“With All Due Respect, I Just Don’t Believe It” – How to Handle Skeptics

Today I’m going to address what is probably the highest quality problem a polyglot could have: having people actually doubt your skills.

I’ll go ahead and begin with this: there are some languages that I speak very, very well (my list is at the top of this page). Then there are those that I still speak smidgets of. And, of course, those that fall in between this, not to mention those that I’d like to learn some day.

If you are one of those who is a skeptic of my skills, I will either invite you to talk to me about my language journey or even see me in “action” at a polyglot event or even on the streets of a city. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of which, I’ve been inspired by Moses McCormick’s “Level Up” missions and thought I should come to do something similar. For those unaware, Moses McCormick collects pieces of enough languages to actually make me look like a novice and interacts with native speakers, filming the results. The extended metaphor involves the acquisition of Experience Points common to Role-Playing Games.

Okay, so what’s the problem?

Imagine you go to a language exchange event with something like this:

come back when you can put up a fight

This is an abbreviated list.

Now, granted, you’ll encounter a lot of very shocked people. And reactions like these:

  • Why don’t you speak language X better?
  • Why don’t you speak language Y at all?
  • Why do you focus on “useless” languages?
  • What else do you do with your life aside from learning languages?
  • Why don’t you speak language of variety Z? (Up until the Myanmar mission, it was usually “I do not see any Asian Languages on here”, despite the fact that Hebrew is, technically speaking, an Asian language).
  • What’s your secret?
  • Can you say “thank you” in all of these, just to make sure that you’re real? (I can do this without any effort at all, actually)
  • How did you pick up every single one of these? (Each one has a different story. I used a lot of animated cartoons to learn Danish, but I literally couldn’t have done that with something like Breton. Living in the country obviously helped with Sweden, but as things stand going to Papua New Guinea to learn Tok Pisin is a non-option for me, so I had to “simulate” the immersive environment via technology…not too hard!)

 

And then a handful of those like this:

 

  • “There’s no way you’re telling the truth about that”.
  • “I just don’t believe you”

 

Thankfully, these skeptics are in the pure minority, and I usually encounter ones like that about once every two months or so.

And if you were to think that it was mostly on the Internet that I encountered folks like these, you’d be completely right.

And I usually don’t respond to them. After I make enough videos and collect enough interviews, there won’t be any more room for skepticism.

Here’s Why I Don’t Pay Attention to Hyperpolyglot Skepticism

 

  • I’m secure in my abilities

 

Here’s how I judge my fluency in non-Native languages and ensure that I’m “on the ball”.

I find videos of non-native English speakers of varying levels on television, etc. My goal, as things stand, is not to sound like a native in all of the languages I speak, but in my best ones I want to be able to speak as well as fluent speakers of English as a second language.

If I can translate everything that they are saying into a language and verbalize everything that they say using my vocabulary, then this means that I am in a good place. This means that my skill in that language is solid.

I realize that at this moment, I should not focus on “catching up” to native speakers. The native speaker of Hebrew or German or Finnish is going to have a permanent advantage over me. I may really like these languages, but Israelis or Germans or Finns have lived and breathed the culture for their whole lives. Unless I commit an ungodly amount of time to the task, I’m not catching up. But that’s okay.

Likewise, I have the advantage as a native English speaker over everyone who is not. I can use idiomatic expressions with more ease than … most native speakers of English, actually!

And this leads to another problem I’ll address on another day: the fact that my vocabulary in English is extremely sharp, and that sometimes I have to hold my vocabulary sets in my other languages to a lower standard. But that’s okay.

(Sometimes it’s even necessary. Bislama’s comprehensive vocabulary is 7000 words and nearly half of those are place names, leaving about 4000 words, which is nearly one-fourth the size of an English native speaker’s vocabulary. Keep in mind that comprehensive vocabulary means all known words in the language! Dutch’s comprehensive vocabulary, for the sake of comparison, is, if I recall correctly, around 400,000, among the largest on the planet).

 

  • Some insecure people want to make you feel bad about your choices. Ignore them.

 

I remember one time I encountered someone who spoke to me with an almost visceral hatred about the fact that I was “dabbling” in a lot of languages.

This person tried to say that it was wiser to invest very strongly in a handful rather than hop around.

But here’s one reason why I know I made the right choice: not only are skills transferable between languages (e.g. my Yiddish and Swedish and Icelandic vocabularies have very detectable crossover between them, and even Tok Pisin and Burmese and Vietnamese have grammatical elements in common!), but memory software is just going to get even better. The possibilities to increase your vocabulary size will be even more endless than before.

Take, for example, the fact that video games have causes some people to play them to develop very good reflexes (I can’t even remember the last time I dropped a glass or plate on the floor, actually). In comparison with soldiers that fought in the second world war, contemporary soldiers, thanks to using software and games, have developed reflexes that would have been considered superhuman a century ago!

What’s more, I know that learning a language is like watering a plant. The plant grows over time with enough care, and some plants grow more slowly than others. In that regard, I know that having thirty plants and watering them all slowly is going to be wiser on the very long term than having three plants that grow quickly.

I am very sure that the case for many languages places me on the winning side. Although if you chose to focus on a handful of languages instead, I respect that choice very much. After all, the maintenance involved on my end can be downright painful! And that pain isn’t for everyone, and neither might the reward from that pain be something that you even want…

 

  • I expect to make mistakes

I don’t advertise myself as someone who speaks a bajillion languages all perfectly, I advertise myself as someone who is solidly conversational in around 17-20.

I’ve heard solidly conversational English speakers in places like Iceland. They were very good and I was extremely impressed. Were they absolutely perfect or using the vocabulary of college graduates? No. But it wasn’t necessary.

Usually people forgive my mistakes, even stupid ones, by chalking up to the fact that being a hyperglot leads to confusion (although I’m constantly working on trying to decrease that confusion). Even speaking a few languages very well can also lead to confusion!

I am someone who chases new experiences with enthusiasm, and I expect there to be mistakes and I ditch perfectionism on the short term.

I look at language learning as a jigsaw puzzle. You assemble the frame (which is the basic structure on how a language words with its basic verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and the most common vocabulary) and then you assemble the rest of the puzzle by just arranging the pieces as noticing how they fit together based on the guide that you’ve seen. Here’s the key difference: putting together the language jigsaw puzzle never ends.

 

Conclusion

I’ve had people throughout my life that doubted my abilities. I’ve had people throughout my abilities that didn’t think that I was smart enough or didn’t think that my skills were well developed enough for a changing world. There were even those that tried to tell me that my religious upbringing during adolescence was like a permanent handicap!

And yes, there are those that tried to get me to doubt my commitment and my attachment to one of the greatest passions of my life, getting to experience the many tongues of the planet.

I’ve been a high achiever since I was a toddler. I’m used to this sort of resentment and I may feel some pang of despair or insecurity at times, but aside from that, I just know that, after enough demonstrations and enough hard work, I’ll be the winner.

And those that doubted me will be the ones having to apologize.

And really, if you have people doubting your skills, especially on the Internet, don’t pay attention to them. This is me telling you that your grand vision for your life deserves to be yours, and you need all of the encouragement and care required so that you can get it.

Onwards!

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!

On Language Learning During Illness

2016-10-31-19-21-52

(For those of you who recognize the character, I will avoid from making sickening puns of any sort)

Been a while, hasn’t it been?

I woke up one day in November 2015 having any variety of optimism sucked out of me completely, unable to focus on any task and feeling both energetic and tired in all of the wrong ways.

There was absolutely no positive feeling anywhere in me.

Worse yet, I had a game design conference to attend later that month. Thankfully for the first few days of November, I thought it would be a temporary thing that would pass, but after it lasted a week it became clear that it wasn’t letting up.

These feelings resulted in me walking away from every single one of my projects. Up until November I was updating this blog every week, and even looking forward to making one of those “polyglot videos” (for those unaware: filming oneself speaking a lot of languages one after another).

And thanks to the feelings incurred, I did the previously unthinkable and I shut down my Facebook account from November 2015 until June 2016. I genuinely wanted to retreat from a lot of my previous commitments and passions, and I had no idea why. I felt an extraordinary energy definciency and sometimes I fear that I still do have it.

Suffice it to say that thanks to one of my students, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease in time and it was treated in time. It is easily one of the most difficult diseases to detect, and it is likely that I caught it in a Connecticut forest while visiting my parents during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Thinking back to my time of treatment (and struggling to identify the disease) as well as various other illnesses I’ve had during my polyglot career, I didn’t see anything written on this topic.

Granted I have had the good fortune to not have undergone anything worse than Lyme Disease during my life, but I think that I should write some words of encouragement about learning a language during sickness. It could be something lasting, it could be something that may cause you to “not feel well”, for one day, but the truth be told is that..

You can still be in the process of moving your dreams forward, even under the most dire circumstances!

And language acquisition and retention is no exception to this!

If you find yourself not feeling well and stumble upon this blog post, I wish you a speedy recovery!

 

Some things to keep in mind:

 

Tone down judging yourself harshly

 

I come from a family of overachievers and me being the first-born sibling means that I am a lot more likely to be harsh on myself than those who are not.

Especially with the pressure of testing culture in the United States, which sadly leaves lasting scars on many people, it is very possible to feel invalidated from discouragement for too many reasons to count.

You may not be able to remember words as well, you may even find yourself forgetting basic phrases, your energy may be low and your native language(s) may also be in no great condition either!

As a general rule your passive abilities will be stronger than your active ones (although there are some languages with which can be definite exceptions to this). But even then, those may feel downsized as a result of your not-feeling-very well.

Keep in mind that if you are in one of these slump-days on your language learning journey, do not use moments like these to measure and / or track your progress! Granted, there may be some languages that you have such sharp control over that you can manage then excellent even when not feeling well!

What you should be using to track your progress, then, is how well you can manage with the skills of reading / writing / speaking and listening when you are feeling better.

But that day may be far off, sadly. In which case, you still do have hope! I remember that I was honing Irish and Finnish before Lyme Disease came in, and I didn’t even feel like doing anything.

Not visiting the respective wikipedias, not picking up a book, not even using videos or cartoon shows!

But regardless of how badly you feel, keep in mind that you can always do something.

It does not matter if it is just a handful of words, even a single sentence, or even a few minutes of exposure. The journey is always about moving forward. And those language learners who manage the best are those that move forward with their journeys.

Moving forward is not always the same is sprinting, and on bad days, you have to understand that. 

Some of you knew that I spent my preteen years in a very religious Jewish school. And one thing that they emphasized in theory (although in practice not as much) was the fact that every deed of religious observance, or good deed in general, no matter how small, was to be treasured.

On good days as well as bad days, you need to learn how to think like that with regard to your goals.

Moving slowly is okay. When you are not feeling well, whether with a fever or not enough sleep or even something far worse, it may even be expected of you. And so don’t push yourself too harshly and don’t treat yourself too harshly either.

Just because you are a polyglot or a polyglot-in-training, doesn’t mean you have to be superhuman. In fact, no one should ever expect that of you!

Happy days will be ahead of you, and realize that, while your language learning attempts during illness may seem underwhelming to you, they are actually greatly heroic acts that you will look back on with pride!

 

(P.S. about the video, I’m starting a YouTube channel soon [well, it is live already, actually!] and I’ll be honing my video-making skills along the way and delivering you a polyglot video when the moment feels right! Sorry to keep you waiting even more!)

You are Hereby Promised a Video

The 20th was my birthday, and the coming month on the morrow means that I’ll be preparing for my MA examination. With all things said, this blog and, above all, the language enthusiasm is far from forgotten!

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A game of mine was recently released, referred to by a fan as “Dungeons and Dragons for Linguistic Nerds”. While on the whole accurate, there is a lot more to see for yourself, here.

The game’s name itself came about while I was studying the Finnish Language, at my grandmother’s house in Milwaukee, no less, where I was sketching what would become the Flanders Adventure.

Plans, plans, plans, I’ll be brief:

(1) I will be releasing a Polyglot Video! But this one will have fewer languages than what I can manage at my fullest. Why?

(2) The video itself will be Languages of the Nordic Countries, with eventual plans for me to create collections of spoken languages (featuring yours truly) grouped by region or shared heritage.

(3) The next theme for the video afterwards has already been chosen! But, BUT! Given as this Nordic Languages one took me YEARS, I don’t know how long the next one will take me.

(4) But, you may ask, HOW ON EARTH WILL YOU LEARN ALL THE LANGUAGES OF THE WORLD?

Well, the key is learning. Not maintaining. So after the video is released, I will drop some of them for other ones. My mind has limits, and I doubt I’m the only one.

I’ve already written a lot on the Nordic Languages themselves, but I’ll be writing on some others in due time.

Until then, I’ll be working to give you a polyglot video that showcases the languages and is also entertaining, while not being too long either.

Here’s an idea for something you can do right now: you can close this window and begin going about learning the language you’ve always dreamed of. The most important thing is that it is a language that you deeply want…

…here’s to your journey!