The Hardest Things about Learning English Creole Languages

As a teenager I constantly wondered if there were languages closer to English than any of the national languages of Europe I’ve heard were closely related (anything Scandinavian, Dutch, Romance Languages, Afrikaans [despite not really being European in a full sense] etc.)

Turns out they DO exist, not only in Scots but also with English Creole Languages, of which there are many spanning multiple continents. So far I’m fluent in five of them, and my Jamaican Patois book is in the mail (I’ve decided that I’ll be focusing only on Hungarian and Lao as far as new languages are concerned until I’m fluent in one of them, but it occurs to me that given how similar “Jamaican” is to Trinidadian Creole and Salone Krio, I may be inclined to make an exception for it because it wouldn’t be a source of active stress).

I really look forward to learning Jamaican Patois however much of a “snail ride” it is.

However, as much as I sometimes make it out to be that way in conversation, learning English Creole Languages isn’t always very easy.

There were unique challenges they presented that I haven’t seen in the other clusters of languages I’ve focused on (e.g. Scandinavian, Celtic, and soon Southeast Asian and Pacific!)

Let me tell you a bit more about them:

 

  • Slurring and Very Quick Speech is Common to Many Creole Languages

 

After all, Creoles are highly efficient!

Hopping from your phrasebooks or your textbooks (yes, textbooks exist for English Creole Languages, particularly for the Peace Corps) to the “real world” of that language is a difficult task.

The clear words that you saw on the page may be jumbled in ways you didn’t even think possible. Entire syllables will be left out and you’ll need to train yourself. At first it will be like “did you get the general idea?” but then you’ll learn to manage well enough.

The clearest versions of the Creoles tend to exist (1) on radio and TV (2) in materials for missionaries (who partner with native speakers in order to tell stories about Jesus or Biblical characters or what-have-you) and (3) governmental notices that have been localized (often developed countries assist with these productions, also using voice actors who are native speakers or fluent local speakers). These may act as a “gateway” to you understanding your dream creole in its full form the way the locals do.

I’ll give you one example: Solomon Islands Pijin uses “blong olketa” (belonging to them, belonging to all of them, of them, etc.) You may hear it pronounced as “blokta”. And that’s one example of hundreds.

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often use Standard English On / Off in their speech, making it difficult to get a “consistent” stream of it in some areas of Creole-speaking countries.

 

Trinidadian Creole forms the future and past differently from English. There is also no such thing as a passive verb. (These are all things my book says). It’s close enough to English that some people, even Trinidadians, don’t even believe it is a separate language.

Despite that, especially among people who have specialized in medicine or engineering or something similar, you’ll hear a pattern in which they’ll hop between Standard English and their Creole without even thinking about it. This isn’t unique to English creoles and it is called “code switching”.

It may leave you confused. If I used too much English or too little English, what will happen? What sort of situations should I use this much English in? Will I come off as rude?

These are all questions you’ll get a “feel” for and there are so many right answers depending on the community in which you use these languages.

Much like with languages from countries in which English is commonly spoken (e.g. Swedish, Dutch) you’ll have to learn how to mirror how English loans and phrases are used in conversations. Imitating native speakers is your best bet (after all, that’s how we all learn our first language!)

And then, sometimes, you have the opposite problem…

 

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often throw in words from their own native languages you may have never encountered before. This is especially common in music.

A non-existent problem on the radio and TV, this can be an issue in music especially (or if you’re overhearing conversations).

The Creoles of Melanesia and Africa are poised between the native languages and the European languages and have to dance delicately between them (the Carribean Creoles don’t have this dynamic, although they, like the African and Pacific English Creoles, are a fusion between the many languages that the African slaves spoke and understood but in a version that would be comprehensible to the slaveowners.)

Because of this, the people who write the comprehensive dictionaries (even if they’re native speakers of these languages themselves) can’t always keep up. My Yiddish teacher told me that Yiddish was like learning five languages in one (German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian). These creoles are sometimes like learning many, many more of these in one (although their vocabulary loans are more lopsided towards English than Yiddish is towards German).

It’s not uncommon for songwriters singing in Melanesian creoles to hop into their native language or Standard English while singing their creoles in between. Here’s an example:

Related to that is…

  • Some speakers of Creole Languages may have their pronunciation altered due to the phonemes of their native language.

 

As a native English speaker, I have to be careful with my accent in speaking many other languages and I sometimes have to work on it a lot. If I don’t, it may cause a significant amount of discomfort in native speakers who may then be inclined to switch to English if they’re lazy enough (which, sadly enough, most people are).

But imagine if your native language is spoken by 2,000 people on your island somewhere in the Solomons. You will primarily use Solomon Islands Pijin and English to communicate with other people at home and abroad respectively. But you don’t really need to worry about perfecting your accent in Pijin because back from its earliest days on the plantations in Queensland people spoke it with whatever accent they used from their native language. That’s largely still the case (although there are people who speak these Creoles as their native language, Creoles by definition have to have large enough vocabulary to be a mother tongue of someone, that’s what makes them distinct from Pidgins).

The downside? You may hear some vowels, phonemes and individual words mutating in ways you didn’t even think possible. You may hear some basic phrases change into something that is only borderline recognizable to you. Some accents in these creoles can be so difficult that you may actually draw blanks during some areas of a conversation. But as long as you know how to respond with ease and / or get the context, that’s okay.

That’s an issue that primarily comes up when dealing with the spoken language (so when having conversations or watching artistic productions, on radio broadcasts these languages tend to be used as clearly as possible).

 

  • In Some Contexts, You May be Better Off Using English

 

Feel free to disagree with me on this one if your experience says otherwise.

Alas, there are some people in countries where Creoles are spoken that may look down on their local creoles as languages of the uneducated or peasants. In the case of the Caribbean creoles it could be that, depending on context, your attempts to speak their language may be construed as making fun of their accents.

Much like Yiddish was seen throughout a lot of its history as a language that was inferior to both German and the languages of the Bible and the Talmud (and sometimes seen as the language of “women and the uneducated”), in some areas this view of the Creole language can still be present. Interestingly in an age of mass language death this may be changing and there will no doubt be thousands of fluent speakers of these creoles who will be WILLING to practice with you.

Suffice it to say that, despite that, learning the local language is always a fantastic idea. Keep in mind that Standard English plays a role in each of the places where these Creoles are spoken – it’s not like it’s genuinely foreign to people who live in Jamaica or Vanuatu or Sierra Leone. Not at all.

The many languages of these places all play a different role, but the Creoles truly echo the local cultures in unison because, for a number of reasons, they ended up being the languages around which these countries would unify when they became independent. And they continue to play important roles (not a single one of the creoles I’ve mentioned here is endangered, although Trinidad and Tobago does also have this other French creole language that seems to be quite weak as of the time of writing).

2015-03-17 20.17.12

Here’s hoping you meet success in your journeys, wherever they take you!

Advertisements

Far From My Mom’s St. Petersburg – A Conversation about Tajikistan with Leora Eisenberg

 

Today is the Independence day of Tajikistan, a place that is fascinating to many people throughout the globe but nonetheless relatively unknown by many. For the future I’ll be partnering with curious souls like you in order to share stories. Today I brought Leora Eisenberg, who had the marvelous privilege of spending the past summer in Tajikistan. Here she is discussing the many sides of her Tajiki story and how it left her greatly changed for the better!

1.What sort of background do you come from and how did you get interested in Tajiki / Persian culture in general? How have your experiences been with either prior to visiting Tajikistan?

My mom and stepdad (and consequently, their whole family) are from St. Petersburg, although they refer to it as Leningrad; they grew up and were educated there. At home, I grew up in a very… Russian household. That is to say that I grew up watching Soviet children’s cartoons, eating Russian food, and speaking the language at home. There was also a very strong Russian-Jewish work ethic. (That is to say I had to be the best.) My awareness of the former USSR was part of my identity, but I still never knew that much; I had never taken a class or written a paper on the topic. That said, I was certainly more aware of the Soviet Union than most of my fellow Russian-Jewish birth cohort. I was always interested in Soviet history and culture… to such an extent that I’m now majoring in the field!

As for Tajiki/Persian culture… regardless of the fact that I was aware of the USSR, I didn’t think much about Tajikistan. I mean, sure, I knew that its capital was Dushanbe, but that was it. To be fair, I attribute a lot of this to my parents who are very proud of being Europeans from St. Petersburg, for better or for worse. Tajikistan wasn’t part of their consciousness, and consequently, it wasn’t part of mine.

I stumbled onto Tajiki and Persian culture completely accidentally. I thought I was going to major in Near (Middle) Eastern Studies, so I chose Persian as a foreign language. I ended up falling in love with it, and I applied for the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program in Tajikistan, which teaches primarily Farsi, at the encouragement of my professor.

 

2. What makes Tajikistan and its culture stand out? How about the Tajik language?

It’s important to note that I came to Tajikistan to learn Iranian Persian, i.e. Farsi. As a government program, CLS cannot send American students to Iran to learn the language, so it is, then, left with the two other Persian-speaking countries: Afghanistan (which speaks Dari) and Tajikistan (which speaks Tajiki). They certainly couldn’t send us to Afghanistan, so Tajikistan was the only option left.

We had almost all of our class in Farsi, but we had 2-4 hours of Tajiki class a week. That said, I spoke almost exclusively Tajiki at home with my host family, which I ended up learning, more or less, by osmosis.

Contrary to what people might say, it’s not the same as Farsi. The literary language is indeed close to it, but the everyday, conversational language is substantially different due to the heavy Russian influence, both in the standardization of the language itself and in pure vocabulary. There’s also a significant Turkic influence coming from Uzbek, since about 25% of Tajikistan’s population is ethnically Uzbek.

As for the culture… it’s unlike anything I’ve ever known. As a whole, what I noted about the culture was that people truly had an inclination to do good. If given a choice between a good and a bad action, Tajiks almost inevitably went for the good one. For example, if someone on a bus offered me their seat (which they almost always did, even if they didn’t know I was a foreigner) and I refused, they would almost always offer to hold my bags because “I looked tired.” I was no anomaly; I’ve seen Tajiks do the same to dozens of other people. It’s just the way they are.

I could write extensively on the topic. A few other things that I noticed were the importance of hospitality and the prominence of color and vivacity in everyday life.

 

3. How was your experience learning and using Tajik in Tajikistan? What sort of reactions did you get and what sort of struggles did you face?

In the beginning, it was very hard simply because I had had no exposure to the Tajiki language before. I only knew Farsi. For the first two weeks or so, I just didn’t understand anything.

A story to illustrate the point: one evening during my first week, we went to my host aunt and uncle’s house. Many family members, whom I didn’t yet know, were there. I didn’t know much Tajiki yet, and I didn’t understand what people were saying. They would ask me questions occasionally, and I would just freeze, unable to answer. I was so embarrassed. Sometimes, they would switch to Russian entirely for my benefit; other times, they continued with their conversations. Since they wouldn’t let me, a guest, clear the table (my activity of choice when under duress), I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for about ten minutes. I didn’t want to face them because I was so ashamed of my lack of knowledge. I only spoke Farsi at that point — not Tajiki.

That said, as time progressed, I understood more and more. If the “older generation” (40+ years) was talking, I could understand 40-70% of what they said by the end of the trip. (With young people, the number was much lower.) I learned primarily by osmosis; Tajiki class wasn’t very helpful at all since we primarily focused on learning the alphabet, which I already knew.

Whenever I spoke Tajiki, Tajiks were, naturally, proud. I was speaking their language. I remember that my host dad was particularly excited about this. He liked to read me poems sometimes and hope I would understand. Toward the end of the trip, Tajiks on the street used to sometimes think I was Tajik even after I had said something, which was a sign that my language skills had really improved.

 

4. What sort of tourist attractions throughout Tajikistan are not to be missed? How about local delicacies?

Tourist attractions:

Tajikistan is an absolutely beautiful country. I strongly, strongly recommend that any tourist go hiking. There is a great FB page called Hike Tajikistan which organizes for bimonthly (or so) hiking trips across the country. There are several good museums, like the National Museum in Dushanbe. The bazaar (there is one in every city and several in Dushanbe) is not to be missed; it’s a real glimpse into Tajik life, and it’s a micro-economy of its own. Also a great place to buy souvenirs.

 

Local delicacies:

Plov, also called osh, is rice, meat, chickpeas and carrots. It sounds bizarre, but is delicious. There are some tasty soups like ugro and lagman, but my favorite dish of all is called qurutob. There is no adequate way to describe it, but it, very crudely put, is a mix of hot oil, very thick puff pastry dough-type bread called fattir, tomato, cucumber and a type of sour cream-type liquid. You eat it — with your hands —  at a special restaurant designated for it.

 

5. What are some of your favorite words and/or idioms that you picked up during your time in Tajikistan?

Az pasha fil nasoz — lit. Don’t make an elephant out of a fly = don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill

Ba khoda = lit. “With God” = this could mean anything from “oh really?” To “yeah, right!”

 

6. What was your host family like and how were your interactions?

I cannot speak about my host family without smiling — and having a tear form in my eye. They became my family. My host mom always referred to me using the Russian word rodnaya, which means something like “biological” or “real.” I became her real daughter. My host dad always announced to everyone that I was his daughter. It was never a question.

My host family was very special because I didn’t just become close with my immediate family, but also with my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. I went over to my cousins’ house every evening; with the girls, I gossiped, danced, etc. With the boys, I played soccer, played practical jokes, etc. My host aunt texted me a few days ago. I still talk to my host cousins a few times a week.

To illustrate how close we became, let me tell a story. On my last day, my host parents, like all the other host parents, drove me to the pick-up site, where all of us were being met to be taken to the airport by bus. The other host parents hugged their students, took a picture, and left. In my case, my parents hovered around and weren’t leaving. My host mom would ask me a question; I would answer. At one point, my host dad surveyed the group and whispered to my host mom, “you know, out of all the kids, only our Leora looks like a Tajik.” Host parents kept coming and going, but mine stayed. They were the last ones to go. When they finally did, all three of us were crying. My host mom said that it was “as if they had known me all of their lives.” I’m getting teary-eyed just writing about it.

That's (in order from left to right) my cousin, me and my sister in traditional dress

That’s (in order from left to right) my cousin, me and my sister in traditional dress.

 

7. How did your time in Tajikistan leave you genuinely changed?

I noticed that when I came back to the United States, I laughed a lot more. I watched the same movies, heard the same jokes, etc — but I laughed at them this time. I was much freer with enjoyment of the world around me. Tajikistan taught me an appreciation of the beauty and joys of life. The experience also gave me, literally, a family whom I love and care about and can’t wait to see again next summer. Lastly, it gave me the confidence to experience the completely unknown and make it part of my soul.

On a more cosmetic note (pun intended), I pay a lot more attention to the way I look now. In Tajikistan, women pay much more attention to their physical appearance that women do in the United States, so dressing well/putting on makeup is a habit I certainly picked up there.

 

8. Any general concluding thoughts you’d like to share with the world, concerning anything at all?

I don’t think I can put into words how much I love Tajikistan and its people. After the program ended, I traveled straight from Tajikistan to Russia and had a very difficult time. I compared everything with Dushanbe. I cried a lot; I missed “home.” Distraught, I emailed my grandfather about this dilemma. He said that I had tried to make myself part of the country — and succeeded, and that separation from it was separation from a treasured part of my consciousness. It all sounds melodramatic, but I truly believe that I’ve taken a piece of the country in my heart.

On that note, if anyone knows of any good internships in the area, please feel free to let me know….

 

21469816_1513767655343676_1991380235_n

This is from when I taught them how to swim 🙂
This is only part of my family; it was in reality much larger but I wanted to illustrate how large it was.


Definitely! Thanks for telling your stories for all of us! I hope that you can continue to be an inspiration not only to me but everyone else you know! Keep going from strength to strength!

 
Leora Eisenberg
Speaks: English, Russian, French, German, Hebrew, Farsi, Tajiki — also speaks Egyptian Arabic, Japanese and Somali very poorly

Leora Eisenberg is a current sophomore at Princeton University, where she is majoring in Slavic Studies. Shockingly, is fascinated by Soviet Central Asia. When not reading on the topic, she can be found biking, studying Talmud, seeking out new experiences, and inviting her friends over for Persian desserts. Leora hopes to return to Central Asia next summer, and every summer over the course of her academic career.

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!

ga

September 2017 Weekend Trip Mini-Mission! (Improving Hungarian + Two Creoles!)

 This in: I’ll be headed to Buffalo, New York this weekend. This is the first time I’ll be back there since two years ago (roughly when I began my teaching career).

The one thing I associate the trip with is very long drives, and this time (given that I’m not going to be driving) I’ve decided to develop a routine to maximize language learning in passive car travel (active car travel, such as when you’re the driver, is another thing with significantly more limits, and it becomes a different animal depending on how many people you have with you, and also if they will tolerate you learning the language there or not.)

I decided that I’ll be filming my next polyglot video in Milwaukee, the only place that I have had consistent memories of since my…infancy.

As things stand, I intend to use the following languages in the video, probably for about thirty second each: English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Finnish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Icelandic, Irish, Krio, Polish, Hungarian, Palauan, Mossi / Moore, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), Guarani, Lao, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Tongan, Trinidadian English Creole and Bileez Kriol.

I have about half of these in very good shape, and the other half I’ll probably only say very simple things. It is also likely that I’ll just do one with my fluent languages before the year is up in ADDITION to that.

This practice really isn’t entirely about that video, however (and I’m likely taking a week off beforehand so that I can hone my pronunciation to ideal heights. Also, I’m putting this out there, I’m going to be coming out with these videos regularly and I literally will not stop until one of them goes viral. I know that I may be subject to a lot of pain and criticism, but we need more global polyglots that genuinely go for rarer languages and we deserve to have be watched by millions. Tim Doner himself became a voice for languages like Hausa and some indigenous languages of Canada, and it would be great if I can do the same with my rarer languages. Words cannot capture how determined I am).

Anyhow, enough of me being lightly arrogant (or am I?)

Let’s detail my goals and my plan. I’ll be improving three languages this weekend: Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole and Bileez Kriol.

 

Hungarian

magyar

Probably the only language I’m working on right now that I want to be professionally fluent in. Sure, being professionally fluent in something like Breton or Gilbertese is cool, but Hungarian means a lot to me because it is one of my ancestral languages. My one living grandparent has memories of Hungarian being used in her family and I want to connect to that piece of my story before it is gone (note to the curious: she herself doesn’t speak Hungarian or understand it, I even wrote “Happy Birthday” on her Facebook wall in Hungarian and she didn’t even recognize the language until I told her.)

I’ve found Hungarian a relief because of the sheer amount of materials both for learners and native speakers. One thing I definitely could do is watch more animated films and cartoons in Hungarian and I really haven’t been doing that, instead focusing more on learning materials. Maybe that’s a bad sign.

Also, the Hungarian Duolingo course is very, very difficult (and I’ve heard even native speakers found it moderately painful to go through). I’m on Level 9 with one-third of the tree completed and I doubt I can complete the course without a notebook. What’s more, that voice is something I’m hearing in my nightmares already. (I’ll go on record saying that the Catalan voice is the worst that Duolingo has, period. It literally sounds like an alien parasite. My favorites among the courses are Vietnamese, Irish and Guarani, in that order)

Goal: Long-term, I want to be able to talk about my life, my job, the Kaverini games, language learning and my family. Short-term, I want to master cases, verbs and the most common 300 words in the language.

Where I am: I have the Colloquial Hungarian book and the audio for the book on my phone, I have an Anki deck of 3,000 Hungarian sentences that are surprisingly useful in demonstrating the grammar. I’ve plugged 17+ hours into Hungarian Mango Languages during my commute (you can play it on auto mode when is helpful if I’m on a crowded subway and I still want to learn things).  I also have a Memrise course with 3,000+ sentences in Hungarian and I’m about 800 sentences in.

In short, I have everything deployed and I’ve begun to see results. I’ve begun to have conversations with some non-native speakers of the language although sometimes I have to slow down.

I tried immersion (with Let’s Play Videos, etc.) and while I’m picking up some vocabulary with them I feel that I can only understand 15%. But the idea that I’m using the language of my ancestors that came to this country in the past 150 years gave me the same warm feeling when I was learning Yiddish, Swedish and Russian.

Tried finding Hungarian music I liked, so far haven’t found anything that clicked…

Plan: Part of me thinks “you’re doing a great job, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fluent in no time!” But I want to sprint further.

I don’t want to be “manageable”. I want to be great.

To that end, I need to change my routine.

In a car ride, I only have so many things (and made even more complicated by the fact that I tend to get ill when reading in a car).

Luckily, the book will never run out of electricity it doesn’t need.

But what exactly should I do with the book?

  • Study vowel harmony. This is important because I think I mess it up a little bit (For those unaware: Hungarian suffixes will change form depending on the vowel makeup of the word it is attached to. Hungarian uses suffixes to indicate “to”, “in”, “on”, “of”, etc. That’s called vowel harmony, and given how often Hungarian uses suffixes this is not something I can afford to screw up. In Finnish it came by more easily but in Hungarian there are some suffixes with two forms and others with three. Unless you’ve studied a language like this, this probably means absolutely nothing to you and so I’ll stop writing it at this point).
  • Study possessives. Possessives come in two forms in English. We have “my book” and “the book is mine”. Both of these exist in Hungarian. The “my book” is expressed with a suffix and “the book is mine” with a separate word. The possessive suffixes (e.g. letters you put at the end that make the word change meaning to say “this belongs to you / me / us / etc.”) are VERY important in Hungarian because without them, you can’t express any concept of “to have” clearly enough to have a conversation. (Hungarian has no “to have”, it just has “there is my book” instead of “I have a book”)
  • Study relative pronouns. These were an almighty pain in Finnish that I literally NEVER would have learned properly if it weren’t for immersion. For those of you who don’t know what a relative pronoun is: the book that is mine is good. (the “that” is a relative pronoun, saying that it is a pronoun relative to the other elements of the sentence). The only thing I can really say about relative pronouns in Hungarian right now is that I think that they tend to start with the letter “a” somehow.
  • Study transitive verbs. This is a big one. In English we say “I choose you” (totally not think about Pokémon here, I promise!) In Hungarian, the “you” bit is actually expressed to a suffix on the verb. I literally can’t converse without these, so I need ‘em.
  • On top of the book, I should go through the Anki deck and review as many sentences as I can. (I know some people don’t like “turbospeeding” through Anki decks, but with some languages like Tok Pisin I’ve done it with no problem. I’m also probably going to go on an Anki-binge with Hungarian shortly before my trip to Milwaukee, actually. That binge, if all goes according to plan, is more likely to be review).

 

 

Weaknesses to keep in mind: Sometimes my eyes get weakened from staring at screens too much, and sometimes I can’t manage reading in a vehicle for very long. I expect the latter point to be less of an issue if I am reading VERY small bits of information. I can always put the book down and rest. Or use it over the course of the weekend when I’m actually not in a vehicle.

 

 

 

Trinidadian Creole

t n t

I have one (1) book for this language, one that I got as a gift upon recovering from Lyme Disease and moving to Crown Heights in Brooklyn shortly thereafter.

Immersion in Trini Creole has been both easy and hard. Easy because I can understand a lot of it already, hard because Creole is often interspersed with Standard English very often among Trinidadians. (Again, keep in mind that there are those that don’t even consider it a separate language!)

Where am I?

I have excellent vocabulary except for the loan words from Indian Languages. I have a good although not great grasp of every grammatical concept and I understand how the grammar of Trini and English are different.

So what’s my plan?

  • When I have internet access, undergo immersion with Calypso music and Radio and PAY ATTENTION. What sort of verb forms are left out? What words are different from standard English? How do Trinidadians pronounce their vowels and consonants, in both Creole and Standard English?
  • Learn the Loan-Words from Indian Languages. Got a list of them in my book (the Kauderwelsch book which is literally the only learning-book for Trinidadian Creole I’ve ever encountered anywhere). I never heard of any of them before.
  • Master all aspects of grammar with a thorough review by reading out every sentence from your book in the “grammar” sections.

Combined with occasional speaking exercises, I think I could make very deep progress.

Unlike Hungarian, I’ll be using primarily book sources (or, more accurately, book source) for this rather than for a combination of digital and book sources.

 

Bileez Kriol

 Bileez

I literally have no good book for this and what I’m using now is…well…the Memrise course that I have in development (in which I’m writing all the sentences and words from the dictionary published by the Belize Creole Project [Bileez Kriol Projek]).

I’m going to literally have to be a detective and note general patterns in the sentences. Before I go, I should get the dictionary as a PDF on my phone and any other devices I’m taking with me.

Another thing I need to do is read things out loud in the course, otherwise my memory development isn’t going to be as honed.

Where do I stand now with Bileez Kriol? I know pronouns and a rusty form of verb conjugations, but that’s pretty much it. And I’m supposed to be speaking it on camera in less than a month. Great place I’m in!

But given how close it is to Trinidadian Creole, I expect to sprint much in the same way I’ve done with similar languages before (such as within the Scandinavian family and within the Melanesian Creole family).

I may need a notebook of sorts with this. Of all of the projects that I think will take the most effort to succeed this weekend, this one will be it.

Reading resources I found online: the Bileez Kriol Wikipedia Incubator, the Gospels in the language (I’ve only read Matthew and pieces of Mark in English in my college courses), my Memrise course, the dictionary.

And the one song that I’ve encountered so far in the language is probably not appropriate for younger audiences. (For the curious: just put “Belizean Music” in YouTube and see if something in the first few results catches your eye…)

The dictionary is probably going to be my best friend during this time.

 

I’ll let you know how it goes when the week is over.

Wish me luck!

Knowing When to ”Pause” Language Studies

Sometimes you have a hobby or duty that you feel is actually more like a heavy stone than like a source of genuine joy.

Throughout my time learning languages, many of them have brought immense joy to me. However, sometimes one (or some) of them end up “losing the spark”, and sometimes this really happens with languages that I used to know very well (Russian and Northern Sami come to mind immediately).

But as a polyglot myself, sometimes I feel it genuinely hard to “say goodbye”, even for a while.

I really want to learn languages from the Pacific, and I’ve been making small progress. I’m very happy about what I’ve been doing with Palauan, Tongan and Gilbertese.

However, whenever I tried to refresh Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Russian or Ukrainian, it felt hard for me. It felt that, at least for the time being, that the spark is gone. And if you speak one of these as your native or fluent languages, I will let you know that it has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with you.

Ever since writing this blog, I’ve become a lot more aware of dynamics on how people make choices.

Often people get trapped into jobs or relationships that they don’t particularly like, ones that they keep just because a logical part of them says that it is a “sensible” or “right” thing to do.

I’m giving up global languages for small languages of developing countries. It isn’t a logical decision in the slightest but I know it will make me happy.

What’s more, I know that, should the spark ever “reignite”, I could easily choose to come back to any of the languages I’ve studied over the course of my life and have an excellent head-start.

Above all, you just really have to ask yourself: “what do I really want? What does my heart want? Would I feel relieved if I dropped this hobby or language or other thing or relationship that provides a lot more pain than it does joy?”

I remember exactly how painful it was when I decided to become less religious than I was (and it was a LOT more painful than choosing not to study a set of languages. It felt, in a sense, like losing the trust of a family member, feeling betrayed and greatly confused). But above all, I made the decision because it was something that my heart wanted. I wanted to live my own life without a fear of punishment, thinking that every little sinful thing I did was somehow going to result in a punishment of sorts (bad grade, computer problem, illness, rejection of any variety, etc.)

But since then, I’ve learned to make what I want the primary goal in my life. And I’ve been better off for it.

The little child inside me wanted to learn more about places that I knew nothing about. The logical brain inside me told me to focus on projects I’ve already invested in. And the little child in me always wins, because no matter what happens, my deepest dreams and desires have to go first.

I’ll still hold pieces of my forgotten or “paused” languages with me forever, even if I’m not studying them actively, and of course I can always return should I feel that I feel that same longing for them that I used to.

We live under such extraordinary pressure a lot of the time. A lot of us, being trusting sorts, often give in to a lot of that pressure, and as a result we live a life that isn’t really ours.

I didn’t want that for myself, I don’t want it for you.

So in regards to language learning:

If you want a language, anywhere in the world, then go ahead and begin with it!

If you know a language, to whatever degree, and somehow feel that it isn’t serving you, you are under no obligation to keep it, especially if it isn’t making you feel happy or bringing great joy to your life.

You deserve that great joy. Nothing less.

523524_524953417518839_322024430_n

How to Use the Pokémon Animated Cartoon Series to Learn Languages!

pokemon piste fee

Screenshot from the Finnish-Language Pokémon Website.

Few cartoon series have been localized as widely as the journeys of Ash Ketchum and his many friends. In addition to the usual advantages of using TV series to learn languages (patterns and repetition are essential in creating a space for your target language in your brain), the Pokémon Anime also endows a number of unique quirks that are definitely worth mentioning.

If you came here to find a listicle, you’re absolutely right!

 

  • The Cartoons are Available for Free Online 

On The Pokémon Company’s official website, as of the time of writing, you can access the site in the following languages: English, Spanish (EU), French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese (Brazil), Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish. (There is also the Japanese site as well but I can’t really access the site map aside from a Pokémon Go download link as of the time of writing).

You can use the versions of the site in order to access (from anywhere in the world, mind you) not only various episodes of the anime but also various flash games that are completely localized in all of these languages. There are other features on the site as well, and obviously in the bigger languages the site is more complete (with a Pokédex available in some of these languages).

Furthermore, the content and layout of the anime episodes will vary depending on language and sometimes they “rotate”, so when you access the site on different days or weeks you’ll get different episodes.

To access the website in these languages, just type in “pokemon.com/XX”, where XX is one of the letter codes: ES (Spanish), BR (Portuguese), DE (German), FR (French), IT (Italian), RU (Russian), NL (Dutch), SE (Swedish), NO (Norwegian), DK (Danish) and FI (Finnish). Pokemon.com takes you to the English version of the site.

Once you’re on the site, click on the TV icon and have fun! (Or you can fiddle around and browse all the while).

If you are not learning one of those languages, you can also access, via YouTube or other sites, the anime in the following languages (and probably many more, depending on where in the world you are): Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Latin Spanish, Portuguese (EU), Czech and Romanian. (If I missed any, let me know in the comments. I know that the anime is sometimes localized into languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese, but I can’t find any depositories of them online, although sometimes the Pokémon movies are available in all of the languages listed on this page with more ease. Sometimes these movies will be available on the websites).

 

  • The Speed of the Dialogue is Perfect for a Beginner-to-Intermediate Learner

 

This was oddly consistent throughout a lot of the localizations of the anime, as well as the English Dub.

What’s also very odd about the speed is that speaking at the speed that many of the characters do in the Pokémon anime is actually completely natural for a native speaker.

While learning Hebrew, Russian and Spanish in high school and college, one extraordinary hurdle I had was that I was addressed in low-speed “Learnerese” a lot of the time. Then thrown into the real world of these languages, I really didn’t know how to speak like anything natural. The same was true with most of the teachers that addressed me as well (although there were noteworthy exceptions).

One thing I really liked about the Pokémon TV show in various languages was that it presented the perfect speed for a learner that was anywhere between beginner and intermediate. It wasn’t too slow, but it also was just the right speed that was suitable for a conversation.

Granted, there are some more challenging parts, primarily the Team Rocket Motto (which is probably the most difficult portion for learners to understand), but above all most of the dialogue should be at a manageable speed for you.

And even if you don’t understand it, the Pokémon anime can still be helpful for a learner because…

 

  • The Pokémon Anime is Rich is Visual Context Clues

 

When Team Rocket talks about their plans to capture Pikachu, often you’ll notice that a significant amount of illustrations and animated visuals accompany their plan. You can actually use this in order to make out what is happening even if you really don’t have a clue what’s being said.

Keep in mind, kids learn their first languages with the aids of cartoons like these, and these visual cues help them…and that means they can also help you!

Another example in which visual cues are also used is when Ash and his friends encounter a landscape or a cityscape or a colony of Pokemon (among many other things). You’ll also notice that every member of Ash’s party often remarks on what is being said. Pay attention to these short phrases. They’ll be extremely useful throughout your language learning journey.

Also, during battles, note that some key words are also repeated at key actions, as well as various words and styles used depending on what emotions the characters are feeling. Anime is very rich in expressing people’s emotions across many different lines, so that should also help.

Speaking of battles…

 

  • In Some Localizations and Seasons, the names of Pokémon and their Techniques will be in English. Use this for accent training.

 

In Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and German, the Pokémon’s names will be localized. In all other languages they will use the English versions of the Pokémon names, and in the Nordic dubs in the later seasons the techniques will also be recited in English (although the names of the Pokémon types are NEVER localized).

You can use this to your advantage if you really want to train your accent in these languages if you pay attention to the quirks in how these English names and words are pronounced by the voice actors.

If you’re a native English speaker, pay attention to pronunciations that may sound strange to you. Even in the Nordic dubs I’ve caught a handful of complicated Latinate technique names being butchered, although examples escape me.

Interestingly, in comparison to casual speech in many of these languages, the dubs are significantly low on English loan words (the way that German or Dutch in particular tend to use them very often). You may be able to snag one once in a while, even in languages like Portuguese and Russian in which Anglicisms are rarer than in languages like Norwegian.

 

  • The Pokemon Anime Provides a Plethora of Stimuli that Can Serve as Memory Techniques

 

If you hear a phrase or a word you need to remember, you’re going to forget it easily unless you find something to “connect” it with. It could be a funny incident involving the word, it could be a story involving the word, or you could associate it with your environment or feelings at the time.

(This is why learning the language in an immersive environment is so helpful.)

The Anime provides memorable characters in the Pokémon themselves, as well as a host of settings and music tracks that you can connect to the phrases you’re taking in.

And we haven’t even touched on the possibility that you can also connect various words and phrases to plot points in the story. Not also to mention you can do what kids do: re-watch your favorite episodes endlessly (again, this is how kids learn their first language!)

 

  • Various Portions have No Dialogue at all (or Dialogue in Pokémon Speech). Use This Time to Reflect on What Words You’ve Heard and How to Internalize Them.

 

One thing that can be frustrating about watching Pokémon in a language you’re learning is that sometimes the action shifts to having the cute monsters hop around the screen or just looking at landscapes or, true to anime fashion, just having characters look at each other with menacing stares (in addition to many other down-time situations that I haven’t touched on!)

Use this time in order to develop memory techniques to fully internalize any words you’ve learned earlier on in the episode.

Also, if you’re having trouble picking up words, feel free to type something that sounds like it into Google Translate or another dictionary thing. It will usually correct you, especially if it is a phonetic language. Otherwise, if you don’t have a translator, you can use context clues. This is especially helpful if you’ve seen the episode before in a language you understand better.

 

Conclusion

 

One of the most successful animated cartoon shows in history can be used as a learning tool with surprising efficiency, given its ability to weave words with storylines and illustrations. The episodes themselves are perfect for a learner seeking to make his or her way out of the “language learner material ghetto” (as All Japanese All the Time refers to it as).

I should mention that I don’t have a lot of experience using this show with East Asian Languages given that my East Asian Languages that I’m working on ever-so-slightly (Burmese and Lao) don’t have localizations (as far as I know).

So if you’ve had experience doing that, let me know what I missed out on! Part of me thinks it may not all be that different!

 

Happy Watching!

 

 

3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)