5 Reasons You Should Learn Polish

 

Today is May 3rd, the Day of the Polish Constitution, and the third day in a row I’m writing a Language-specific article.

If you have Polish-speaking friends, there is no doubt that they will bring scientific papers and studies and BuzzFeed articles that prove that Polish is the most difficult language in the world, bar none.

I remember the first time I heard that, and I thought “well, why not Czech or Slovak or the Sorbian Languages?”  (Note to those unaware: these are the closest relatives of Polish, as they are all Western Slavic)

Polish pronunciation is tricky for the uninitiated, probably the biggest hang-up I had as a beginner was the fact that there are “n” sounds that are pronounced but not written, one example most commonly used is “ja pamiętam”, meaning “I remember”. The “ę” is a nasal “e” sound. Polish is the only Slavic language to have retained these nasal vowels in the present time (they are originally from Old Slavonic).

As a result of this combination, it is actually pronounced like “pamięntam”

kroke 094

Anyhow, you came here for an article and that’s what you’ll get:

  1. The Tongue Twisters are Probably the Most Difficult in Any Language

Polish tongue twisters are among the most “get ready to throw your computer out a window” in the world. For the truly masochistic, I recommend the short verse “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie” (“A beetle buzzes in the reeds in Szczebrzeszyn”).

The sz is a sh sound, the cz is a ch sound, and you can combine them (other Slavic languages do so as well) to create a “shch” sound.

Rz is pronounced like a combination of a sh sound and a z sound, like a French J.

Ch is the classic guttural sound, like the “ch” in Bach (too many other languages have them, Hebrew and Dutch are probably best known for theirs).

C or s followed by an i is pronounced “chi” and “shi” respectively.

W is a v sound in English.

The letter “ą” is also nasal.

Now you know everything in order to pronounce that sentence.

Good luck.

Impress your friends today!

  1. In Poland, I felt as though Polish-speakers were comfortable using Polish or English to whatever degree I was comfortable with. Other countries where English is commonly spoken (some would classify Poland as such) need to learn to do this, too.

 

In some places, like Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, I felt considerably afraid about messing up, knowing that if I did I would get answered in English without a second thought (thankfully the better you get and the more natural you sound, the less of this will happen. Fun fact: in the Netherlands I’ve even heard stories of Dutch native speakers being answered in English!)

Poland’s not like that! Especially if your pronunciation is good!

Even as a beginner, you’ll get plenty of encouragement (aside from being told that Polish is absurdly difficult all of the time) and you seldom need to worry about being answered in English. But even if you DO want to speak English, the locals will gladly accommodate that, too!

The more I look back at my time on Poland, I saw that there was a nigh-PERFECT balance between using global languages (like English and German) and using the local language (although Polish is also a global language as well, because…)

  1. Polish People Live Everywhere as Expatriates

 

Maybe it had something to do with lots of people fleeing the country during the tribulations of the 20th century, but you’ll run into Polish-speakers all over the globe. As far as I can tell, Poland is the only country that has Polish as its official language (despite the fact that there are sizeable Polish minorities in all of the surrounding countries and even further afield).

Despite that, the Polish diaspora will ensure that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice!

Not only that, but even now there are Polish citizens that are discovering that they have distant family members everywhere, from the United States to the British Commonwealth countries to…well, everywhere else, actually.

People of Polish heritage have brought their culture everywhere. The various histories of the United States and Poland, both countries that had constitutions guaranteeing full religious freedoms, are also intertwined, and they share a lot of the same mindsets and struggles.

Polish culture (as well as the language) also influenced Ashkenazi Judaism and the Yiddish language to no end, and thanks to the fall of communism as well as drastistically improved relations between Polish people and Jews all over the world, the true extent of how much they share is finally being revealed to all.

 

  1. Polish Music had a Fantastic Reputation during the Communist Period

A lot of people are feeling uncertainty with the global politics of the present moment. It wasn’t the only time, and I doubt it will end up being the last time.

 

 

My favorite Polish band is Republika, one that masterfully captures a lot of lyrics that encapsulate rebellion, the tragicomedy that is hoping in despairing times, and fantastic musings that can be applied to personal hardships as well as those on a global scale:

 

Here’s a taste of the lyrics of the above song, “My Lunatycy” (“We, the Lunatics”)

 

My lunatycy  – coraz więcej lunatykó pośród nas

my lunatycy – każdy własny wulkan na Księżycu ma

tabletki na sen to komunia święta dla każdego z nas

my lunatycy – coraz więcej lunatyków pośród nas

 

We, the lunatics – even more lunatics among us

We lunatics – everyone has his/her own volcano on the moon

Dream tablets, this is our worldly communion for every one of us

We, the lunatics, even more lunatics among us

 

Somebody understands politics better than most.

(Sadly, the leader of Republika, Grzegorz Chiechowski, died in his forties as a result of heart disease.)

And a song you are probably guaranteed to hear after an extended stay in the country:

 

It’s a tongue-twister song!

 

On the other side of the quality spectrum, I wrote a piece (for April 1) about Disco Polo here. But maybe there is some of you that actually like that stuff. If I didn’t have a class to teacher right after finishing this, I’d actually, y’know, translate the lyrics in that post.

 

  1. Recognizing and Appreciating the Culture of Poland will instantly earn you friendships!

 

“Everyone thinks my country is backwards”

“Everyone hates my country”

And the quickest berserk button? Blindly associate Poland with anti-Semitism and/or xenophobia.

(Truth: it is no different than the US in this regard. Poland was, up until World War II and then Communism, an astonishingly multicultural society, although not without tensions, it should be mentioned)

The best way to show that you are willing to engage with the culture is to take up the “absolutely impossible world’s most difficult language”. Even if you know a few words, it will help build trust. In a lot of Central-Eastern European countries, there is a culture of a silent distrust sometimes unless you actively choose to build that trust. (Being sandwiched between multiple empires will do that to you!)

A lot of political problems with many countries have to do with a sense of national victim mentality (see the quotes at the beginning of this section). You can help alleviate it, even just a little bit, by choosing to show that you are willing to engage!

I got asked at a dentist office if Poland was still communist (in 2012). I can imagine that Polish nationals throughout the world have probably gotten something similar and sometimes plenty worse.

Learning this language is like a cupid’s arrow, except for friendships instead of infatuation. Trust me on this one!

jared gimbel pic

6 Reasons You Should Consider Learning Modern Hebrew (Even if You’re Not Jewish)

Llun Jared Gimbel.

Today is Israeli Independence Day, and yes, it is a Hebrew phrase that has caused many a foreigner to struggle pronouncing it: “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”. For those curious, it is just the literal translation of “independence day” (yom = day ha = prefix indicating “the” “atzmaut” = independence, abstract nouns, or verbs that can be expressed as nouns, often end in “-ut”)

Like so many other students in the Ulpanim, I struggled with Hebrew, and even more strongly I struggled with Israeli culture, that my father told me would be very similar to that of the U.S. but my experience in the country indicated that it was anything but.

I have to actually start writing a listicle in honor of “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”, so I will segway into reason no. 1.

 

  1. Israeli culture is refreshingly human.

 

In the United States, I often feel that a lot of people hide their emotions, hide their true feelings and often are considerably difficult to read. A lot of this may have to do with Hellenism combined with various forms of Protestant theologies, indicating that “showing emotions is bad” (in the Nordic Countries with the possible exception of Iceland, this is very much the case, as well as German-speaking countries in Europe)

Israel has very much the opposite problem, in which the directness is perceived by many westerners as “rude”. Many Israelis also believe that this is unique to their country in particular, but I’ve seen in this most of southeastern Europe as well as in Poland.

Israelis will become your friends more easily, they will ensure that you become a better person, and they will criticize you honestly and sometimes maybe a bit too strongly. This may be  harsh at first, but after a lot of time in Israel and heading to a place like Connecticut, you’ll probably think (like I did) that you are surrounded by “softies”.

Many of them will be forthright about their political opinions and even if you disagree with everything they say, they will still be your friend. After all, as one of my friends put it, “I have friends from both the extreme right and the extreme left. If we all stopped talking to each other, the country would fall apart in a week”.

Israel, on one side, does have the army culture, but in many other areas it is anything but a nation of conformists. A go-getter attitude that “sticks it to the man” is something that motivated me to do things like start this blog and start putting videos of myself online.

Speaking of videos…

 

  1. Israeli Comedy is what All Other Comedy Wishes It Could Be

Have yourself a look:

If you spend your time among Israelis, you may find your sense of humor sharpened to a degree you didn’t even think possible. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to find humor in everything, even the things that Americans wouldn’t even dream of joking about. It goes without saying why the Israelis needed to develop humor since before the state was founded.

Learning Hebrew only makes it more possible with being able to interact with this brand of humor in its most authentic form.

In a world growing ever more fearful, we need more laughter. If you want to laugh, there is seldom a better choice than with the Hebrew of contemporary Israeli TV, Radio and print media.

  1. Hebrew is a gateway to learning how languages work outside of the Indo-European bubble.

 

As a seasoned polyglot I seem to divide languages into two categories (and no, I’m not talking about “Disney’s animated films are dubbed in this language” vs “These same films are not dubbed into this language”).

The Indo-European Language family is confusing, enchanting and mesmerizing. Not only that, the VAST majority of  languages that people study are on the Indo-European spectrum, which goes from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all the way to Iceland.

Hebrew was my first non-Indo European Language, and the more I’ve come to studying non-Indo European Languages, whether they be something like Finnish or even further afield like Greenlandic or Burmese, I’ve noticed that they provide an exquisite quality that Indo-European Languages just simply can’t provide, whether they be something commonly studied like Spanish or even something a lot more rarely studied such as Gujarati.

Especially online, people tend to make would-be polyglots very afraid of non-Indo European Languages (Hebrew and Turkish and Finnish and Mandarin Chinese have very few words in common with English, unlike French, which does! French = eezy! Hebrew = hard! Be afraid! Ha ha ha!)

Ancient Hebrew is a glimpse of a language that existed way before Indo-Europeans proceeded to influence virtually every language out there (although there are a handful of words in common with Indo-European Languages of the Sea People).

Contemporary Hebrew is a great way to “test the waters” to see how a non-Indo European Language works (hint: a lot of them still have a lot of Indo-European influence). There might be a lot of struggling in learning how the language functions with verbs and prefixes and suffixes, but later on you’ll find tons of expressions taken mostly from Yiddish, Slavic Languages, English and French.

You may find yourself so enchanted by it that you may want to learn other languages that aren’t Indo-European as well! A highly rewarding experience!

 

  1. Israeli Music is Like Daydreaming in mp3 form.

 

Not a lot of songs that make you actually want to get up and do chores, right?

If you like nostalgic tunes that bring you back to your childhood living room, or need a hugging feeling once in a while, Israeli music will have a lot of that! (Not also to mention dance tunes and heavy metal, but that’s for another time!)

Check. Out. This. Channel. Now.

  1. Israelis travel EVERYWHERE

What I am about to say is not an exaggeration:

I have encountered Israelis in every country I have EVER visited.

Just got out from teaching a Hebrew class, and during that class I remember my meeting with an elite from Hillel International.

He told me a joke:

Scene: Peru

He asked his Quechua-speaking tour guide: “What are the most populous nations on earth?”

Tour Guide: China is first place, and then the United States, then Israel. I see Israelis everywhere!

Israelis are probably the world’s most seasoned travelers, and if you wear a yarmulke or other Jewish identifier or sign that you speak Hebrew in public, prepare to get “Shalomed” very often! In Berlin, this happened to my brother once every five blocks. Not a joke!

You’ll be able to get yourself free drinks or travel advice and compliments wherever you bring your Hebrew. Even if it isn’t good enough yet, you’ll definitely manage to open up people, as is the case with any language.

Most Israelis will also be really happy to help you learn Hebrew, even though there may be a few others that may have become disenchanted with the various vexations and “drama” of the culture. Once I even got told “let’s continue this conversation is English, because I speak English better than you speak Hebrew” (These are in the minority! I promise!)

  1. You can use your knowledge of Hebrew to be a peacemaker

 

A lot of Israelis (not the majority) have this understanding (possibly because of the school system) that the world hates them, and that they don’t win Eurovision because of anti-Semitism and that they are a point of derision throughout the whole world and no one wants their country to exist.

I’ve told ton of people from throughout the world (yes, even from the Arab world) that I speak Hebrew and that I have lived in Israel. It’s primarily the government policies that are the issue, not ordinary people, the language(s) or the culture (all of which are very much admired, actually! Same with all other countries that have their governments “appear in the news” very frequently)

I’ve seen some of my non-Jewish friends studying in Israel and it has been tough for them, no doubt. If you are a non-Jew (full disclosure: I’m an Ashkenazi Jew myself), and find yourself enchanted by Israeli comedy or the Bible or Israeli tourists or the beaches in Tel-Aviv, let people know! Tons of Israelis want to meet you and be friends with people like you!

Who knows? Maybe Peace will come to the region (or other regions) because of people like you!

And maybe the journey to world peace will begin with your journey to learn a language!

Who knows?

 

A Free Afternoon in the Life of Jared Gimbel

jippi-mundolingo

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

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

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

 

Time Budget:

 

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

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

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

 

Castilian Spanish

French

Italian

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

 

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

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

Now for my weaknesses with French:

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

 

Italian:

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

 

Portuguese:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Polish:

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

 

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

Russian:

  • Good grammar.
  • Need to improve idiomatic usage.

 

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

Ukrainian

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

Do the same thing as with Russian.

Hungarian:

  • I’m a beginner.

 

Do the same thing as with Russian and Ukrainian.

 

Okay, now for the final hour:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That leaves me at 3:40

 

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

 

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

 

12:30

 

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

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

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

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

 

1:30

 

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

 

2:30

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3:40

 

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

 

4:00 –  5:00 PM

Class

 

5:00 PM

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

 

6:00 PM – I don’t know

Mundo Lingo

 

Enjoy!

 

 

How I deviated from it in practice:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

IMG_2906

Helsinki, 2013

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

BUT!

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

 

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

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

No.

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

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

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

No, Americans are Not “Worse” or “Better” at Languages Than Anybody Else

While there are some certain realities that cannot be denied (that every member of my extended family that is still living, with the exception of myself, is a monoglot), it has little to do with reality and more to do with attitude.

2015-07-06 11.22.31

Austin, TX, home to speakers of Spanish, Japanese, Upper Sorbian and Northern Sami, among others

Think about it. If you were raised with everyone telling you that learning a language is a waste of time, hopeless beyond a certain age, and that “everyone speaks your language anyways”…why would you expect very stellar results?

Let’s say, for the purposes of a thought experiment, that all the countries on earth, instead of the 190+ there are in reality, are the current and former members of the Danish “Common Kingdom” (Dan. “Rigsfællesskabet”). So in this world, the only countries that exist are Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m not mentioning Norway and Sweden here, that is taking the exercise a bit too far and possibly extending into controversy).

As you well know, Danes do visit and have employment opportunities on Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and in both places Danish is the second-most common language after West Greenlandic and Faroese respectively. In Iceland, Danish is still learned commonly as a foreign language after English.

In the real world, while there is some interest among Danish-speakers in learning Greenlandic and Faroese, the majority does go with the idea that “they speak Danish anyways, why bother” , not unlike what some English speakers do in the real world with where their language is commonly spoken (most of the developed world, more or less).

In this thought exercise, in which the English language does not exist, who do the “worst” language learners actually become?

The point you should take is this:

No one nationality is better or worse at learning languages than any other. But some nations do have better or worse ATTITUDES at learning languages than others.

It has little to do with age of beginning education either. The Netherlands, very high English proficiency indeed, does start its English language nearly later than any other country in the EU (I regret not remembering nor writing down the source). The earliest is Belgium (3 years, if I recall correctly).

But there is no correlation between age and English proficiency or proficiency in any other languages.

Often I read articles about how wonderful the Luxembourgers / South Africans / Nigerians / Scandinavians / Dutch are at “linguistic ability, and then sometimes I feel pain. Why did I have to be born into this nation?

But at a certain point, I realized, especially coming from the Northeastern U.S., that I had advantages in picking up languages that people from these countries and others do not.

  1. English may be everywhere in certain countries, but in many American Cities, nearly EVERY major language is everywhere.

In Heidelberg, I struggled to find speakers of official EU languages of smaller countries. In New York City, I once encountered two Faroese speakers over the course of a single weekend! (P.S. that was NOT the Polyglot Conference).

Furthermore, the neighborhoods of many American cities are known for being, to some degree, ethnically divided, with regional languages dominating alongside English. Yes, this does exist to a degree in many other developed countries, but given as the United States still remains the world’s most popular immigration destination, you can imagine the variety you can help yourself to!

This is the U.S.’s hidden treasure that it has lying out in the open. But will you take it?

  1. American English has its accents taken from the various countries from which its immigrants came. You probably have a variety of foreign accent without knowing it.

 

This is somewhat self-explanatory. Upon returning from Germany to the U.S., I noticed exactly how many American accents owed themselves to German. I also noticed significant Slavic strands (especially Polish) as well as Scandinavian strands among American accents in general. Sometimes I could even tell what an American’s ancestry was based on listening to their voice, and you’d be surprised how right I was!

As a result of this, you’ve been exposed to a plethora of voices that you somehow need to convert into the many accents of the world. Again, the fact that so many immigrate and have immigrated to the U.S. can make this a boon.

  1. American English has a colloquial speech taken from words and colloquialisms from all of the immigrant languages.

“Long time no see”, “you hear?” as a question, and “this here book” all started out as immigrant mistakes, and then they became fossilized in correct, although slang, English. In literally EVERY language I have studied, I have seen an influence that the language has played in English, or, alternatively, that English has influenced it. (This holds true even for minority and/or smaller languages!!!)

As a teacher of languages myself, I make a point of showing how much of the target language a person knows already, without extensive effort. I point out the various connections between that target language and English.

If you ever hear me do it during a lesson, your conception of “Americans are bad with languages” will be banished forever to the hinterlands, never to be heard from again.

For learning a language as an American, it is merely connecting the various familiarities you already have from certain popular culture phenomena or slang expressions and then you have a stable base in a language upon which you can grow fluency.

4, No American I have met has ever decried any language as “useless”.

You’d be surprised how often I get in some countries a “why would you want to learn that?” response. You’d be surprise how, when I used to speak English in some countries, there would be those that put down the local language as useless (hint: if you speak the local language well, or even not so well, no one will ever say anything bad about it! On either side!)

Americans, thanks to a general open-mindedness but also a very friendly demeanor, NEVER judge you on your language choices. Furthermore, they are never skeptical about the idea of a polyglot (some people, especially in Europe, see the idea of learning lots of language an extraordinary waste of time. I heartily disagree because the skills between languages are more transferable than you may think, especially within the same families and sub-families!).

You’ll encounter learners of the rarest languages at American polyglot gatherings (as I’ve seen last week) and you won’t hear any scorn among them. In fact, scorn will be heavily discouraged! In fact, more often than not, a rare language is seen as a thing of extraordinary pride. True, when I was in Germany and Iceland, there were those that marveled about the fact that I could understand Greenlandic (which I then forgot and am now learning again!), but the awe shown is only a fraction of the praise that Americans, polyglots or not, will shower upon you for your efforts and commitments.

You are really encouraged to pursue your dreams in this country. Language learning should be no exception.

And the only thing holding America back from being the greatest multilingual powerhouse the world has ever seen is an attitude, paid for by pseudoscience and fear.

Get rid of that, and a wonderful, new ultra-omniglot United States will come into being, unlike any other country that ever existed!

“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!

To Continue or Not to Continue?

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The end of the semester is upon me and many other students in the U.S.

I look back at the past year and I see the projects that I started, the languages that I forgot as well as those which I fortified.

Earlier this year I thought that I would be learning Romansh (a minority language in Switzerland) and while I did make progress I found myself disenchanted and chasing other things.

On the other hand, my growing obsession with the Greenlandic is something that really caused me to think about what makes me continue a project, as opposed to starving it.

This needs to be said: I am still frustrated by the fact that I don’t consider myself fluent in Greenlandic yet, despite listening to the music and the news every day, and speaking exercises (especially for people who want to hear what the language sounds like).

Back when I was in college, I had an obsession with Slavic Languages (although I still believed the lie that fluency wouldn’t be possible to achieve an adult, a falsehood that deserves to “go its way” for good [to use a Norwegian idiom]).

However, in the past few years my Russian has been turned on / off, but remains very weak, and I seem to have forgotten almost everything in Polish (which I never knew to a good conversational degree anyway, despite having lived in the country).

I remember one vivid incident from someone’s birthday party (in Germany) in which I tried to speak Russian with someone who proceeded to tell me that “you do not speak language of empire! You speak language of empire with Polish mistake!

That was probably the least provocative thing I heard that evening…from him, at least.

When people ask me why I forgot pretty much all of the Russian that I knew, I usually point to this incident. (Thanks to a few encouraging people, I have managed to dredge a bit of what I have, but it is a far cry from any sort of fluency…you know who you are. Большое спасибо!).

I remember a number of times in the past year when I walked away from an interaction saying, “That’s it! I’m going to give up (Language x) forever!

However, looking back, I realize that it takes a long time to seriously forget a language almost completely (and forgetting a language completely is impossible!)

Looking more realistically at the situation, it seems that the main reason that I forget languages is merely because I want to devote time to other ones.

It isn’t really that I lose interest in the language or culture, but rather than another language or culture waltzes in, enchants me, and demands more and more of my time.

But what exactly is this “enchanting me” thing about?

Rarely if ever is it about the actual sound of the language (I consider Norwegian to be one noteworthy exception in this regard).

If a language enchants me enough to demand more and more of my time, it is usually for the following reasons:

  • Positive reinforcement from peers. I get asked lots of questions about Greenland and Greenlandic by virtually everyone. People of all ages are very intrigued by my interest in the language and culture and want to know how exactly I got into it. I associate this knowledge with very positive feelings and a sense of belonging, probably more than knowledge of any other language.

 

  • Media. What really gets me hooked on a certain language project after I learn a bit of it is the music, the news, the revival efforts, the podcasts. If I find shows and songs that I really, really like, this also acts as positive reinforcement. At some point the language ceases to be about vocabulary lists and exists in your mind only as an incarnation of materials for native speakers. Those materials, as well as people to whom you speak, are the real reason that I or anyone else undertakes these projects to begin with.

 

  • Cultural Mentality. This is definitely difficult to explain. It is puzzling to understand why a certain sense of humor or body language associated with various cultures would appeal to you, but with the language comes that side to yourself that is created, and supplants itself in your identity sphere, most markedly in your dealings in your native language. Among all language learners I have seen that the languages that they commit themselves to are carried with a desire to be initiated into the cultural mentalities of their respective cultures.

 

You may not be able to get a foreign passport with ease from any country, but this is just as good, and while it may take a lot of work it is a lot easier than many of you may believe it to be.

 

And now for something exciting…

 

It seems that some languages of mine are on their way out, but I have been enchanted by a new language that I will begin to study and continue to study over the break.

 

I bet that none of you will possibly guess what it is…

 

Post on it soon!