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

My New Facebook Quotes Section

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

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

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

EDIT: I transliterated the Tajik portion as well.

Here you are!

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

My a’th kar milweyth moy es ow brithel.

I love you a thousand times more than my mackerel

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

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

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

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

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

– Nanook (Greenlandic Band)

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

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

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

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

– the Ukrainian Duolingo Course

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

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

– Leningrad, “Money”

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

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

– Terji Rasmussen, Faroese Singer

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Solomon Islands Pijin translation of Ecclesiastes 1:2)

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

-the Ni-Vanuatu Kava Song

„MI NO WOK MANI –
BAI MI KEN GIVIM U PLANTI SAMTING
NAU U LAIK GO AWAY
LUS TINGTING LONG MI
MANGI LONG PELES
OI SORY LEWA
POROMIS YA OLSEM WANEM”
(“I don’t have a stable job, but I can give you lots more, now if you want to go away and forget about me, the local boy, I’m sorry, love, I can promise you this…”)

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

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

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

– Cheek, Finnish rapper

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

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

– Ted Gärdestad, Swedish singer

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

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

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

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

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

– Law of Jante, Danish literary touchstone

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

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

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

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

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

– Portuguese proverb

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

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

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

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

Биёед, канӣ санҷем!
Let us try it.

(By-yo-ed, kanii sanjem!)

– Tajik sentence from the Tatoeba sentence database.

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

– Myanmar Word for Word.

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

polyglot moi

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

A Free Afternoon in the Life of Jared Gimbel

jippi-mundolingo

This is a diary of my planned activity on April 4th, 2017, after having eaten lunch, before Mundo Lingo, which is an international language exchange event. (I actually carried through with the plan, it took me three hours, and was VERY intense!)

This also isn’t technically speaking a “free afternoon”, because I have one class in Biblical Hebrew to teach at 4 PM.

I’m doing this for the purpose of helping other people discover my routine and how it can help them. I vary it often and it isn’t perfect, but too many people have been asking for it and so here it is!

 

Time Budget:

 

I’m going to aim for 12:30 in the afternoon as the part to begin budgeting my time. So now let’s ask some questions:

  • What languages am I likely (or certain) to be speaking that evening?
  • What languages need work?

Knowing Mundo Lingo and its Spanish name, Romance Languages are a must, so let’s draw up my collection thereof, sadly nothing out-of-the-ordinary:

 

Castilian Spanish

French

Italian

Portuguese (with a focus on Brazil but practicing with European Portuguese would be cool,too)

 

I should study these earlier in the day, because I’ve noticed that after studying for a while I tend to burn out.

Sunday I was told (by a Catalan native speaker, no less) that I spoke Castellano “perfectly” (first time I’ve been told that EVER), so I’ll be budgeting less time for that.

Now for my weaknesses with French:

  • Knowing nouns isn’t a problem thanks to me playing Nintendo 3DS games in French, the issue lies in verbs which have proven an issue.
  • Comprehension of native speakers also proves a problem. Interestingly I seldom have problems understanding learners.

 

Italian:

  • I have significant weaknesses across the board, but verbs especially. However, I have a lot of passive understanding.
  • Tried to improve active understanding by watching gaming videos (mostly of “Super Mario Maker”, my favorite video game to watch “Let’s Play”’s of) but I’m just not that good yet, so I think I’ll stick to cartoons instead. Pokémon seems like a good choice for me to see where I am and also to learn vocabulary through context

 

Portuguese:

  • Worried that I lapse into Portuñol at times.
  • I can understand a lot, even from native speakers.
  • I don’t know a lot about the culture of Brazil.
  • I don’t know a lot of profanities (not that I intend to use them).

 

So let’s budget up the first hour, from 12:30 until 1:30.

 

  • 1 short Spanish video.
  • 1 Italian Pokemon Episode (watch all the way through!)
  • Look at French verb tables
  • Actively listen to Brazilian Music for the remainder of the hour.

 

Now I have two more hours until I have to prepare for my class to teach at 4:00 PM.

 

I should spend this time with my languages that I am likely to use and that need a lot of work. My energy is likely to peak at the time between 1:30 and 2:30.

Looking at my list, this would mean Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Hungarian.

 

Polish:

  • Good grammar when it comes to verbs
  • Just general vocabulary gaps
  • Need to review cases.

 

15 minutes, one fun video (I’ll make sure that it’s one of somebody playing a video game with a lot of English and in which he or she translates a lot of it into Polish, ad-libbing), and then declension review, esp. with numbers.

Russian:

  • Good grammar.
  • Need to improve idiomatic usage.

 

15 Minutes with Transparent Language and/or Phrasebooks, focusing on interacting with other people rather than individual words.

Ukrainian

  • The exact same situation, except for slightly better (because of its similarity to polish) and slightly worse (Because I haven’t practiced it as much.

Do the same thing as with Russian.

Hungarian:

  • I’m a beginner.

 

Do the same thing as with Russian and Ukrainian.

 

Okay, now for the final hour:

 

  • 3 minutes of exposure to each of the Melanesian Creole Languages (on Radio)
  • 3 minutes of exposure to Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish
  • 10 Minutes of German
  • 5 minutes of Dutch
  • 5 Minutes of Danish

 

(I leave one minute free in the first two bits to account for opening and closing windows, etc.

 

  • 3 minutes of exposure to Irish, Cornish and Breton apiece
  • 5 minutes of Welsh
  • 5 Minutes of Icelandic
  • 5 Minutes of Tajiki
  • 5 Minutes of Burmese

 

I’ll be using a combination of videos for the languages I know well (like Danish) and learning materials for those I don’t know well (like Tajiki or Burmese)

 

That leaves me at 3:40

 

  • Prepare my Hebrew class for 4:00 PM
  • Watch some silly YouTube video in English until my class begins.
  • Take off to public transport.
  • Use learning apps on the way there.

 

Okay, so putting the entire recipe together, a total of three hours:

 

12:30

 

–              1 short Spanish video. (12:30-12:40

–              1 Italian Pokemon Episode (watch all the way through!) (12:40-1:00)

–              Look at French verb tables (1:00-1:15)

–              Actively listen to Brazilian Music for the remainder of the hour. (1:15-1:30)

 

1:30

 

  • Polish YouTubing (1:30-1:40)
  • Polish Grammar Review (1:40-1:45)
  • Russian Transparent Language Session (1:45-2:00)
  • Hungarian Transparent Language Session (2:00-2:15)
  • Ukrainian Transparent Language Session (2:15-2:30)

 

2:30

 

–              3 minutes of exposure to each of the Melanesian Creole Languages (on Radio) (2:30-2:40)

–              3 minutes of exposure to Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish (2:40 – 2:50)

–              10 Minutes of German (2:50 – 3:00)

–              5 minutes of Dutch (3:00 – 3:05)

–              5 Minutes of Danish (3:05 – 3:10)

–              3 minutes of exposure to Irish, Cornish and Breton apiece (3:10 – 3:20)

–              5 minutes of Welsh (3:20 – 3:25)

–              5 Minutes of Icelandic (3:25 – 3:30)

–              5 Minutes of Tajiki (3:30 – 3:35)

–              5 Minutes of Burmese (3:35 – 3:40)

 

3:40

 

Prepare for my Biblical Hebrew Class I’m teaching (review those words I don’t know, look at several translations of the text we’ll be going over just in case “funny” issues concerning rare words come up)

 

4:00 –  5:00 PM

Class

 

5:00 PM

On my way / early dinner at place next to event.

 

6:00 PM – I don’t know

Mundo Lingo

 

Enjoy!

 

 

How I deviated from it in practice:

 

I changed the French bit in going through the routine. I looked at the verb tables, went to French Duolingo to rehearse them (I felt that I could recognize all the basic forms afterwards), then I started watching…you guessed it…gaming videos in French until the 1:15 mark. Yes, it was Super Mario Maker.

I listened to the Brazilian music but there were some songs that made me wish that I had chosen a different path. Any recommendations for Brazilian Music are highly wanted, keep in mind that I really like music from the Nordic Countries in particular.

I used videos instead of radio for the Melanesian parts. (Hey! I know I’m asking for a lot of recommendations, but if you know of any good Creole / Pidgin radio stations from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea, let me know in the comments!)

Gave 8 Minutes to German and 7 to Danish (instead of 10 / 5) for no other reason than I liked a recommended video on the side.

Due to problems (Radio Kerne was playing English music instead of Breton programming, and loading issues), I actually got two minutes of Breton instead of three.

Due to similar problems I did Welsh on Duolingo instead of using assorted videos and radio.

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

Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

IMG_2906

Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!

Video of Me Speaking 31 Languages (and Humorous Commentary): March 2017

It happened. I made my promise in October 2015 that my first polyglot video would come out before my birthday (which is November). Then I got Lyme Disease. Holding it off, I thought it was a good time for me to finally fulfill it.

Anyhow, I don’t know how many videos there are of people speaking Greenlandic, Tajik and Cornish within four minutes, but here’s one of them:

Some of my thoughts on each bit:

 

English: Since my “big exile” in which I hopped countries for three years, people who knew me beforehand said that my accent had changed. I tried to make it as neutral (read: American) as possible. I don’t sound like a Hollywood character (I think) but I think it is fair to say that my true-American accent is off the table for the near future. Ah well. It was giving me trouble anyway (literally the second post I made on this blog!)

Hebrew: Ah, yes, feeling like I’m presenting about myself in the Ulpan again (Fun fact: in Welsh, it is spelled “Wlpan”). I remember the Ulpanim…in which I was allowed to draw cartoon characters of my own making on the board whenever I wanted…or maybe memory wasn’t serving me well…wasn’t there a Finnish girl in that class?

Spanish: Certainly don’t sound Puerto Rican, that’s for sure. Having to listen to Juan Magan’s “Ella no Sigue Modas” on repeat for an hour (and undergo this procedure against my will about once every week for a semester!) certainly didn’t hurt my ability to develop a peninsular Spanish accent, though!

Yiddish: *Sigh* well this explains why people ask me if I learned Yiddish at home. It’s one of the most common questions I get, actually. I was not born in Boro Park, Antwerp or Williamsburg. I am not an ex-Hasid.

Swedish: “Rest assured, you’re never going to sound Swedish”. Yeah, thanks Rough Guide to Sweden, just the sort of encouragement we all need. I need to have a word with you! Also, that mischievous inclination was trying to tell me that I should just say “sju sjuksköterskor skötte sju sjösjuka sjömän på skeppet Shanghai” and be done with the Swedish section.

Norwegian: My favorite national language of Europe, worried that maybe I didn’t give it enough time. Also, my voice is deep.

German: I hope I get this grammar right…I REALLY hope I get this grammar right…I hope this is good enough to impress my friends…

Danish: Remember the days that I was struggling so much with that language that I almost considered giving up several times? Yeah, me neither. Was so worried I would screw this up. Then it occurred to me exactly how much time I’ve spent watching anime dubbed into Danish.

Finnish: With the exception of Cornish, the slowest language I’ve learned. I hope my accent doesn’t sound too Hungarian…and also! Notes for polyglot video-makers! If you know Finnish, add something with –taan /  -tään and -maan / -mään for instant cred! Works wonders! (These concepts are too hard to describe in a sentence). Also, how come it is that any Finnish singer/rapper, including Cheek, more clearly pronounces his /her words than almost any English-language singer I’ve ever heard in any public place anywhere?

French: I AM TOTES GONNA SCREW THIS UP. But hey, I think…my accent is good…fun fact…I learned this language as a kid…when it down, just use your Breton accent…

Irish: I…hope…that…people deem my pronunciation…acceptable…and that…I don’t set off accidentally …any…debates…

Cornish: HAHAHAHAHAHA I TOTALLY SOUND LIKE THAT ANNOUNCER FROM “RanG” HAHAHAHAH HA HA HA HA HA…in terms of my intonations…in my actual voice, less so…

Bislama: I wonder if anybody will figure out from this video exactly how much I’ve studied those Bislama-dubbed Jesus films to get that accent down…

Italian: Lived with two Italians, one in Poland and one in Germany, this is for you!

Icelandic: I’m a big fan of Emmsjé Gauti, maybe one day I’ll do this rap-cover polyglot video, in which I rap in all of the various languages. I’m gonna have a hard time finding Tok Pisin rap lyrics, though…

Dutch: I literally binged-watched Super Mario Maker playthroughs in Dutch the night before filming, because this was the accent I thought needed the most training. Did I get the grammar right…I hope I…did…oh, why did I choose to forget you for a year?

Polish: WOOOOOW MY ACCENT IS GOOOODDD. Pity it’s my “worst best language”. And the hardest language I’ve ever had to sing Karaoke in…time’ll fix that!

Tok Pisin: It will be interesting to see exactly how someone from Papua New Guinea would react to me speaking Melanesian Creole Languages.

Greenlandic: Is it just me, or does my voice very heavily resemble that of Marc Fussing Rosbach? (He’s a brilliant composer and you should really listen to his stuff!) Given that my first-ever single (still unpublished) was in Greenlandic, my accent can’t be THAT bad…

Russian: In my first take (which I did the day before) I sounded so much like a villain…I wonder if my Russian teachers from high school and college would be proud of me. Probably not, given that I gave up on Russian from 2013 until a few months ago.

Welsh: I’ve been doing this since January 2017 and is my accent really THAT good? “Norwyeg” is also harder to say than it looks. Not sure I got it right, even…

Tajik: My pose is so classy, and I sounded like a villain in this one but it was too cool to leave out. Can’t wait to actually get good at Tajik.

Faroese: Yeah, I didn’t study this language for nearly half a year. Not even gonna self-criticize myself for this one. But hey, listening to the music for accent training…makes me wanna go back! And also the most beautiful love song I’ve ever heard is in Faroese…guess that means I gotta relearn it before proposing…no idea when that’s gonna happen, though…

Myanmar / Burmese: I’M GONNA GET LAUGHED AT. And I accept it.

Breton: The first take literally sounded like gibberish so I listened to Denez Prigent’s complete album collection while walking outside. I think it fixed it…

Portuguese: I hope I made these two versions…different enough…

English Reprise: I made this video based on exactly what I would have wanted to encounter from a hyperpolyglot back when I was beginning. I hope this video is someone’s answered prayer.

Ukrainian: I BET DUOLINGO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT ACCENT.

Estonian: Gonna relearn you, but right now, you get two words.

Hungarian: Ended with Hungarian as a tribute to my only living grandparent, Joyce Gimbel, for whom I will learn Hungarian for very soon indeed!

The One Thing You Need to Get Fluent in a Language

This may be one of the most important things about language learning you may ever read, so I’m going to be as blunt as I can:

“BAD WITH LANGUAGES” DOES NOT EXIST.

It just doesn’t.

What there is, however, is not having the one thing you need to get fluent in a language.

And that is…

 

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No, it isn’t comic books…necessarily…although it can be!

It is finding a way to have fun with the languages in your life.

What you should be looking for in addition to books / programs etc. is a way to use your target language in your life in a way that you enjoy doing it.

Think about what you do for fun.

Think about the sort of ways you can have fun in your other languages.

There is a REASON a lot of endangered languages have to have programming to make them viable. Because if not for them, prospective learners would associate the languages only with classroom learning and nothing else!

And if you associate your language only with classroom learning, then you ARE going to burn out very quickly!

And this is why there are so many students who say “I’ve took (language commonly studied) for four years and I still can’t speak any of it”.

I can GUARANTEE you that if they had found a method towards applying that language in their life in a way that they would genuinely enjoy doing so, they would never say that.

This can include:

  • Socializing
  • Forums
  • Online videos of any variety
  • Podcasts
  • Books (or any type)
  • Music
  • Films

And think about how many non-native English speakers you have met throughout your life who have spoken impressive English. Ask them about how they learned it. They will NOT answer “I took it for years in school” (although many of them do and it helps!), they will, GUARANTEED, say something like “I really liked British comedies” or “I had a Texan roommate”.

Back when I believed that I would never get fluent in another language as an adult (which I rate as one of the Top 5 most destructive beliefs of my life), I was in the Yiddish Farm summer program and realizing that the various songs, artistry and the like that I partook of would make my Yiddish better, bit-by-bit.

When I was in Poland and living with students in Spain, I genuinely felt more comfortable conversing in Castilian Spanish with them, surrounded by bottles and makeshift ping-pong tables, than I ever did in a classroom.

Even with languages that I still struggle with, such as Greenlandic and Russian, I came to put on very good accents and came off convincingly to many—by virtue of the fact that I had Greenlandic- and Russian-Language “programming” in my life!

And so one thing you should be doing is in addition to asking, “where can I study this language?” is “where can I have fun with this language?” And if you can’t answer that second question, you’ll give up and/or burn out!

I know because it has happened to me!

But let me be clear on this:

 

Don’t expect to get fluent with the “fun time” alone.

Well…I’ve done it, actually, but only with languages very close to ones I already knew. (As I did with Danish after Norwegian, and Bislama / Solomon Islands Pijin after Tok Pisin)

Think of it this way:

The various applications of the languages in your life are your chess pawns.

They will not win the game by themselves, but winning without them (and playing without them) is impossible.

 

And by extension, allow me to be clear on this also:

Don’t choose a language based on any supposed professional benefit it will bring you, choose a language based on recreational value to you.

I know, right? Sounds counter-intuitive, but when I hear someone say “I’m learning this language for an advantage at my job” or “I’m learning this language because so many people speak it” something like that, my heart tells me “chances are, unless you find some way to have fun with that language really soon, you’re going to burn out. Mark my words”.

I would say that the vast majority of failed language experiments didn’t take this into account.

I know, because I’ve done that with some other languages throughout the years.

But the good news is that for almost all learnable languages out there, there is a way to engage with them in a fun way using the method I listed above!

Not only that, but the methods will continue to grow as technology marches on!

So if you may be struggling to find almost anything fun to do in your target language…wait a bit, maybe even a few months or a year, even! You’d be surprised what’ll come out when you’re not looking…

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Wrapping it up, so that I don’t cause any misunderstanding, I will say this:

There is no bad with languages. Period. There is only a misunderstanding that doesn’t take into account that fluency requires (1) dedication (2) perseverance (3) feeling stupid sometimes and, most importantly (4) being able to include each language in a fuzzy place in your life where you play with it rather than work with it.

So get playing!

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