6 Attitudes you Should Adopt for the Sake of the Future’s Linguistic Diversity

Yes, I understand that not everyone wants to learn an endangered or minority language. I’m perfectly okay with that (as long as you don’t mock or put down people who do).

I’ve put forth enough cases as to why learning rarer languages is a good career move, a good move from a moral standpoint (whether you look at the world as a whole or what it does to you) as well as a character builder.

This is not that article.

Instead, I’m going to write about various attitudes you can adopt in order to ensure that you can change the contemporary climate (present in many places) that is encouraging people to give up their smaller cultures and languages and thereby cause the continued extinction of our beloved human tongues from all over the world.

I learn languages like Breton, Tongan, Yiddish and Krio. I realize that that path isn’t for everyone. That’s perfectly okay. There is, however, one thing that I really would like to change, and that is a general set of opinions that I think most people would be do well to do away with for the sake of our cultural diversity.

Here goes:

 

  • Stop referring to languages as “useless”

 

I remember talking to a Burkinabe bartender once. He spoke ten languages fluently but he said that aside from English and French there was “nobody” that spoke languages like Mossi, Fulani, etc.

A few months later I spoke to a Spanish-speaker (you don’t think I was using English, did you?) at a polyglot event and he said that he had a Fulani-speaking taxi driver (Fulani is a language spoken in many places in West Africa and Burkina Faso is among them. Fulani-speakers were also sadly well-represented among the many victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Well, so much for “nobody speaks it”, right?

And of course that one time there was a Bulgarian girl in New York City who told me that “there would be better things to do with your time than learn it [that is to say, the Bulgarian language]”. Apparently she was so imprisoned by a culture of “smaller languages and cultures are economically useless” that she seemed to imply that her culture was something that was holding her back…and based on my prior experience I know that she wasn’t the only one…

Esperanto, Cornish, Tajik and all Creole Languages are among the languages on my list that I’ve heard regularly insulted the most and some have even gone so far as to question my judgment as to why I would want to learn them.

Thinking different will always get you validated in the end. Trust me on this one.

But in the meantime, stop referring to languages as “useless” and try to stop other people from exploring the world. It just serves to perpetuate cultural destruction which goes hand-in-hand with income inequality (believe it or not).

 

  • Referring to Certain Groups of Languages as “Dialects”

 

Ah, yes, referring to Italian Regional Languages / Creole Languages / Yiddish and Afrikaans as “dialects”.

This really doesn’t serve any purpose except for silencing other people’s decisions to go off the beaten path. If there’s anything that threatens the current order of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, it’s thinking differently.

It’s one thing to refer to American English and British English as dialects of the same language, but to refer to various regional dialects within places like the Arab World / Italy / Persian-speaking countries is misleading. Keep in mind whether your choice to call another language a dialect is actually privileging one dominant culture over another. Be very careful about that.

Scots, Nigerian Pidgin and Trinidadian Creole are separate languages in their own right because they feature grammatical patterns and distinctive vocabularies that distinguish them from the English in which you are now writing this. It is true that speakers of these languages can understand what I am writing right now, but by calling their languages mere dialects you rob them of a distinctive personality and the ability for others, certainly in the academic world, to take their differences seriously.

 

  • Saying that “Having Everyone Speaking One Language is a Good Thing” or that English is the only language worth studying.

 

Perhaps the first part is true, but with this way of thinking we’ve seen the proliferation of terrible habits because of it.

For one, a lot of cultures throughout the world may see themselves as duly inferior to the grand culture of the United States of America and their language as inferior to American English, the language of money and science.

Having a lingua franca is a necessity and we’ve seen that wherever empires are, all over the world. However, saying that only one language is worth study is poisonous. It seriously will prevent other people from exploring other languages and ways of thinking. Other ways of thinking is the one reason why corporate power hasn’t taken root any more strongly than it already has. With diversity of thought becomes a diversity of leadership, and when a handful of people control nearly half the wealth in the world, I doubt that they might be looking for any competition in the slightest…

 

  • Refusing to Use Your Native Language with Learners

 

This. Is. A. Big. One.

And this has collectively caused more damage to global language learning than almost anything.

The “why bother if everyone just speaks English?” myth.

And yet, so many people will just do the lazier thing and use whatever language is made “easier” rather than doing what the right thing for human diversity is, to encourage usage of many human tongues rather than only the tongues of empire.

It’s okay if you want to “juggle” the sort of languages you know with other people. I do it. I understand that people see my English-language abilities (as a native speaker) as a gift that they want to learn from. Even if they speak a language that I’ve never spoken before and I want to practice, I wouldn’t withhold it from them if they really want to speak English with me (for example, speakers of Spanish, Hebrew, German and Russian, so I’ve noticed, can get very self-conscious about their English skills if you continuously address them in their native language. I’ve seen the looks in people’s eyes. And I doubt these four are the only ones.)

But if you can’t even be bothered to use a handful of basis phrases with a learner, or, even worse, use English with me when I’ve demonstrated that I’m fluent in your language, then I will see you as terribly insecure and / or just plain mean. (The latter situation has only happened a handful of times, including one in which I got THIS *makes hand gesture* close to telling someone off very rudely)

There is one exception I’ll make: if your native language has painful memories associated with it (e.g. my memories of that Jewish school of hard knocks weren’t always very nice in the slightest, and hearing Yeshivish-English at times gives me very uncomfortable feelings, I’m sorry to say). I’ll find it out eventually one way or another and I’ll understand it. Oh, and if you forgot your native language later in life (which DOES happen, surprisingly!)

 

  • Saying that “dying languages should just die off and we should only care about those that are still alive”

 

I think if your family were dying, or if a family member of yours were dying, or if your species were dying, I bet someone would want to save him/her/you/them, right? How do YOU like it?

 

  • Saying that Only Political Powerful Languages are Worth the Effort

 

This is a big one that the press and journalism is largely responsible for, including “which languages to learn to earn the most money”, “which languages are the most ‘useful’”, and other clickbait mind-controlling garbage of this sort.

I understand if you only want to learn global languages. I’m even okay with that! As long as you respect the choice and the possibility for OTHERS to learn whatever languages they want. Several of my friends wouldn’t consider learning endangered languages but have been very thankful and supportive of my efforts to encourage other people to do so.

There is this one YouTuber who is not my friend and who I’ve never met and whose opinions I do not respect. He pretty much does nothing but insult several of my friends and acquaintances who have inspired thousands all over the globe. He pretty much said in a comment that only learning languages that give you a “bang for your buck “are useful, proceeding to list languages of the UN as the gold standard.

Does he know how often I got solicited by translators who wanted stuff from Greenlandic, Icelandic, Yiddish, Faroese (back when I knew it) and even the Melanesian Creoles, and it got so “bad” when I had Lyme Disease that I even CLOSED MY ACCOUNT on a translation forum because I was getting so many messages? Do you think that if I chose the UN official languages (English, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, French and Spanish) that I would come ANYWHERE CLOSE to how many solicitations I got?

This troll obviously never worked as a translator in which the odder pairs and choices will usually be more hunted after, judging by my experience of having people beg me “pleeeeeaase don’t turn this job down!” (When I had Lyme Disease, well…I sorta had no choice…but I didn’t know I had the disease at the time, I just knew that I was feeling very weak and “not feeling up to it today. Sorry”).

I probably made more money off my languages that he has in a lifetime over his. And I’m probably half his age. But that’s none of my business in the slightest. (I would say that Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish have netted me the most earnings, followed by Greenlandic and Hebrew…translating from all of these languages into English, of course)

If it sounds to you that I am discouraging you to study global languages, don’t take it that way.

Just be aware of the benefits that various languages will net you on a market (e.g. Spanish will give you a lot more material online and many opportunities to speak it in person, but not much leverage as a translator or in employment markets in which “every idiot learns Spanish”. Small national languages like Danish or Bulgarian will be more balanced in this regard, fewer materials and opportunities to speak it but more leverage as a translator and in employment markers. And then, of course, the glass cannon of the endangered or minority language. May not have almost any opportunities to use it, depending on where you are, but it will you will STAND OUT to your employers because of it. And there are probably many other categories that fall between these, and whatever you choose is good as long as you choose it from the heart and not for the sake of conformity or “money” or “job opportunities” in a vaguely defined sense).

In conclusion, I realize that there may not be a lot I can do to assist with attitude changes in the language-learning community. But this post is a start. And whenever I hear opinions the likes of which I have heard, I feel like an arrow shot me in the gut.

Maybe the world will come to know healing. If so, I want to know that I’ve been a part of that.

And you can, too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Never Too Late!

P.S. Ah, I found that video!

Your Questions about Cornish: Answered!

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No, this flag is not a set of four black buttons. This is St. Piran’s Flag, which is the national symbol of Cornwall and also of the Cornish language.

Ever since my last blog post as well as earlier I got a number of questions about the Cornish language from a variety of people, and here is where they will be answered!

  1. Cornish? Where do they speak that? Like…Cornwall?

 

Right you are! And before you go ahead and ask “isn’t Cornwall a part of England, and can’t you just use English when you go there? And isn’t Cornwall so tiny that it isn’t worth the effort?”

In response to that first bit, you go ahead and try telling Cornish people that see what happens. I wrote about the unique history of Cornwall here. The existence of Cornwall predates the existence of England, and the Cornish Language has been described by some as having “ancient roots”. Make of that whatever you want.

Cornish is a language that you have to conscientiously search for its speakers, and most of them obviously reside in Cornwall, and a few in other areas of the United Kingdom, especially London. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there are curious souls like myself who have been intrigued by the story of Cornwall and its revived language and seek to embark on a journey to learn it.

And believe it or not, it still is used in some public ceremonies! Not also to mention that there are signs in Cornish in Cornwall and workshops held in Cornwall, London, and even some areas of the United States.

As to tiny, Cornwall is actually larger than Luxembourg, and is a popular vacation destination that has been name-dropped in lots of literary spheres—from Shakespeare to the recent Broadway production of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Only two days ago in Barnes and Noble at Union Square did I see an entire travel book devoted to just Devon and Cornwall (Devon borders Cornwall to the East).

Land’s End? Cornish. Penzance? (Pirates, anyone?) Cornish. Truro (mentioned briefly in the first episode of Black Mirror?) Cornish. And also a place known in English as the “Scilly Islands”.  This is an abbreviated list.

  1. Don’t like only five people speak it?

A more common variation of this question is “don’t like only two hundred people speak it?”

If you count native speakers, then yes, the numbers are somewhere in the hundreds. But after being dead for quite a while (although there are few that debate the idea of Cornish having died at all), it is better than nothing.

And…AND! This doesn’t include the non-native speakers! And there are thousands of them that are not only actively producing a literary and musical culture, but actively solicited for it!

If you want a language that will give you employment opportunities that few even know exist, consider learning a language with few speakers. One person at a polyglot gathering told me that “the fewer speakers there are of a language, the more that language is deemed important by its speakers”.

Perhaps this was a jab at language revivals or attempts to save endangered languages (not the first time!), but the fact remains: if you speak a rare language, even as a non-native, expect employers to hunt you down! (I, of all people, should know.)

  1. What’s the point of learning Cornish if so few people speak it?

 

Allow me to introduce you to the book that started this whole bonanza, Henry Jenner’s Handbook of the Cornish Language. This book came out in 1904, and the preface reads as follows:

 

“This book is principally intended for those persons of Cornish nationality who wish to acquire some knowledge of their ancient tongue, and to read, write, and perhaps even to speak it.  Its aim is to represent in an intelligible form the Cornish of the later period, and since it is addressed to the general Cornish public rather than to the skilled philologist, much has been left unsaid that might have been of interest to the latter, old-fashioned phonological and grammatical terms have been used, a uniform system of spelling has been adopted, little notice has been taken of casual variations, and the arguments upon which the choice of forms has been based have not often been given.

The spelling has been adapted for the occasion.  All writers of Cornish used to spell according to their own taste and fancy, and would sometimes represent the same word in different ways even in the same page, though certain general principles were observed in each period.  There was a special uncertainty about the vowels, which will be easily appreciated by those who are familiar with Cornish English.  Modern writers of all languages prefer consistent spelling, and to modern learners, whose object is linguistic rather than philological, a fairly regular system of orthography is almost p. xa necessity.  The present system is not the phonetic ideal of “one sound to each symbol, and one symbol for each sound,” but it aims at being fairly consistent with itself, not too difficult to understand, not too much encumbered with diacritical signs, and not too startlingly different from the spellings of earlier times, especially from that of Lhuyd, whose system was constructed from living Cornish speakers.  The writer has arrived at his conclusions by a comparison of the various existing spellings with one another, with the traditional fragments collected and recorded by himself in 1875, with the modern pronunciation of Cornish names, with the changes which English has undergone in the mouths of the less educated of Cornishmen, and to some extent with Breton.  The author suggests that this form of spelling should be generally adopted by Cornish students of their old speech.  The system cannot in the nature of things be strictly accurate, but it is near enough for practical purposes.  Possibly there is much room for controversy, especially as to such details as the distribution of long and short vowels, the representation of the Middle Cornish uueeu sometimes by î, sometimes by ê, and sometimes by eu or ew, or of the Middle Cornish y by ie, or y, or occasionally by an obscure ăŏ, or ŭ, and it is quite likely that others might arrive at different conclusions from the same evidence, though those conclusions might not be any the nearer to the sounds which the Cornishmen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries really did make.  As for grammatical forms, it will be seen that the writer is of opinion that the difference between Middle and Modern Cornish was more apparent than real, and that except in the very latest period of all, when the language survived only in the mouths of the least educated persons, the so-called “corruptions” were to a great extent due to differences of spelling, to a want of appreciation of almost inaudible final consonants, and to an intensification of phonetic tendencies existing in germ at a much earlier period.  Thus it is that inflections which in the late Cornish often seem to have been almost, if not quite, inaudible, have been written in full, for that is the author’s notion, founded on what Middle Cornishmen actually did write, of what Modern Cornishmen were trying to express.  For most things he has precedents, though he has allowed himself a certain amount of conjecture at times, and in most cases of difficulty he has trusted, as he would advise his readers to do, to Breton rather than to Welsh, for the living Breton of to-day is the nearest thing to Cornish that exists.

Why should Cornishmen learn Cornish?  There is no money in it, it serves no practical purpose, and the literature is scanty and of no great originality or value.  The question is a fair one, the answer is simple.  Because they are Cornishmen.  At the present day Cornwall, but for a few survivals of Duchy jurisdictions, is legally and practically a county of England, with a County Council, a County Police, and a Lord-Lieutenant all complete, as if it were no better than a mere Essex or Herts.  But every Cornishman knows well enough, proud as he may be of belonging to the British Empire, that he is no more an Englishman than a Caithness man is, that he has as much right to a separate local patriotism to his little Motherland, which rightly understood is no bar, but rather an advantage to the greater British patriotism,  as has a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, or even a Colonial; and that he is as much a Celt and as little of an “Anglo-Saxon” as any Gael, Cymro, Manxman, or Breton.  Language is less than ever a final test of race.  Most Cornishmen habitually speak English, and few, very few, could hold five minutes’ conversation in the old Celtic speech.  Yet the memory of it lingers on, and no one can talk about the country itself, and mention the places in it, without using a wealth of true Cornish words.  But a similar thing may be said of a very large proportion of Welshmen, Highlanders, Irishmen, Manxmen, and Bretons.”

 

Well, as far as I know, I am not Cornish, but there might be some traceable ancestry. After all, I do have some British roots…and then there are those who want to understand the Celtic Languages as whole to a higher degree, especially since Welsh and Breton are related to Cornish very closely (although they are not mutually intelligible).

An attraction to a language is not something to be logically explained. End of discussion.

I’m going to write yet another blog post at some point about the vocabulary, grammar, and the sounds of Cornish, but I wanted to use this in order to get some questions answered.

 

And here’s one article from the BBC that contains the following gem, to sum things up:

 

“Contemporary written Cornish is also continuing to develop in quantity and quality. There have been a number of literary publications which have developed the essay, the short story and poetry in Cornish. More recently novels have been produced, along with an increasing amount of children’s publications. In terms of output and publications per head of language users this may constitute a record even higher than Icelandic. Texts from medieval times, especially drama, have also been revived in modern performances, allowing plays enjoyed centuries ago to find new contemporary audiences.”

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/multilingual/cornish.shtml

 

I have 11 days to become fluent in Cornish. Can I do it?

My Translation Adventure with Northern Sami ‘n Friends

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A week from tomorrow is my birthday. In looking for potential gifts and wish-list constructions, one click led to another and I found myself discovering something about Minecraft (a well-known video game with quite simplistic but cute graphics that I can’t really grasp the point of) being translated into many languages.

Since my travels have hardened my discipline, I’m usually not one for game-playing, but I was so intrigued that I had to take a look.

Turned out, the list of languages included the standard ones that most Americans can name off the top of their head, but then spun into complete unpredictability with Manx Gaelic and Cornish being featured (!!!!)

Both languages, for those unaware, had passed into extinction and have been revived. In the UN’s Atlas of Endangered Languages, these two are noted with the red pin (indicating “critically endangered”) with a letter “R” on it, indicating that it had been brought, pardon my expression, back from the bring.

It is interesting to note that the game is likely being used to further the revival attempts at both languages, even though neither translation is truly complete (Cornish is at 65% or so as of the time of writing, with Manx slightly over 70%).

Now here’s the most interesting part: Minecraft outsourced its translations to the public. What that means: you can create an account on CrowdIn, and start translating to whatever degree you want to, no matter who you are. Of course, those who know the language better will vote on your translations accordingly, acting as quality control.

Taking a look at its offerings, I noted that there was a Northern Sami translation and that it was not making signs of great progress (as of last week it was about 1%).

Keeping in mind the adage from the language encourager community that languages need to be experienced rather than learned, I snatched the chance, created the account, and then began translating.

My only experiences with the game dealt with watching some of my college friends play it (and try to hopelessly explain the game to me), but luckily this was no barrier in me getting to work.

A few days later, and the progress for the translation is now at around 14% or so, and when I’m in more of a working mood I’m likely to continue it.

Some of my thoughts / frustrations:

  1. There are lots of languages recognized by CrowdIn, possibly the longest list I’ve seen on anywhere that isn’t Reddit. Very interestingly, while they had offerings like Ewe and other languages whose name I only recall seeing once, Greenlandic / Kalaallisut was nowhere on the list.

 

Mixed blessing?

 

  1. A Material Notebook proved helpful. I had grammar tables and the like in my notebook that was right by my side. I had also copied the contents of a screenshot from Wikipedia that showed Kubuntu being translated into Northern Sami, and I had never thought that I would ever to put it to use like this when I first wrote it.

 

As it turns out, I consult multiple dictionaries for the translation, Giella Tekno (which is Norwegian/Finnish to Northern Sami and back to both), as well as two English-Northern Sami Dictionary lists, and another Norwegian/Swedish /Sami Languages dictionary. But clicking between the tabs proved difficult and really wore out my hand, after which I needed to take a walk.

 

  1. There was an original stage of self-consciousness, but I quickly got over it. I thought, “what if a Native speaker comes in and demolishes all of my translations?”, then I figured, “well, you know what, Jared? If you don’t get this done, who on earth is going to do it? Are you going to put your skills to use or are you just going to close the window and forget than anything ever happened?. Jared. Samiland needs you. You might not know it perfectly, but good enough is okay. And you can trust that others will modify your work accordingly…”

 

Further adding to the degree of self-consciousness was the fact that the language, as small as it is, is fractured (for those who don’t know, there are about 15,000 native speakers of this language at least, and definitely many others who learn it as a second language).

 

The word for “I” can be spelled either “mon” or “mun”, and I opted for the first one. Now among the books and websites that I was using, some of them did end up using alternate spellings and I might have not been perfectly consistent. But yet again, Minecraft does note that the “translations may not be 100% correct”.

 

Speaking of which, Facebook is also working on its Northern Sami Translation and it is showing almost no signs of activity, last I checked (which was last week or so).

 

  1. “My dictionaries aren’t showing up any word for X. Should I use the English word instead?”

 

  1. “My dictionaries offer multiple words, one that is more purist Sami and the other that is very clearly ‘Dárogiella’ (the “land language” which is either Norwegian or Swedish, depending on where in Samiland you are). Which one do I use?”

 

I am reminded of the same struggles in some other languages, specifically in Hebrew and in Greenlandic, where there are purist words and European loanwords (all over Europe in Hebrew’s case, Danish in the case of Greenlandic). Yiddish also comes to mind, with its blend of Germanic, Slavic and “Loshn-Koydesh” elements, all of which carry different connotations to a trained ear.

 

The situations are very comparable between the lot of them.

 

  1. “This language has lots of words for reindeer and lots of words for snow, but for some odd reason I can’t find any equivalent for word X (usually something related to technology)…odd…”

 

  1. CrowdIn gathers a list of your “preferred languages” as a result of your profile registration. This proved to be very useful, as I could reference the Finnish and Estonian translations, as well as those in the Scandinavian and West Germanic Languages (among many others) and note what routes I could take. (I usually checked my results with Google Search or Giella Tekno…you’d be surprised how much material there is online even for the smallest of languages…)

 

  1. Despite the fact that it was working, it didn’t really feel like work. I kept in mind Robert Benchley’s adage that “anyone can do any amount of work, as long as it is the work he’s not supposed to be doing at the moment” (note to world: I did not miss any assignments on account of this project).

 

  1. This exercise dramatically improved my vocabulary in all of the “preferred languages”, especially in Norwegian, Finnish and, of course, Northern Sami itself. A speaking exercise afterwards noted that I almost never was grasping for words or pausing as a result of this immersion.

 

I help translate things, and my languages get better…

 

And who knows? Maybe I’ll end up playing the game one day…

 

What a deal!

1000 HITS!!! My Gift to You: 10 Vital Lessons from My Language Adventures (Part 1)

Two days ago, the hits for this blog hit the quadruple digits!

This list needs no further introduction except for the heartiest “thank you all” that I can muster…

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  1. Confidence and Peace of Mind are the Most Essential Ingredient

 

“Everyone speaks this language better than I do, everyone’s gonna hate me, everyone will just see me as the stupid American anyhow…”

 

This is how I had to endure my semester a year ago, in which every single course of mine was held in German (although sometimes the instructors let me answer questions in either English, Hebrew or Yiddish).

 

I was self-conscious about my accent in the language. I was self-conscious about my grammar. I thought that people would correct me excessively.

 

It was a mind-numbing experience, one that made me feel tremendously stupid! My self-esteem was in another dimension and you can imagine the relationship I had with my American upbringing at that point.
As it turned out, one fine day I met Isabella the Italian, who turned out to not have any of this self-consciousness in regards to her language journeys, even if it meant using words in English while speaking German or using Italian while speaking English. Even while doing this, she laughed, she kept her peace of mind, and wouldn’t let a single mistake or slip-up faze her.

 

I wasn’t going to let this difference in passports phase me. I took up the same variety of carefree learning spirit, and with this came the final transformation in my soul from polyglot-wannabe to genuine speaker of many languages.

 

No matter how many words you learn, no matter how many mistakes you make, without a certain peace within yourself, you cannot speak any second language well.

 

You don’t need perfect confidence or inner peace. You just need enough to ensure that you can communicate and that people won’t judge you negatively. Which brings me to my next point…

 

  1. Most…Make that…ALL…People want You to Speak Their Language

 

I will never forget the time when I was surrounded by a bunch of students in Heidelberg from various countries.

 

Hopping languages from Hebrew to German to Swedish to Spanish and English again, I had some people begging me (cutely, not desperately) to pick their native tongue as my next language.

 

Whatever you might have heard about “being answered in English” might tell you, the fact is that everyone craves whatever attention may be given to their native languages, however badly it may be spoken.

 

I’ve seen Greeks light up in jubilation with just a few words of the language. Not even the nationalities with the reputation for being the most emotionless of all are immune to this charm.

 

Admittedly there are some countries where the local language(s) are put down, but if anything you should take this as “playing hard to get”…not also to mention that every place that comes to mind where this is the case has people who put on vastly different personae outside of their home countries.

 

Even if you had to stutter (as I did when I first ordered a drink on a Finnair flight), even if you have to mix up a gender (as I did with Swedish for the first time) or use an incorrect idiom (too many times in German and in Hebrew to count), your effort will matter, and people will notice!

 

There is a special phrase in Finnish that I like to use when trying to sell an idea: usko pois! (literally: “believe away!”) That is to say: take it from me, and you can thank me later.

 

  1. With Multilingual Friends, Juggling Languages is Very Helpful

 

I certainly found this a lot easier to do in New York City than anywhere else, but gone are the days where I felt that having a foreigner speak English to me at all is an insult.

 

What I sometimes enjoy doing is juggling various languages between someone who speaks several in common with me, and it can be surprisingly easy to keep this precedent going!

 

Usually you don’t even need to ask to switch the language, just make the switch and then the conversation will follow accordingly.

 

  1. Translations Create an Entire New Dimension for a Text / TV Show / Etc.

 

I remember a popular sport that my flatmates and I had at the National Yiddish Book Center—to watch the same portion of a Disney Musical Film in a series of different languages one after another. This can be surprisingly addicting, although the quality of dubs is, in the case of most languages, all over the place.

 

With every language grounded in the source of its origin, the translations can diverge significantly.

 

Imagine something like ice cream sundae with different toppings or flavors. The language alters the flavor of the work accordingly. You can experience the same text or episode in a different way and actually notice other things that you haven’t seen before, perhaps highlighted by a well-delivered line or by an oddity that becomes more apparent in one translation than another.

 

And then there is news media and how that diverges in accordance with the language…

 

  1. Less Common Languages Have Their Place

 

“Obviously you don’t encounter speakers of Scandinavian Language in Heidelberg, because generally there aren’t many of them

 

I got this over and over and over again during my time living in the city.

 

In New York City, however, I was met with a surprise. From the very first week, I had certainly heard Spanish and Chinese being regularly used, but now that it is nearly two months that I have spent here, I ran into more Scandinavians on the streets of New York than I have Slavs and Germans and Romance Language Speakers (other than Spanish) put together!

 

“That’s odd”, I thought, “I was expecting very much a similar mix to Heidelberg in regards to what European nationalities I would find here, I was not expecting to be regularly encountering Swedes and Danes with such an extraordinarily high frequency!”

 

Truth be told: every language as its place. If it isn’t where you are, then it is definitely somewhere else. Somewhere, someone will thank you for your effort…

A Brief Look at Some Native American Languages

Today is an American holiday fraught with controversy. In its honor, I have decided to reflect upon some indigenous languages of the Americas, one of which I know quite well and the other two of which I don’t.

  1. Sioux / Lakota

 

For those of you wondering what language was described in my book collection as a mixture of Polish, French and Chinese, wonder no more!

 

Obviously this statement can only be qualified in regards to the way the language sounds, and even then there are those that may try to call it into question. For one, the “l” sound in Lakota sounds very much like the English “w”, not unlike the Polish letter “ł”.

 

Lakota has a language forum for all levels (from beginner until Native Speaker) and a language consortium as well. Have a look yourself:

 

http://www.lakotadictionary.org/phpBB3/

 

http://www.lakhota.org/

 

One thing that is noteworthy about Lakota is that, unlike either of the other members on this list, it is a very purist language.

 

For those of you who have studied Chinese you may remember that various country names are given new versions that match a certain sound in the language being borrowed from and a meaning in Chinese that is deemed relevant.

 

Lakota is even more rigid in fact that the names given to countries don’t even match any sound in the language. The word for “Germany”, for example, literally means “the land of people who speak badly”

 

iyasica makhoche

There is a historical reason for this: American settlers were expected to speak English, and the Sioux picked up the language accordingly. As for the German-American settlers that spoke German and not English—they were known as the “people who speak badly” because they couldn’t be understood. The name stuck and remains in place until today.

 

I actually did some searches in the Lakota Dictionary for “Israel”, “Austria”, and “Switzerland” and it didn’t turn up anything.

 

The words for modern inventions are likewise all neologisms, not unlike the situation found in Icelandic, also noted for being notoriously purist.

 

Some things you may recognize in the journey to learning (which I have barely begun because of sustaining other languages): the word “tipi” comes from Lakota, as does a system for giving names to outsiders, similar to that of Chinese (also quite purist). Obviously this system has been featured in American popular culture depictions of Native Americans.

 

For those of you who might have played some of the Age of Empires games, I recall vaguely that one of the installments did feature Sioux soldiers using bits of genuine Lakota.

 

Before I go onto the next language, I should say that the Lakota Language Consortium has created a version of the Bernstein Bears cartoons dubbed into the language!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nta0aAQyVIA&list=PLWebueRr1D03NQzavj6yIHZimqbjFhQ1Y

 

  1. Greenlandic / Kalaallisut

 

“Oh, that’s the language with the really long words, right?”

kid banging on a typewriter

Greenlandic is an Eskimo-Aleut language with a good balance of purism and Danish import words. The word “Inuit” is actually a Greenlandic word, meaning “people”. For that matter, “Igloo” also comes from the word “illu”, meaning “house”.

The names of the countries in Greenlandic almost all come from Danish, with exceptions made for Greenland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Faroe Islands (arguably America, which could be referred to as “USA”, “Amerika”, or “Naalagaaffeqatigiit”, which is a literal translation of “United States”).

Some linguistics have referred to Greenlandic as the world’s hardest language, and therefore I should consider a blogpost as to why learning Greenlandic isn’t as hard as they might thing. But this is not that post.

I wrote about Greenlandic in more detail here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/thats-all-one-word-learning-introductory-greenlandic/comment-page-1/

Interesting fact: Greenlandic was featured in Gravity, spoken by an off-screen character singing a lullaby.

For those of you more intrigued by Greenland’s more modern side (which I get asked quite often about by people), look no further than these links:

Here is a show on KNR (the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation), in which video games and movies are reviewed:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NjR5uAaAZM

 

One of my favorite television shows back before KNR did a cleanup of its site a few weeks ago was this show, “Pisuttuarpunga” (a kid’s show, “I was out for a walk”). It is based on the premise of a Greenlandic children’s song about what kids think about when the adults in their lives are away working.

The premise is based on the song (featured in the video), and the main character who lives in a tent spends each episode trying out a new job in real-life modern Greenland, and learns the basics of each in a given episode. Extraordinarily educational, and I believe there are two seasons for sale on DVD (but hopefully the free episodes will come back to the site soon):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtjEdZ8XxiY

 

My journey through Greenlandic Language and Culture has been quite extensive so I invite you to look around this blog and read what you want on the topic, should you be interested.

  1. Nahuatl

 

“The Elegant Language”, as it literally translates to, was formerly known as “Aztec” by many. My Nahuatl book (which is in German) asks the following question in the introduction: “Aztec? Hasn’t it already died off?”

 

No, actually, and when you think about it, it makes sense that it didn’t. If the Spanish colonists were trying to convert the local populations, wouldn’t it make sense to learn the local languages to reach out to them? (The same logic that led to the New Testament being translated into Yiddish…the result is positively hilarious, I assure you…)

 

That book also offers the following remark about the indigenous languages of Mexico: there are many of them, and they are about as diverse as German, Korean, and Swahili. (Hence: if you think that a given Maya Language is similar to Nahuatl in any way…rest assured that English and Icelandic are closer to each other than Maya Languages to Nahuatl)

 

Nahuatl is probably the best known of the “Nahuan Languages”, which is why my book regularly offers dialectal varieties.

 

Students of Nahuatl may be surprised with the amount of words that may be familiar to them in some context already—“Tomato”, “Avocado”, “Chili”, “Mexico” and “Chocolate” all have their origins in the language. Many place names of Mexico are similarly indebted, as are import words known to speakers of Mexican Spanish.

 

Like Greenlandic, Nahuatl is polysynthetic, as you could possibly guess from looking at the Nahuatl “Huiquipedia” : http://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl

 

One thing that quite vexes me about learning Nahuatl, however, is the relative lack of multimedia material (e.g. the likes of the Greenlandic videos seen above). Maybe I just need to look in other places…

 

…but it is good to know that there are many universities throughout the world that are teaching it and that there are eager students willing to learn!

 

Will you be one of them?

The Most Important Question

This needs to be said.

Maintaining languages can be a stressful job.

It can be an extraordinary juggling act past a certain number and obviously some members of the language club get more privileges and time than others.

I’ve noticed that this is true for most polyglots that I have met. And my list reflects the fact that I am not as much interested in speaking lots of languages as much as doing what I want.

But the fact is, that ensuring that I don’t forget any of these languages, especially some of the more common ones that I don’t really see that I have “chemistry” with as much as with others (e.g. I’ve put a lot more time into Greenlandic than I have into Spanish), is wearing down on me…

greenland asanninneq

…to the point where I had to ask myself, “Jared, stop thinking about what others expect of you. Ask yourself primarily what YOU want…”

“Don’t think that you should go for the more ‘popular’ languages just because they would be more useful for you or your professionalism or the polyglot gatherings or whatever…”

“You can’t force attraction. Not in romance, not in choosing a job, and not in choosing a language either. If you are genuinely interested in learning a popular language, then do it. But if you feel that you are doing it primarily out of peer pressure than focus on something you LIKE!”

It is because of this that I had really kept some of my languages at a static level, sometimes even at a beginner level. It seems that I wasn’t really going forward with Russian or Polish (both of which I am quite poor at) and that I really wasn’t going too far with Northern Sami either. Faroese I am most likely to push forward into an Intermediate level, and Italian may remain in beginner mode as well.

If the need arises, or if the chemistry is sparked again, then most assuredly I will take it up without question.

As for the languages which I do not have a strong control of but am studying some time, my first priorities are Irish and Icelandic. Again, to arrive at these, I had to really ask myself, “what do I really want?”, and tried to block out professional goals and other things that would impact my own heart’s desire in making this decision.

The flashcarding and DuoLingoing for the other “flirting” languages will remain in place for the time being. The very least I can have is a good head start.

So, here are my resolutions:

  • Ask myself what I really want
  • “Date” various languages
  • Ask myself if there are any languages I should give up altogether (this will take more than a month to come to terms with)
  • Get Greenlandic to Fluency! This is NOT going to be easy, but it is my most specific goal right now. Already I seem to be speaking it a lot better in conversations with myself (and when other people ask me to speak it) with a noteworthy amount of ease. Weaning myself off my phrasebook would be necessary, and I have a new style of note-taking that I picked up at the beginning of the year. Aside from that, I really have to change my study plans because if I keep on doing what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks I’m not going to get anywhere close to passable as a Greenlander.
  • Get Icelandic and Irish on my list. And this means mastering the basics of grammar, phrases, being able to say simple things without flinching. Thanks to DuoLingo Irish is on its way, but Icelandic I sort of just started so I’m a bit behind.
  • If it isn’t too stressful, get Faroese to mid-level. But I think that I should really focus on the other tasks…
  • All the while, maintain the better languages with regular waterings of news broadcasts, television, music, and the like…
  • Prepare some sort of multi-lingual speech for my birthday. This is only a vague vision with no specifics but for those of you wondering my birthday is on November 20th.

Now it is time to ask yourself in your life: what do you want?

Have fun following your chosen paths,

Jared Gimbel