or the relative pronouns [don’t get me started on these!]) weren’t so painful anymore.

In Hungarian, I’m doing something slightly different, in which I’m associating them with sentences from my Anki deck, all of which seem to tell a story by themselves (okay, let’s open up the deck right now and see what I get. Okay…the sentence is … “apám jól van, mint mindig” [Father is well, as usual]. Doesn’t that sentence tell a story by itself? Doesn’t it cause some emotion of sorts to stir up in your heart? When you hear the sentence, you may associate it with a particular “taste” captured in the sentence. Remember that.) No doubt I’m going to head onto what I did with Finnish-dubbed cartoons as well, probably later on down the line…

Here’s probably another point you need to take away: just reading stuff off a page over and over again is NOT LIKELY TO WORK. You have to pay attention to how each element you’re supposed to be memorizing makes you feel.

What words in it resemble things or words in other languages you already know? What sort of story is the word telling? (In many Germanic languages [Yiddish, German, mainland Scandinavian] you “over-set” something to translate it, but in Finnish and Tok Pisin you “turn” it).

Are you learning it with a friend or eating something you really like (or really don’t like) while you’re learning it?

Did a native speaker correct your pronunciation and did you feel embarrassed? Did a native speaker compliment you and make you feel good about it?

These emotional turns are going to cause your memory to go into Jedi mode, which is why immersion in another country (or another area of the country or the city that you’re living in that you haven’t explored), which is very likely to create emotions of all sorts, is such a good idea, regardless of whether you’re a beginner (like I was with Burmese in Myanmar back in May), on the intermediate plateau (like where I sort of am with Greenlandic right now concerning my Greenland mission in October) or fluent (like with Danish in Greenland).

You can also use music to create emotions as well, which is why learning from a song (and a song text) is a fantastic idea as well, even though it may not assist you in conversation at the absolute beginner stage (although no doubt it will help you up your vocabulary count in the intermediate stage and beyond!)

In summary:

  • To develop an encyclopedic memory, know that it is possible. You already have a very good knowledge of at least something, no matter who you are.
  • Associate what you want to learn with “hooks”. They can be anything that evokes an emotion or a visual that may assist with it. Pay attention to what “connections” you can make between what you want to learn and what you already know. Your knowledge base is like a Lego Castle and the more you build on it the more opportunities you’ll have to link things.
  • Use hooks of all sorts.
  • If something’s not sticking, feel free to expose yourself to it multiple times and your brain may come up with a hook eventually. If not, you can stare at the what you want to learn (e.g. a word, a conjugation) and make something silly so that you remember it.
  • Associate pictures or other sentences or tunes with what sort of words you want to learn.
  • Most importantly, realize that ALL humans are capable of this, and you don’t need a “certain type of brain” in order to get an encyclopedic knowledge of things. Just keep working on the hooks and you’ll get asked what I get very frequently in no time. “How on earth to you manage to KEEP SO MUCH STUFF in your BRAIN?!!?”

 

Happy hooking!

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Wesleyan University: A Reflection

Ten years ago today, I enrolled as a freshman at a place of local legend in Middletown, Connecticut.

Here I am today, a long time after that fateful day, and one degree and many, MANY transformations later, I am going to think about how the place and the people there (both the faculty and the students) affected me on the long term.

In short, looking at the journey I’ve undertaken thus far, what part of it was made possible by the red and black?

For those of you who probably stumbled on this page wondering exactly who I am (and who have no intention on clicking the “about” button at the top of the page), allow me to explain: I’m Jared Gimbel, I graduated in 2011 with a High Honors degree in the College of Letters Program and Classical Studies (with a Jewish Studies Certificate side-order).

Right now I do a lot of work with language learning and teaching, primarily with Jewish and Nordic languages (keep in mind that there was no department of Nordic Languages [e.g. Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic] when I was there at Wesleyan and I doubt that there will be in the near future, but I can dream…). I translate from many languages into English, primarily Danish and Yiddish, I have had conversations in 30+ languages over the course of my life and I haven’t even hit my 30’s yet as of the time of writing.

As to the “how many languages” question, I usually have to keep the number artificially deflated lest I encounter skeptics. But in a setting with people from many nationalities, the skepticism never lasts for long…

Most importantly, I’m working on a video game which is like a Pokémon  / Earthbound / Undertale / Final Fantasy set in a cute-cartoon version of contemporary Greenland. Set for release next year “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” promises to be a real treat and I and my team promise to deliver!

Okay, enough about me, more about college:

What did Wesleyan make possible for me?

 

  • The Kaleidoscope of Truth

 

Thanks in part to my religious education doubled with high school “teaching to the test”, I had been instilled with the idea of absolute truth, especially in the humanities.

Later on it occurred to me that, much like the kaleidoscope on my father’s coffee table, truth was something that could be adjusted. Much like I spin the kaleidoscope and I get a different image, I can spin the perspective and get a different truth.

The understanding that there is uncertainty in all things is liberating, and it also serves to eliminate limiting beliefs.

What’s more, it also helped me undo the shackles of my religious education that tried to tell me that there is a truth in all things and that it is absolute and genuine (and interestingly, I think the idea of makhlokiot [arguments and contentions] are an essential element of Judaism, something that rabbis I encountered later on in my life, including those at Wesleyan, made sure to deliver to me!)

Any system could be unmade and reconstructed from the bottom up. It taught me how to be a revolutionary, and this blog and my many ideas about language learning would have not been possible without it.

 

  • The Value of Exploration

 

So many people at Wesleyan University, especially the students, were endlessly curious about other cultures, other topics, other fields and were truly willing to try new things.

Granted, thanks to me being more socially conservative then than I am now (I almost never partied in college at all…) I wasn’t an explorer in every sense.

People were willing to look at all details, to make quaint observations, to bring up their life experiences and assist other people on the journey upwards.

At JTS, I didn’t find this exploration present to the same degree. Nor did I find it in Heidelberg as often. The same was true for Hebrew University. It is true that exploration was an essential part of the educational experience in all of these places, but Wesleyan’s curious student body outdid all of them.

I think most people in the world would like to be like that, except for the fact that they have limiting beliefs and low self-esteem that is preventing their true flourishing.

You deserve to flourish. No “I can’t”, no “I won’t”.  I’ll help you.

 

  • The Idea that the Road Less Travelled is Actually the Better Career Choice

 

A lot of insecurity pervaded people at Wesleyan, given how many jokes were told about liberal arts majors and how a lot of us were probably headed to unemployment directly after graduating.

But interestingly, what the education really did (for me, at least) was that it enabled me to become dynamic. It enabled me to see opportunities, not only related to employment and financial gain, but everything else, on a consistent basis.

A lot of people from other universities probably found themselves sucked into more predictable paths. I didn’t. I’m very glad that I didn’t, even though a lot of pain and self-doubt sprinkled the way to my current path.

People on predictable paths don’t tend to shake things up, plainly put. And you, regardless of where you went to school (or even if you didn’t) still have the possibility to live your dream life, just by thinking differently!

 

  • To Embrace a Quirky Personality While Maintaining a Social Contract

 

A lot of people are truly afraid of expressing who they really are. A lot of people at Wesleyan were not afraid of expressing who they really were.

A lot of personality showing is discouraged the world over, especially on the “way up”.

I could have gone somewhere else and become more conformist. I could have said fewer jokes or tried to reference pop culture more often or watch and consume the same media as many other people.

Instead, I decided to emphasize who made me different, knowing that I was the main character of the novel that is my life. I wanted that character to be memorable, funny and an experience-collector. Wesleyan enabled me to come to the realization that it was not only what I wanted, but that I wasn’t alone in wanting it.

The effect of the peer group at Wesleyan University was very, very powerful. And I am grateful for it every day.

 

  • Realizing that Taking in Wisdom from Multiple Fields is infinitely better than narrow focus

 

 

This is a big one, and one that served as a “gift that kept on giving” later on down the line. In my classes, I learned to apply various forms of wisdom from one discipline to another. In my professional life, I can notice patterns in successful projects and apply them in a completely different manner in projects of a completely different nature.

More simply put, even something like successful video game design can teach me about how to be a good teacher (e.g. knowing how the mind works and using that to create a more engaging class).

I took on a lot of projects throughout the years, including:

 

  • Concert Pianist
  • Educational YouTube Channel
  • Let’s Play YouTube Channel
  • Synagogue Cantor
  • Karaoke Master
  • Celeglot (Celebrity + Polyglot)
  • Language Teacher
  • History Teacher
  • Preschool teacher (when I was in Poland…don’t ask!)
  • Translator
  • Video Game Designer
  • Tabletop Game Designer
  • Comic Book Author (Really!)
  • Novelist
  • Blogger
  • Person who draws cute baby seals for a living (Okay, maybe I was joking…or was I?)

You can guess that I got a lot of experiences from all of these. What’s more, I gained wisdom from each and that wisdom strengthened all of my collective projects.d

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Higher Education serves a sinister purpose at times. It crushed my confidence significantly. It serves to  convince us that we have no choice but to be smaller than who or what we really are. What’s more, some educational systems have poisonous ideas in place to further competition, and the fact that the Dean’s List came to Wesleyan University during my last year was an extraordinarily bad idea.

It serves to create conformity, to really convince you that you’re not good enough and that obedience and learning to think like your teachers is the most important thing.

I’m not going to lie, Wesleyan did have these ills present from Prussian-style education systems as well. A lot of those ills did significant harm to me and continue to do so, but that’s a post for another time.

But hey, grades (whether they’re good or not) and whatever social standing you had in college (whether that was good or not) matter very little to you when you’re a 20+ language hyperpolyglot with the admiration of your friends, community and beyond, so there’s that.

That said, I realize that degrees are very valuable for career-building and connection-making, and Wesleyan did a very good job and minimizing a lot of the necessary evils of our conformist educational system.

What’s more, I wouldn’t have become a truly exploratory soul without the people I met there and the environment fostered there.

And despite everything, I’d like to ask for forgiveness and say thank you.

Wes U

Does Learning Languages ACTUALLY Make You More Open-Minded?

Let’s start this one out with an incontrovertible fact: most of the planet speaks more than one language. It knowing more than one language actually led to being more open-minded, it would follow that most of the planet is, by that metric, open-minded and non-hateful. It seems that the correlation is actually nowhere to be found.

In other words, if multilingualism led to open-mindedness and we could dispel hatred from the world by just teaching people multiple languages, given that most of the planet already knows more than one language, it would have happened by now.

However, learning more than one language CAN lead to being more open-minded, and I’ll relate how to in a moment.

But first, I would like to mention the fact that I’ve been addicted to polyglot culture since I first encountered it in 2013 in Germany and then in 2014 in the United States. I’ve been to WAAAAY too many meetings and social events to count.

Regardless of whether you take into account people who spoke several languages from birth and those who learned several languages later on in their life (even anywhere from 6+), I encountered very curious people who wanted to explore the world and ask questions, and others who were painfully judgmental about the world and other cultures.

In some cases, there were those that event insulted my choice of languages OR insulted other people’s accents and attempts to speak their language to their face (the latter was quite a rarity although sadly the former really isn’t).

Let’s put it this way: in my personal experience, speaking multiple languages does not necessarily lead to an enlightened understanding of the world and a general curiosity to learn about other people.

Nor is it the amount of languages either. I’ve met people who spoke only 2-3 languages who were significantly more curious and open-minded than some of those who spoke seven.

And yes, this also needs to be said: some people who speak only one language can be significantly more open-minded than those who speak several!

But by now you’ve probably read countless articles about how “language learning makes you experience the world differently and will make you understand more cultures and make you a better human”, and now you’ve encountered my experience and you wonder, “What? Are you possibly for real?”

And no, education level also doesn’t play a significant role in how open-minded (or not) you are, especially given how many degree-chasers there are just because of a supposed or real employment advantage.

Here’s what is probably meant when people say “learning languages makes you a more open-minded person…”

The Reasoning Behind Your Choice Matters

As some of you know, I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish environment during my teenage years (I’ve written about it many times on this blog).

Throughout my time there, there was a lot of distrust in the air for many different people groups, real or imagined. Some of them included:

  • Jews of other denominations, especially, at times, secular Israelis.
  • Eastern Europeans
  • Scandinavians
  • Muslims of any variety
  • Arabs (Mizrakhi culture was, in my memory, never brought up at school, nor did I even know that Arab Christianity was a major force in many Arab countries until the late 2000’s).
  • Anything smacking of the secular Yiddish culture, including having one rabbi respond to my speaking Yiddish (not to him) with resentment and fury (although there was one from New Square who heard me speaking Yiddish and he smiled and said, “so that’s what they teach you at college!” Oh, that was one time when I came back, not in the early 2000’s when I was actually in the school)
  • African-Americans, Afro-Caribbean peoples, and Africans in general.

Because of the prevalence of liturgical Hebrew as well as the fact that knowledge of the French language (and Latin) was highly prized there, my school wasn’t a monoglot environment.

It is very possible to have knowledge of multiple languages, even living languages, and still be closed off and, in a way, close-minded and fearful.

Later on in life, having my eyes opened by my experience at Wesleyan University, I began learning Polish (months before I knew that I was actually going to be spending my first year outside of college in Krakow).

I did it for several reasons. For one, I had heard stories about Poland being backward and anti-Semitic (it’s no different than the United States in many regards, and I doubt many Polish people would disagree). I also wanted to discover many pieces of my heritage and realize that I could use the opportunity to be a peace-maker of sorts (which I have, since then, definitely become).

I gave up on Polish several times, last year I came back to it although I don’t really think I’d call myself fluent…yet…and I haven’t been giving it my full effort, to be honest…

In more recent times, I only hear Hungary being spoken about in the context of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, and as a result I embarked on a long-overdue quest to discover the many faces of contemporary Hungary as well as its fascinating history that my ancestors were a part of.

The Hungarians that I have spoken to since I began my journey earlier this year feel like long-lost relatives to me, and I even get to see my father’s side of the family in a whole new light. (Note: I’m not really that good at Hungarian yet, if you have any music recommendations in the language, PLEASE let me know so I can get addicted!)

Throughout the world I’ve seen cultures misimagined, viewed with distrust, or otherwise dismissed. Israel. The Scandinavian Countries. Papua New Guinea. Pretty much all of Africa and all of the Pacific Islands. Greenland.

And I haven’t even mentioned anything about Muslim-majority countries in general (Tajik and Mossi / Mòoré have been the two languages from such countries that I have focused on the most, even though I’ve read some things saying that Burkina Faso is actually majority Animist!)

What did I do?

I realized that I could be the healer.

I realized I could step in that I could introduce people to these cultures.

I realized I could be the bridge, the peacemaker, and turn people away from their prejudices.

I realized that, whatever little prejudice I have in my, I could uproot.

I could encourage people to study their family histories and learn the languages of their ancestors.

I could encourage people to learn more about cultures that their family or the TV or the media has taught them to be afraid of.

That’s how you learn languages to become more open-minded.

And you can even pick global languages like Spanish and French and use them as an opportunity for healing and discovery! (I remember Olly Richards having written a post on why Donald Trump should learn Spanish. Given what’s sadly happened since he wrote that [before the November 2016 election], it would seem that the family should probably invest in many more languages as well…)

I wonder how many people would live boring lives of wishing they were more and quiet lives of conformity, knowing that in 2017 and beyond, the whole world and knowledge of everything in it could be theirs…

Go get ‘em!

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How to Perfect your Accent in English

It isn’t often that I find myself writing about my native language! Actually, I think this is literally the FIRST time I’ve ever done that!

I’ve been an English-language tutor for nearly two years now, and one thing I’ve really noticed is that, thanks to my time in Poland at a reception desk (among many other jobs that included “Yiddish translator” and “guy who sings children’s songs for…well…children”), I’ve gained the uncanny ability to actually zone in on people’s English-language errors and peculiarities.

This article isn’t about grammar in the slightest (but if you’re curious I would think that the biggest mistakes made by far would actually be related to sentence structure and article usage [when do I use “a”? when do I use “the”?]).

Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to knowing how to perfect your accent. And English is tricky!

grand central

You, one day, knowing that your English skills are in the top 0.01% of all non-native speakers! 

Some languages, like Finnish or Hebrew, are pronounced the way they are written with mathematical precision!

English, especially the trickier American variety, is anything but that.

Without having to read any of my extended memoirs any more, let’s get into the details.

The most common pronunciation errors made by my students would include:

  • Not using the Schwa sound

American English has a very lazy sound indeed that a lot of languages don’t have. If you are a native speaker of American English, say the word “the” …note that it is a low sound that almost comes from your chin!

Instead, they will pronounce the words “the” and “thee” indentically. You don’t want to do that.

Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use the schwa sound are…well, there are no rules.

Because the schwa can literally be represented by a, e, i, o, u OR y!

Wikipedia, as of the time of writing, gives the following examples: about (first syllable), taken (last syllable), pencil (last syllable), memory (second syllable), supply (first syllable), sibyl (last syllable).

So what you need to do is two things:

  • Master the sound (the wikipedia article on Schwa that I just mentioned has a recording you can use!)
  • Find patterns in the way that it is used by English speakers and imitate them. If you find this hard to do, go to tatoeba.org and find English sentences read out loud by native speakers. In this way, you can learn to imitate a sentence exactly as a native speaker would! (Thanks to Ari in Beijing for this tip!)

 

  • English vowels, especially in “American”, are “Lazy”.

 

When I hear heavily accented English a lot of the time, and this is true for people from all continents, I usually hear a precision in the vowels.

In many types of accented English, the vowels are pronounced with emphasis and are strongly highlighted. You can do this and sound like a native speaker of American English…from the 1940’s, that is.

But contemporary English has a gliding quality to its vowels that almost none of the other languages that I have studied have.

American English uses a “legato” (and for those of you who speak Italian, note how differently an American would say the word versus the way an Italian would say it and you’ll illustrate my point exactly!). The vowels slither from one end of the mouth to the other. The primary focus of that back-and-forth swaying should be the back half of your tongue!

Instead, what many speakers do is that they pronounce the vowels statically. What this means is that the vowels, instead of moving throughout your mouth the way they do in “American”, stay put.

I don’t blame a lot of non-native speakers. Most languages in the world do this.

Those of you who know me in person know that my accent is a mixture of those from the many countries I’ve lived in. I have no problem putting on a flawless American accent, but it takes effort for me, because the lazy sounding of the vowel is something that, looking at it honestly, actually requires effort to execute.

Again, imitation of native speakers will assist you in learning how to do this. Pay attention to the small details of people’s speech (by the way, that’s what I did in my Learn Palauan Video Series that’s still ongoing). That way, you can pick up an accent.

What’s different from the way the native speaker is saying it in comparison to the way you would say it? Pay attention to EVERY. SMALL. DETAIL.

  • Not Pronouncing the R correctly

 

And this is especially  a problem from places like Thailand in which the L and the R sound are almost mixed (I bet you’re probably thinking about politically incorrect accent imitations from cartoons, aren’t you?)

One of my students practiced this sound by imitating my pronunciation of the phrase “rare occurrences”, which many non-native English speakers struggle with.

Your tongue should be curved upwards slightly, or flat, and then retreated. It should sound almost like a lazy dog’s growl (and I think it was a comment on Fluent in 3 Months or something like that that I took it from).

For those of you who speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the phrase 好好 (or “very good” = Hǎohǎo) is actually pronounced something closer to having an “r” sound in the middle of it. That’s how I got native Mandarin speakers from Beijing to pronounce the R sound flawlessly. Surprisingly that r actually resembles the American R to an astonishing degree.

  • Having various pronunciation “ticks” from their native language seep in.

Now this is one that I considered omitting by virtue of the fact that there are some native speakers of English that do this (e.g. some Irish people don’t pronounce the “th” sound, Trinidadian native speakers of Standard English may pronounce the word “ask” as “aks”, etc. And no, this isn’t the time for me to get into a debate about whether or not the English Creoles of the Caribbean are separate languages or not. Post for another time!)

This can take extraordinary training and most people are satisfied with their English accent enough to the degree that they don’t deem it necessary.

Take Sweden, for example, a place with a very high rate of English proficiency. Despite that, you’ll hear people pronounce the “ch” sound like a “sh” sound, or the “j” sound like a “y” sound at times. (“A box of shocolates” … “you yust need to understand…”)

Thanks to my experience with Scandinavian tongues, I speak like that too, at times. (Keep in mind that many Swedish young people will throw in English phrases and sentences even when speaking Swedish among themselves).

You don’t understand the degree to which the things you expose yourself to can affect you. It’s very, very powerful.

These things can be trained away with effort, but given that a lot of people want a “good accent” and not a “they can’t tell the difference between me and an American” accent, a lot of people don’t go this far. But I think that the various English pronunciation ticks of many nationalities are well-documented and you just need to be aware enough to avoid them.

And sometimes speaking exercises and tongue twisters may train things away.

Again, maybe these ticks are actually something that you like (as conversation starters, for example). But I got news for you: you can easily turn such things like that “on” and “off”.

Some examples of these ticks:

  • Swedes, Norwegians, French people pronouncing “ch” as “sh”.
  • Polish and Portuguese speakers overusing nasal vowels in English.
  • Hungarians speaking English with the first-syllable-is-always-stressed rule (English does, as a general rule, do this, but not with the consistency of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • Greenlanders pronouncing the “ti” combination as “tsi” rather than “tea” (e.g. “Arctsic Winter Games”)

This is very much a perfectionist point. Which brings me to the one thing that almost ALL English learners struggle with.

  • Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language

The most common roadblock for developing a good accent in English!

Your native language may have a set amount of vowels. English is almost certainly very likely to have more.

Often some speakers will just read and speak English using the vowels of their native language, rather than learning in detail the way that the English language uses vowels.

As an English native speaker, I have to be careful about my accent. If I don’t do a good job, I may get answered in English, especially if my accent impedes my understanding.

You, as an English learner, don’t really need to get worried about being answered in your native tongue when you try to speak English, and NOWHERE NEAR with as much consistency. This is especially true in English-speaking countries.

As a result, I’m not surprised by the fact that most people don’t want to hone their accent and only want to make it “borderline understandable”. And this is true even in places that score “very high” on English proficiency tests.

To some degree, I understand this because humans are, generally speaking, lazy creatures.

So what you’ll need to do is learn how to pronounce the vowels in English while successfully shutting out the sounds of your native tongue.

Imagine that you had no knowledge of your other languages in the slightest, and just needed to imitate the sounds based on what you heard, without overlaying the vowel sounds of your native language on it. That’s what you need to be doing.

Simply put: don’t read English vowels the way as if they were the same exact vowels in your native tongue. Use a new system.

 

BONUS: Another thing you could do to help you in English is…learn a little bit of another language!

 

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Especially in places where it is commonly believed “don’t learn too many languages because you can’t master them all. Focus on a handful of them!” (just wait till I and the rest of the polyglots get validated by furthered informational and memory technology! Hoo hah!)

But if you choose to do this, you’ll actually acquire skills from your other language to help you with English and everything that it entails.

You’ll also learn about how to approach learning from a different angle, and what makes English (and the process of learning English) different from whatever other languages you may be learning.

As a hyperpolyglot myself, I’ve honed the many processes of learning and maintaining my many other languages by means of collecting experiences on each journey and sharing them with each other.

This is one well-known fix that very, VERY few people try, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it already.

Granted, English may actually be your third, fourth, fifth, etc. language, in which case you just may need a little bit of thought, investigation and a few diary entries in order to see what you could do to fix it.

 

Yes, I have, on a handful of occasions, met non-bilingual folks whom I mistook for Americans because they spoke English so well (and my accent radar is EXTREMELY well-honed).

It. Is. Possible!

That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!

Have fun on the journey!

How Do So Many Languages Fit in Your Head?

Ah, yes, a topic that has been requested for a long time!

I’d like to dedicate this post to Paul DuCett for our Facebook-reminded Friend-versary. Granted, he’s someone who doesn’t have a lot of problems with this in the least, with very convincing accents in most of his languages (that I’ve heard him speak). But I thought that I’d let the world know that he’s an inspiration in my life as well as to many others around him.

Also, the topic was requested by another friend of mine, Dan Haworth, who is also an extraordinary role model and language enthusiast.

Hey, if you have any topics to request, I’m glad to hear them! Write ‘em in the comments!

Aaaand…onward!

Online as well as offline, I encounter people who speak five or six languages very well, and they say “I have enough confusion as-is, I couldn’t possibly imagine the sort of confusion you encounter”

Do I encounter confusion? Undoubtedly.

Do I find a way to minimize it? Read on!

Arieh Smith (of Ari in Beijing fame) once asked me what my biggest strength was, and here comes the answer:

The one extraordinary strength that I have is that I can make connections between events, words and many other things with great ease.

How does this relate to having a lot of languages fit in my head?

Well, you as a human being have a lot of senses, and as a result you usually associate things you remember with more than one sensory element. (Imagine the setup of your room, for example, that you may associate with feelings, scents, etc.)

One thing I do in order to minimize confusion is that I ensure that the languages to which I commit myself are not just words, but also canisters of experiences that I have had with them.

Let’s take a language with which I have been overwhelming successful with: Norwegian. It has a lot of challenges despite the fact that it is one of two languages that I’ve heard described by its native speakers as easy (the other being…Burmese? But I’ve heard them both described as hard at times, too…)

Namely, the pronunciation can be a bit tricky at the beginning. Regne (to count) is pronounced “rye-neh”, but legen (doctor) is pronounced “leg-en” and reglene (the rules) is pronounced “reg-le-ne”. What’s more, the musical sounds of the language are very difficult to imitate and I have still yet to see an online polyglot pull it off very well (although no doubt I have encountered many Americans in person that have spoken Norwegian so impressively that I thought they were natives!)

And if you know Danish, the trouble expands because the two languages look almost identical on paper! So I wanted to know both Danish AND Norwegian but what could I do?

Last night at Mundo Lingo I was expressing the fact that I was still shocked that I don’t mix up Danish and Norwegian almost…ever. (Interestingly if I’m alternating between Swedish and Norwegian I can have some issues but that’s another story)

I pin this success on the fact that I associate the Danish language with the songs and experiences I’ve had with Danish, and the Norwegian language I associate with a whole new set of experiences!

These experiences include not only talking to native speakers (or non-native speakers) but also using the language online, times in which the fact that I knew Danish came into conversation (“Oh, yeah, when Danish speakers say they like something they say ’they can suffer it!’ Isn’t that fun?”

Then there are the languages that I don’t know as well and that’s because I still have yet to collect a lot of experiences with them. Last night at Mundo Lingo I felt that I did very well with Swedish, Danish, German, Spanish, Hebrew and English. Not so for French, Ukrainian, Burmese or Russian.

What am I missing in the last four? Is it because I need more time? Maybe.

But one thing I definitely could use to make it stronger and it affirm the presence of these languages in my head is to attach them to nodes. I have to have unique experiences in which I’m actively using the language. They could be online. They could be offline. They could even be in my dreams for all I know.

Collecting experiences like these serves two purposes:

  • It makes instances when you use the language more memorable, because you are tying the words, the syntax, the sentences to specific happenings.
  • It also serves to create an emotional attachment that not only furthers your desire to get better at the language, but also prevents other things of a similar flavor from entering that space.

So many people mix up languages and I can almost tell you why:

It’s because they haven’t distinguished the flavors between the languages yet.

This also happens as a result of addiction to book learning. Book learning is good. I’ve definitely done it. But at some point you’ll definitely need something else!

Those who mix up Spanish and Portuguese and pronounce them with almost identical accents are probably going to mix them up frequently. Often too many languages learners assume that the way to learning a language is through (1) learning or (2) having a lot of interactions with native speakers.

Yes, they definitely help, but you’ll need a deeper emotional attachment in order to fully make them a part of who you are.

I’m being honest: my emotional attachment to the languages that I succeeded with last night is significantly stronger than those that I didn’t succeed with.

But maybe what I really need is methods to create that attachment.

So how exactly do I keep all the languages in my head?

I associate words, sentences, grammar forms, irregular verbs, etc. with various things. They could be mental images of my friends, cartoon characters, website layouts, album covers, song lyrics, etc.

That way, I have an extended “picture dictionary” on recall.

When the picture dictionary is honed, I can manage to be unstoppable when speaking a language. If the picture dictionary isn’t honed, I mess up. And yes, I have the picture dictionary technique even with my native language!

As a child when I was learning what “Hanukkah” or a “Sukkah” was, I associated them with particular scenes from the VHS tapes that I was exposed to in school or at home. I did this naturally (although I don’t know if my mind works differently than yours. A lot of people assume that I am a “genius” and that I have a distinct advantage because of it. Perhaps I do, perhaps I don’t, but I’m here to provide techniques and the idea of whether or not I’m a genius is “teykudik”, a Yiddish word meaning “not having any possible conclusion or endpoint in any way whatsoever”)

So that’s my trick as to not mixing them up. You wouldn’t associate the taste of vanilla ice cream with the word “chocolate”…or would you? In the same way, I wouldn’t mix up Spanish and Hebrew (like WAAAY too many people I’ve met say they have) because the former is my experiences with my Spanish friends in Poland and the latter is my experiences with Israeli expatriates all over the world. I associate the two languages in very different spheres because of that.

Mixing up languages? Collect new experiences in any regard, in each of your languages, ones that will endow each of your languages with a very distinct flavor that you wouldn’t “mesh” with any of the other flavors.

And there you have it!

come back when you can put up a fight

5 Reasons You Should Learn Polish

 

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

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

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

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

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

kroke 094

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W is a v sound in English.

The letter “ą” is also nasal.

Now you know everything in order to pronounce that sentence.

Good luck.

Impress your friends today!

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

 

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

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

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

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

  1. Polish People Live Everywhere as Expatriates

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

My lunatycy  – coraz więcej lunatykó pośród nas

my lunatycy – każdy własny wulkan na Księżycu ma

tabletki na sen to komunia święta dla każdego z nas

my lunatycy – coraz więcej lunatyków pośród nas

 

We, the lunatics – even more lunatics among us

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

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

We, the lunatics, even more lunatics among us

 

Somebody understands politics better than most.

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

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

 

It’s a tongue-twister song!

 

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

 

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

 

“Everyone thinks my country is backwards”

“Everyone hates my country”

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

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

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

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

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

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

jared gimbel pic