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

Introducing: The Wonderful World of Disco Polo!

polska polska

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I used to speak some Polish (although not very well), thanks to my being tour guide in Krakow. It occurs to me that, in retrospect, had I not believed the “Critical Learning Period” stuff back when (it was in late 2012 that I got “deprogrammed”, thanks to me finding blogs and some friends telling me otherwise), Polish would be one of my strongest languages.

But it is what it is.

One thing that got me back into learning the language is one of my personal favorite musical sub-genres, known in Poland and elsewhere as “Disco Polo”.

Those who have studied Polish popular music of the contemporary era can detect distinct strands: one of which is before the fall of Communism (in which various groups such as Republika, Manaam, etc. dominated, exporting a lot of their music throughout the whole Eastern Bloc), and after it (which was influenced by dance music, especially from Italy, that is actually REALLY good study music!)

Come to think of it, I highly recommend listening to Disco Polo when studying! Guaranteed to make you get perfect scores on everything!

Anyhow, today is the first of April, causing me to reflect on new beginnings, and given that I haven’t written a lot about Polish culture in too much detail here, I thought that I’d share some songs for you to enjoy.

Here are some of my favorites:

“You’re Crazy!”

Jesteś szalona! x2

I. Miłość odchodzi – słyszę znów z twoich ust,
Zawsze prawda miała jakiś sens,
Te dni jak bajka, piękne jak tysiąc róż,
Ty się śmiałaś zawsze, no i cześć.

REF: Jesteś szalona, mówię ci,
Zawsze nią byłaś,
Skończysz wreszcie śnić?
Nie jesteś aniołem, mówię ci.
Jesteś szalona. x2

II. Na pożegnanie dajesz mi uśmiech swój,
Gdy odchodzisz wszystko burzy się,
Kochałem cię i twe szaleństwa, mocno tak,
Ty się śmiałaś zawsze, no i cześć.

REF: Jesteś szalona, mówię ci… x4

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: I’m lazy, have this one.

“You are Beautiful like a Million Dollars”

LYRICS (for those who obviously want to sing along = everyone, regardless of ability to read, speak or understand Polish)

Nadziei iskra pojawia się lecz czujesz tylko w sobie strach
Pieniądze mieć, bogatym być, słyszałem to już nie raz
Kadilaki, kobiety to moje podniety
Pieniądze i dziewczyna to moja dyscyplina

Ref.:
Jesteś piękna jak milion dolarów
Pragnę Cię jak milion dolarów
Jesteś sexy jak milion dolarów
Rozrywam Twoje ciało, bo ciągle mi jest mało Ciebie
I padam na kolana kobieto kochana
Nie będę już nigdy sam

Idę ulicą, spotykam ludzi, lecz widzę tylko Twoją twarz
Trącony łokciem padam na ziemię, miłości Ci nie mogę dać
Kadilaki, kobiety to moje podniety
Pieniądze i dziewczyna, to moja dyscyplina

Ref.:
Jesteś piękna jak milion dolarów
Pragnę Cię jak milion dolarów
Jesteś sexy jak milion dolarów
Rozrywam Twoje ciało, bo ciągle mi jest mało Ciebie
I padam na kolana kobieto kochana
Nie będę już nigdy sam

Jesteś piękna jak milion dolarów
Pragnę Cię jak milion dolarów
Jesteś sexy jak milion dolarów
I stracę Cię, i stracę Cię na pewno
I stracę Cię, i stracę Cię napewno

English Translation: Absolutely Nothing Original. I’ll write one if you guys beg me enough. Which will probably be in three minutes. By the way, still just as lazy.

 

Ah yes, a song about infidelity! A beacon of morality in these dark times!

“I’m Running Away from the Wife”

1. Och jak mnie boli głowa
A z boku znowu ona
Ciągle w swych farmazonach topi się
Już dłużej nie wytrzymam
I gdzie tu moja wina
Choć kiedyś ta dziewczyna inne nie
Kobieto weź ogarnij się
Za chwilę tu nie będzie mnie

Ja wychodzę z domu
Ciemną nocą po kryjomu
Uciekam od żony
Jej gadaniem już znudzony
Jadę na milano
Poflirtować z młodą panną
Bo gdy nie ma Ciebie
Jestem jak bóg młody w niebie (x2)

2. Już zaraz chyba skonam
Nade mną ciągle ona
Jak zwierzę rozwścieczona mówi że
To wszystko moja wina
A ona cud dziewczyna
Monolog swój zaczyna dręcząc mnie
Kobieto weź ogarnij się
Za chwilę tu nie będzie mnie

Ja wychodzę z domu
Ciemną nocą po kryjomu
Uciekam od żony
Jej gadaniem już znudzony
Jadę na milano
Poflirtować z młodą panną
Bo gdy nie ma Ciebie
Jestem jak bóg młody w niebie (x2)

Ja wychodzę z domu
Ja wychodzę z domu

Ja wychodzę z domu
Ciemną nocą po kryjomu
Uciekam od żony
Jej gadaniem już znudzony
Jadę na milano
Poflirtować z młodą panną
Bo gdy nie ma Ciebie
Jestem jak bóg młody w niebie (x2)

Yours lazily.

Miłego weekendu! (Have a nice weekend!)

Ha

Ha Ha

Ha Ha Ha

Ha Ha Ha Ha

ZM,

Jared Gimbel

Overmorrow is Coming

many languages

For nearly a month I’ve neglected a lot of my blogs, but this is in part due to holidays, my game design, and also quite a lot of study.

This weekend marks two important events for me. For one, the Polyglot Conference, in which I and many others will meet in person many of the authors and luminaries who inspired us to go on our many language journeys.

Second, October 10th and 11th marks four years to the day that I began my three years abroad right after college, which began in Krakow and then ended up in too many other places to count. Alas, I seem to have forgotten all but the most basic Polish, but another task will soon come to me before this academic year is out, one that will require me to re-learn a lot of it!

Through the study of a lot of my languages, I’ve had to re-evaluate some of them both down and up in the past month (The Celtic Languages I was a lot weaker in than I thought, and  the Finnic languages were stronger).

In the past month, I also made the difficult decision to drop Greenlandic from my repertoire for the time being, although it is truly impossible to forget a language entirely. Given how much I have already devoted to Greenlandic already, it seems that this is merely a pause.

But I also remember that Icelandic and Danish I first struggled with a lot at first, and then, upon becoming more hearty a “language hacker”, I wasn’t nearly intimidated by them.

The past few weeks have been replete with virtually non-stop study, putting my work for my game and even my MA final examination on hold (I was told by my MA examiners that I should use my language abilities in my reading list, but there is only so much you can do with a something like Icelandic in a final exam about Jewish History).

I do not say this lightly: there were also times in which I was absolutely frozen and unable to continue with studying, perhaps worried that, despite the endless hours I had thrown into lots of languages, that I somehow “wasn’t good enough”.

But above all, language learning is not a contest. Not particularly a sport, either. It isn’t an issue of who speaks language X the best being the winner, it isn’t about who speaks the most languages being the winner, it is a process of exploration, in the same way that hiking really isn’t a competitive sport.

To make this point, my biggest shame in my language learning experience, followed by my biggest mirth.

Heidelberg, Germany. February 2014. I was asked to give a “Referat” (something like a class presentation / teaching the class for one day). Obviously, the class was held in German, but I remember using so much Yiddish, Hebrew and English in between (the topic was Jewish studies) that one of the co-teachers actually shook her head in despair, wondering how a “stupid American” ever made it into this program to begin with.

That semester was actually quite replete with similar incidents like that, my journey through the German language, more than that of any other, being one of “tripping and falling”. The fact that I had Yiddish and Scandinavian languages under my belt at that point didn’t help much—I thought that my truest attempts at “High German” would always be tainted.

But as it turns out, in the last few months (June – July) my fears evaporated. Sometimes I still think of that semester and cringe. But I suppose I would cringe even more had I chosen to try even less than I did.

Now the biggest pride:

April 2015, Ben-Gurion Airport. On the way back from Israel, visiting my family members, with my Anglophone parents on the way back to the U.S. Given as I am the spokesman, the security staff, without my knowledge, puts me in the line for people who have Israeli passports (he mistook me for one of his own, and Israelis have possibly the most refined American-radars on the planet, blame Birthright).

Upon reaching the security staff at the end of the line, we were told that we should be in the line for foreign passports and that we had no business being in that line whatsoever.

And then of course there is the honorable mention of passing as a local in a place rumored by some to be the hardest to get the locals to speak to you in the local language.

Well, whatever becomes of this conference, it will definitely be fun, no doubt!

Looking forward to meeting my fellow hikers,

Jared

2015-08-18 12.56.52

Polyglot Conference Excitement, Plans and Hopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

grand central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hochdeutsch

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

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

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

idishflag

The Lesson: Shut out your native language = progress

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

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

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

max mekker scream

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

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

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

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

And so it was.

dansk i graekenland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STOP SOUNDING LIKE A LEARNER.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrew:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Never Too Late!

P.S. Ah, I found that video!

Why Yiddish is Worth Your Time

Shulem-Aleikhem, Raboysai!

One thing I really like about the United States (and many other areas of North America) is the fact that I usually don’t have to explain what Yiddish is. But in Europe, with some exceptions such as Poland (where the language is widely studied), usually I find myself having to tell people what Yiddish is.

In Germany in particular I hear things like “it sounds like a dialect I can understand sometimes, but that I don’t speak”, “sounds Bavarian”, “sounds Bohemian”, and sometimes, “I had no clue it sounded so similar to German!”

Sometimes I also get “how many people speak it?” (one consistent question I get with a lot of my under-studied languages), and it is very difficult to place a decent estimate, even if you are UNESCO incarnate.

What is even more interesting is that, given how many people study the language, I find myself having more conversations in Yiddish in many unexpected places than in most of the other languages I speak.

I would venture a guess that the two most popularly studied endangered languages today would be Yiddish and Irish (the latter of which I haven’t studied yet, although I’ve tried several times and intend to try again…probably when Duolingo’s Irish course is finally out…).

Millions of students across the globe study Yiddish, even those with no connection to Germanic Languages or Jewish culture at all. If you need some encouragement for Yiddish learning, you’ve come to the right place:

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The extraordinary wealth of untranslated literature in the language means that you can potentially turn your interest in the Yiddish Language into something very lucrative indeed. Aaron Lansky, the legendary visionary behind the National Yiddish Book Center, often notes that well over 90% of Yiddish literature is not yet translated into English.

Who could uncover the next platinum ray of literary light that would emanate from this mysterious canon? Perhaps it could be you!

Yiddish’s similarity to English, in its sentence structure, vocabulary, and even some of its idioms—will be something that is more likely to come to you easily if you speak anything else in the Germanic Language family, especially English or any of the Scandinavian Languages. If you are American in particular, most Yiddish songs will make you think “I’ve heard that somewhere before!” and many Yiddishisms will carry more than just a whiff of familiarity.

The one thing that may make Yiddish difficult for you could be the Loshn-koydeshdike verter, the words from Hebrew and Aramaic, which carry historical pronunciation (each word has a unique pronunciation that must be learned separately). If you have ever spent time in an Orthodox Jewish environment, chances are you know a lot of these words already, even if you might know many of them with a more Sephardic-sounding pronunciation.

Despite these hang-ups, the idea that Yiddish is “easy” carries some weight. All prepositions take the Dative case (one primary difference between Yiddish and German)

However, the literary depths of the Yiddish Language will require many odd contexts to be learned, and some unexpected gems will surprise you in every which way. Be prepared to consult fellow translators or to outsource your confusions to Facebook in the oddest of cases. Yiddishists do this very frequently, as anyone who is connected to them on Social Networks will tell you!

All languages are not just ways of speaking (ask any polyglot at all!)—they are also ways of life. This holds true with Yiddish most spectacularly of all. As I heard from one of my professors, “The Yiddish Language is not a Politically Correct Language”

Another one told me “Google Translate supports all civilized languages, and even Yiddish, which isn’t so civilized” That’s a bit harsh—not civilized, definitely not. Attitude? Maybe. Edgy? Most definitely…but in a good way!

The German Language’s usage often seems tame in comparison to the no-holds-barred black humor utilized with a Yiddish soul. Some may deride it as the “language of the ghetto”, but once you learn Yiddish to a significant degree, your life is changed…

…the songs that you learn will stay with you—even if you can’t remember the tunes, the music will remain…

…it will make you more daring, it will heighten your emotional senses, it will give you a “cool” aura.

Most importantly, it will connect you with the soul of a people, one that has produced the most “densely populated” literary outpouring in all of human history, one that is begging for translators—and one that is asking for your support and your time…

A world with little worlds awaits! So what are you waiting for?