Last Weekend in the US Before the Polyglot Conference: Where Do I Stand?

Monday I head to Iceland, Wednesday I head to Greenland, and here I am writing this piece from Brooklyn, wondering if I’m going to leave my language missions abroad (and the Polyglot Conference itself) with a great sense of relief or accomplishment or covered with clouds of self-doubt.

More recently I’ve been having nightmares in which I bring my security as a polyglot into question (e.g. online comments popping up [in my DREAMS, mind you] that tell me that my accent is bad and that I’m a fake, or in which I’m asked to speak to people in their native language and, well, these have been all over the board. Some have been stutter-worthy, other instances in which I’m practicing in my dreams have involved me doing WAAAAY better than my conscious self could imagine.)

Also, I’ve had dreams more recently in Burmese, Tongan and…Gilbertese! (My Burmese is probably at around A2 right now, Tongan at A1, and Gilbertese can be A2 if I can do EVERYTHING right in the next few days.)

In the meantime, however, I’ve decided to hit the “pause” button” on my studies of Fiji Hindi, Guarani and Khmer (although I’ll continue to do them after the Conference and, of course, in my YouTube series).

A huge break for me is the fact that I’ve been capable of mastering spoken Jamaican Patois in nearly a week (!!!!!!) Granted, Trinidadian Creole and Sierra Leone Krio are EXTREMELY close to these (Krio has more African influence, Trinidadian Creole has more English influence, and then there’s my stunt with Belizean Creole [or “Bileez Kriol”] that also really helped with solving the Jamaican Mystery more quickly than I had expected. Also, for many Americans, Jamaican Patois is hardly anything foreign, thanks to the influence of Jamaican music and culture all over the globe.)

The only “weak” language I’m working on (I have to focus on ONE in order to get it good enough at this point) is Gilbertese.

So here’s my currently lineup right now! (ESTIMATING my levels:)

 

A1 – Gilbertese, Tongan

A2 – Lao, Burmese, Hungarian, Polish

B1 – French, Irish, Greenlandic, Cornish

B2 – Hebrew, Finnish, Breton, Spanish (EU), German, Icelandic, Krio, Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole

C1 – Tok Pisin, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish

C2 – Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin

Native – English (US)

 

That’s a total of 27 (And I usually don’t tell people that Solomon Islands Pijin is my STRONGEST foreign language!) I may have underestimated my B2’s and overestimated my B1’s.

If I count those I forgot (which I MAY be inclined to use on various occasions, no idea how I would manage with any of them given how seldom I’ve studied them for MONTHS), this brings the list significantly higher (30+), but most of those I forgot are in the A1-A2 level.

My study routine before this conference was significantly less organized and less effective than my study routine before the 2015 conference. It was extremely scatterbrained but this time I have the added advantage of having an immersion environment for three different languages before the conference (Greenlandic, Danish and Icelandic). Again, that is likely to prove a big confidence booster or a confidence wrecker. Whatever the case, I’ll manage with significantly more wisdom after the fact.

The biggest gift I’ve had this year for language learning has been the fact that I have return to Anki.

I was struggling a lot with Spanish especially over the course of multiple years and I’ve noticed that extensive vocabulary lists in languages that I have already mastered the grammar of have turned my mind into an unbeatable machine (whenever I’ve had significant practice with Anki earlier than day in the relevant language, that is).

The only reason I adopted Anki at all was because I was expecting to go on a Trek with no Internet in Myanmar (it didn’t end up happening, although I did visit the country back in May) and knowing that I had to resume teaching right afterwards meant that I couldn’t show signs of being “rusty” upon returning from my trip. Luckily I got the consistent practice and a lot more.

Goals right now:

  • Get a good accent in the languages I may have not been exposed to as much (Gilbertese and Tongan especially). Listening to music and radio will help.
  • Get a FLAWLESS accent in the Carribean Creoles.
  • Hone tones in Burmese and Lao
  • Complete my Lao Anki course (DONE!)
  • Complete my Krio Anki course (probably not going to happen but I’ll try!)
  • Complete my Gilbertese Memrise course (REALLY not happening but the more progress I’ll make, the better).
  • Devote time on transport to memorizing words as best I can.
  • Develop a morning routine in which I can get exposed to all languages in less than an hour (to be used the mornings before the days of the conference, may choose to skip languages that I’ve been using frequently or if I’m feeling REALLY secure in them).
  • Ask my friends to write comments in the languages in the lists above.
  • MENTAL DISCIPLINE. I have to let go of all my previous failures and be more forgiving of myself. No one’s going to be “out to get me”, either among the locals of various places and certainly NOT the people at the conference. I did fantastically at the last conference and I’m sure I’ll do it again.

 

In 2015, the languages I significantly underperformed with were Spanish, German, Irish and Finnish. I’ve gotten a lot better at all of them since then. The Languages I significantly overperformed with were Yiddish, Swedish, Faroese (since forgotten) and especially Norwegian (the super-duper winner of the 2015 conference, got regularly mistaken as a native speaker by pretty much everyone!)

Since 2015 I have paused my studies of Dutch, Faroese, Northern Sami, Ukrainian, Russian and Portuguese (and probably a number of others I’ve forgotten).

Whatever happens, I have to stay optimistic and determined.

Hope to see you there!

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In Defense of Learning an English Creole Language

Today is actually a Jewish holiday of sorts, although one with very few religious practices involved. Tu B’av (Jewish Love and Harvest Festival of Sorts, which literally translates to “the 15th of the month of Av”, using a numerical systems in which Hebrew numbers are stand-ins for letters way before the Arabic Numeral system came around) is one of the most auspicious days of the Jewish Calendar, the other being Yom Kippur.

Being generally confused as well as having some issues with illness I thought yesterday was actually that holiday and so I posted this picture to announce that, yes, I will be coming out with a New Polyglot Video, hopefully very soon. If not August, than definitely September.

victory is my destiny

No doubt there are going to be those that are fuming due to the lack of French / Chinese / Italian / Portuguese / Turkish / other global languages, but come on. Too many other polyglot videos featuring those languages exist. Let others have their turn.

And if other people want to downvote my videos just because of leaving out their favorite language or including a minority language and not theirs, then so be it. It just speaks to a greater issue of ruthless pragmatism and conformity in the online Polyglot community.

One of my big memories of the Polyglot Conference in 2015 was hearing a well-known Polyglot whose opinion I respect very much say that he wished that many of his peers would investigate Asian languages other than Mandarin Chinese in more depth. My decision to study Burmese beyond my trip was not only motivated by him (even though I’m not really focusing on it at the moment), but I also got inspired to learn another Asian Language, Lao, because I’m just…generally curious to learn more about the most bombed country in the history of humanity (true story!) Oh, and … uh… snippets of Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil, etc. on the side. But I suck at these. A lot.

Besides, I can communicate with some Thai people with Lao and I prefer smaller languages, something that you knew by now.

Gee, you really love reading my ramblings, don’t you?

So if you looked at the picture above, there were probably very few of you that could recognize every single country in it (by the way, that’s not footage from a future video, that’s just a teaser).

But out of the 27 or so countries featured, there are six (SIX!) English Creole Languages and seven if you include Standard American English.

Let me count them for you:

 

Vanuatu -> Bislama

Papua New Guinea -> Tok Pisin

Solomon Islands -> Pijin

Trinidad and Tobago -> Trinidad English Creole

Sierra Leone -> Krio (Salone Krio)

Belize -> Bileez Kriol (Belizean Creole)

 

I would have become my Bileez Kriol videos a few days ago but I got tied up with a guest in town as well as not getting good sleep and what-have-you. And I haven’t published a new video or a day or two…

By taking on minority languages in my video (such as Breton) as well as English Creoles (like the list above), I know that I will get some very harsh negative responses.

A lot of people feel genuinely threatened by online polyglots in general, and even MORE so if they actually commit themselves to “useless languages”.

And imagine if you’re very proud of your country and your language and your language is a global language, and then this guy comes along having chosen to neglect the study of YOUR language and chosen languages spoken by significantly fewer populations instead. You may feel CRUSHED.

And then there are those that insist that their Creole language is actually a dialect of a European language (and this is especially true in some Caribbean countries, note that I did not say “Carribean Island Countries”, because there are some Caribbean nations [e.g. Guyana] that are not islands).

I could have chosen to leave out Trinidadian English Creole (which I’ve been studying on-and-off for the past few months, even though I got the book in January 2016 as a “you don’t have Lyme Disease anymore!” give), but I’m including it even if it will subject me to ridicule and dislikes.

Here’s the reason why.

 

Creole Cultures Need Legitimacy and Love

 

Some have indeed acquired it, with Haitian Creole being the primary example. Walking around New York City you’ll see signs written in it, especially on public transport. Haitian Creole is also in Google Translate as well, not to mention countless of other avenues to learn it online (Haiti has a fascinating history that actually served to permanently change the face of colonialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade).

However, too often do I encounter with disgust that Creole Languages are “not real” and that people “should never consider learning them”. (in Francophone and Lusophone areas, I’ll have you know, this is overwhelmingly not the case, and sometimes I’ve encountered people who have learned French and Portuguese Creoles from France and Portugal respectively).

The disdain towards Creole Languages seems to be an English-speaking hangup that I’ve primarily encountered in North America (in Australia and New Zealand languages like Tok Pisin are actually highly valued on the job market, even though some of those jobs may get you sent to places where they are spoken with great regularity. True story!)

That being said, I do have some theories as to why some people may be inhibited in learning them and also why learning Creole Languages, for me, is a moral imperative:

For one, there is always the issue of “number of speakers”, which is just plain silly if used by itself. Attracted by the culture of Argentina? A great reason to learn Spanish.  Genuinely concerned by the way Chinese culture is misunderstood in your country? Mandarin may thing for you. “Lots of people speak it, therefore I should learn it”, is just flock-following. I’ve encountered too many people who explicitly list that reason for learning such a language and when they speak these languages, it comes off as stunted and non-genuine. As it should! Because the cultural connection is usually lacking!

And why learn African Languages from the former French colonies when just French will do? Well it seems that China’s language institutions are investing in African languages precisely so that they can have an edge in business against people who think like that.

English Creole languages are spoken in places where Standard English is the language of the government until you actually step inside any of the actual government meetings.

Oh, and my parents needed a Krio translator when they were in up-country Sierra Leone, so especially in the case of African and Pacific Creoles, knowing the standard language is only going to get you so far (even though in some cases it may be wiser to use Standard English, especially in some urban areas in countries like Papua New Guinea).

Another hangup is appropriate usage. Especially if you are a white person, you may be concerned that your speaking a Creole language may be construed as making fun of their culture. Well, appropriate usage can always be discussed with your friends from places like Salone, Melanesia or the Caribbean.

In the case of Papua New Guinea, speaking Tok Pisin with too much English influence and not-too-well can be construed as “Tok Masta”, which is considered highly condescending. And we haven’t even touched on some of the Caribbean Islands in which people see their Creole as a version of English so much so that they deny having any knowledge of a Creole language whatsoever (the situation in some communities like these is very, very odd, although I think Jamaica is a holdout, after all, did you know there is Wikipedia translated into Jamaican? Hey, I’m living in Crown Heights, I should probably order my Jamaican Patois book sooner rather than later. Perhaps after an important milestone, maybe, although I don’t think I’m including Jamaican in my upcoming video…)

Another thing to mention is “opportunities to use it”. Online, tons. Even for developing-world creoles. This is true even if you go onto news sites in places like Vanuatu and see a lot of the news written in English rather than in Bislama. Comments on the articles may not be in English, not also to mention snippets of Creole Languages that are used in articles that are otherwise written in Standard English.

Yet another hangup is yes, it has to be said, undercurrents of white supremacy. An idea that, somehow, the way that these people speak actually isn’t worth your time, even with a lot of black people in the United States feeling increasingly unsafe. And another idea that the language of Europe are more important and have more money attached to them than the languages of any of the places they colonized or languages that came into being because of colonialism (=Creoles).

I want to help people and cultures heal and understand each other. I arrived to Crown Heights and seeing the Trinbagonian flag everywhere (yes, Trinbagonian is a real word!), I took it upon myself to know my community better (after all, I knew plenty about the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights prior to moving there!)

Am I going to get comments about usage of Creoles in my video? Most definitely. Some will be negative, no doubt, but I think that there will be many people from places like the Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone and Trinidad and Tobago that will appreciate the fact that I tipped my hat to their cultures when very, VERY few people (or perhaps almost not one) in the polyglot-video-making-world does that.

Already in my video series on YouTube I have caused people to rethink language learning (including many thank-you-notes).

I’m going to continue to do so for as long as I can.

Who knows? Maybe I’m the healing the world needs…maybe it’s you!

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My Biggest Strengths

Back in February I wrote a piece on my weaknesses, and at the request of the one-and-only Ari in Beijing, I’ve been asked to write what my biggest strengths are.

And he explicitly mentioned that I’m not allowed to generally list “language learning” as a strength.

But it really isn’t. It’s an activity. Your strengths are applied to activities. “Skiing” isn’t a strength, “being capable of sensing even slight tremors” is a strength.

My weaknesses in the article above are as follows and while I wrote the piece in February 2017 I think I haven’t vanquished any of them yet:

  1. I burn out easily
  2. I’m hypercompetitive
  3. I get nervous easily
  4. I dwell on past failures for far too long
  5. I put more stock in other people’s opinions of me, my progress and my work than I do in my own opinions thereof.

I think it only seems fair for me to write five strengths, and the first one I “teased” in the previous article:

  1. I can make connections between events, words and many other things with great ease.

If you have this mastered, your memory can be unstoppable (although not perfect, I would venture, but who knows? The human brain is always surprising me).

Word I need to remember? I can associate it with where I was when I first used it.

Name I need to remember? I can sometimes bring a mental image to mind, even when I’m not thinking about it, to tie it to that person’s name.

(I did this with the Jewish holidays when I was little. I associated each one with a particular character or image and that way I wouldn’t forget them. Fun times. P.S. I know I’m not the only one that did that)

It’s like an artificial form of synesthesia, in which you can use your various senses to tie together whatever needs to be remembered.

I’ll give an example of this. I needed to know the Burmese word for water (ye), and I associated it with the following: (1) where I was in the restaurant when I first used it (2) what the waiter looked like and (3) the way he was walking (4) the general setup of the restaurant and (5) a mental image of Sans (yes, the joke-cracking skeleton, that one) for some odd reason.

Now before you say that this is way too much mental effort and it would be a pain to undertake it, keep in mind that your brain is already taking in these details! Focus on the word or words you need to remember, and attach them to details you see around you. This will work wonders.

But one thing that also really helps jog my memory is being corrected by native speakers or otherwise messing up with them badly. True story!

(2) I bind myself to my most important commitment with oaths

June 2017: learning Krio was on the agenda, and I thought it was long overdue (and I’m finally conversational in it!)

Given that I felt I really needed to do it, I made a commitment, inspired by advice from Olly Richards (who I look forward to seeing again at the next Polyglot Conference!).

30 minutes of exposure everyday -> Progress

So what did I do?

I took an oath. I was to study 30 minutes of Krio every day for three weeks. If I didn’t study Krio on any one of the days, I would delete this blog. Permanently.

Now you’re probably gasping in horror, but I know that this actually works. And I made the Krio commitment and I became conversational during the three-week period, after having nearly started from scratch!

And I spoke Krio to my father (who worked in Sierra Leone) for the first time. His eyes perked up. He hadn’t heard the language since he left West Africa. And that was before I was born.

That wouldn’t have happened if not for my commitment.

My next goal is to learn Hungarian considerably well to very well before I meet my family members for the High Holidays. And luckily I know what to do.

And you know what to do to! Can you?

(3) I’m aggressively nonconformist and realize that a lot of messages found in many societies (and the U.S. in general) are intended to stifle hope and talent.

There have been few sadder things I have heard in conversation that people convincing themselves that they “don’t have talent” or that they’re “just average” and that they’re “okay with it”.

Between mass media culture in general as well as television in general (sorry to single it out), I feel that a lot of aspects of American popular culture are actually meant to hinder the road to extraordinary success rather than act as a key to it. I should also say that the US is far from the only country in which this is true.

Speaking to people I know I feel that a lot of people would really pursue extraordinary dreams and become the heroes of our time. I believe that almost all of us are capable of it in some measure. One thing that is holding them back is limiting beliefs, or even worse, their friend circles.

These friendship circles are a VERY powerful force in your life. Hone it correctly and it’s like having all the divine forces in the world on your side. Choose the wrong friends and you’ll be shackled to a life of wishing you were something more.

Think about what sort of messages you are giving and think about what they’re trying to do to you from a psychological standpoint. Some of these really open doors for you (make you want to explore the world, make you want to explore yourself, etc.). Many of these try to close doors for you (be needlessly afraid of things, keep you stuck in patterns of mediocrity, and somehow trick you into thinking that it doesn’t matter whether or not you put in a lot of effort into your dreams).

(4) I Have Musical Muscle-Memory and Perfect Pitch

Surprisingly this does count for a lot, in part because I can detect pitches of voices and other auditory things and “capture” them in my memory.

It’s like having a music and voice recorder in your brain and it works wonders.

This isn’t strictly related to language learning, and I don’t really know if I was “born with this” or not, but I discovered it in my AP Music Theory Class as a junior in high school. I did better on the auditory test than literally any other standardized test over the course of my whole life.

With language learning, it helps me pick up small textures of vowels and consonants not only specific to languages as a whole but also their regional variations. In learning some Polynesian languages in which resources are scarce, this is really helpful.

Tokelauan, for example, spoken on an island in the Pacific by about 3,000 or so native speakers…if you’ve seen “Moana” (Vaiana), you’ve heard this language before in some of the songs, and the band that performs in the film also has a lot of fantastic music. Te Vaka (The Canoe) is very much work checking out.

And when I didn’t get much of a Tokelauan pronunciation guide (besides “all Pacific languages’ vowels sound exactly the same), I actually had to pick up subtleties by listening to their songs!)

 

(5) I am determined to be a champion, no matter what.

Since I was seven years old, I’ve determined that there’s only one sin for me: living an ordinary life.

I’ve made too many sacrifices and committed too much time to my dreams. Losing is not a choice for me.

I realize I have one shot at life and that, no matter what, I have to be the best champion I can be.

I want to become the legend that many people dream of becoming, knowing or meeting even once.

And the hardest thing about it isn’t actually acquiring the skills. Put extraordinary amount of time into something you really like and you’ll become a star, put even more time and you’ll become a role model to those in your field. That’s fairly straightforward and it requires “not giving up”.

I’ll tell you what the hardest thing is: other people trying to make you feel bad about the fact that you’ve chosen to chase your dreams, to become the legend that you secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) dream of becoming. They’ll somehow try to convince you that the problem is you, that maybe if you’d only “be like everyone else” than you’ll live a fulfilled life.

That’s a lie.

You’re welcome to do that if you want, you’re welcome to be more conformist, but it’s your deathbed regrets you’re bargaining with, not mine.

I KNOW that’s not what you want.

So here I am, telling you that you deserve the best. Onwards, champion!

Yes, I know I’ve posted this song on the blog before. Yes, it’s in Finnish. Yes, the lyrics are online in both Finnish and English.

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The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

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It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!

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

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Polyglot Conference Excitement, Plans and Hopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

grand central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hochdeutsch

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

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

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

idishflag

The Lesson: Shut out your native language = progress

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

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

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

max mekker scream

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

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

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

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

And so it was.

dansk i graekenland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

norden

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

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

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

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

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

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

STOP SOUNDING LIKE A LEARNER.

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

vlaanderen

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

maamme

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

Hebrew:

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

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

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

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

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

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

yisrael

The Lesson: When a word gets taken from one language to another, it takes on another identity, that is separate from the one it has in another language.

Northern Sami: One time at Scandinavia House NYC, I went to a Sami Theater presentation and I actually encountered a player from one of my favorite TV shows. Upon conducting what was my first-ever conversation in Northern Sami, I got stared at by a lot of the audience, as though I were a celebrity!

I was told afterwards, “I just love the sounds of that language…” and just one compliment after another…

And this was for a language that sometimes I got told was a useless endeavor!

sapmi

The Lesson: Learn Somebody’s Language, Become Somebody’s Hero. True Story.

French Unlike many other polyglots, I have to admit that my command of French is very sub-par indeed. But hopefully, thanks to its similarities with English and the endless possibilities to use it, I’ll get conversational by the time October rolls around.

Back in July 2014 I committed to learning both French and Faroese. I became fluent in one and I became just barely capable to speak another. Interestingly, my ability to read French is quite good, but when it comes to a Polyglot conference that sadly doesn’t count for much.

I did not pour hours into French (either learning it or getting exposure) the way I did with other languages. But given the relative lack of progress, I’m glad to say that I know at least something and can say some things and have a good accent, too.

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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!

ay yay yay

The Lesson: You never truly forget a language. At least, you always remember something.

Greenlandic – Trying to navigate this language was like trying to navigate a dungeon controlled by a maniac. Always another trap, always another thing to look out for, but some sense of logicality present overall…

The only real problem I have with Greenlandic grammar (maligned by many, even in Greenland, as being extraordinarily difficult) is choosing what order to stack suffixes, but even that only becomes a minor issue that can largely be sidestepped. I’ve written enough on Greenlandic as is. I can’t spend too much of this blog post to write more on it.

I found vocabulary throughout my Greenlandic journey more difficult to process than for any other language.

Despite all of the shortcomings, and the fact that sometimes I worried about whether my abilities were good enough, I carried on.

I cannot say that I speak Greenlandic absolutely perfect. But I could have very well folded at any point. Good thing I didn’t.

kalaallit nunaat

The Lesson: Above all, focus on what you do have. That which you don’t have will come.

Irish – I deemed this my hardest language of the bunch a significant amount of times. But after getting used to its significantly, the pronunciation, the orthography, the clash of dialects, and, of course, the grammar, sometimes I wonder why I even thought it was hard to begin with.

I see a lot of words in common with the Romance languages, a pronunciation system that, with lots and lots of practice, actually comes to make sense and, in short, nothing that I should be afraid of.

Oh, and also a lot of English words that Irish-speakers tend to throw into their speech. But this is also the case with about half of the languages on this list.

eire

The Lesson: It doesn’t seem so hard when you’ve done it. Then you wonder why you were so scared.

 

Faroese – I learned Faroese pronunciation through songs and, to a lesser degree, my German-Language Faroese book. There are lots and lots of beautiful songs written in the language and ones that will no doubt enchant all of you as well.

But looking back, this was a journey that I would have ended as soon as I started it if it were not for the new songs that I would otherwise have no clue existed. And with each language on this list, my collection of songs keeps on growing.

foroyar

The Lesson: Media in a Language is an all-around good: It keeps you motivated, it helps you learn, and it helps you maintain the language.

Cornish – Ah, the comments I got about this one. “Don’t just five people speak it?” “Why bother if only a few hundred know it?”

Sometimes I found myself affected. But then I kept in mind that Cornish is being heavily promoted in Cornwall and is basically a free ticket to employment if you know it well.

I’m not very good with Cornish right now, in fact, it is without a doubt my weakest language, but if I were stronger I would end this with the words “who’s laughing now?”

kernow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

breizh

The Lesson: The small things you don’t notice can count for a lot.

Icelandic – I told the entire story here. I’m not really repeating it. TL;DR: the Internet told me that I would never get answered in Icelandic if I used the local language. The Internet, for one out of many times, was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, the amount of times I got answered in English I could count on my fingers. And all of them were at the hotel.

island

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