Think Human Translators Will Be Replaced By Machines? Not So Fast!

In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:

Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)

My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.

Iso an Jekob

I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?

I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.

But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.

I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)

If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.

Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.

Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).

And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!

When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.

 

  • Gendered Speech

In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.

What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).

Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?

On that topic, there’s also an issue with…

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!

A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).

If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.

A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.

Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.

If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).

In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.

In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.

What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)

Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.

The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!

 

  • A Good Deal of Languages Haven’t Been Touched with Machine Translation At All

 

And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)

 

And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).

 

For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.

In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)

Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?

 

Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.

 

 

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The Tongan Way

It was my life’s dream to begin learning languages of the Pacific since I was a kid. The fact that I haven’t done so for decades is confusing to me, but perhaps one reason I started it this late was because I needed to hone my techniques and confidence, both of which are required in greater depth if you want to take on languages that virtually no one you know of is likely to learn or speak.

Granted, I have been speaking Tok Pisin since 2014 and Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin since 2016. What I mean when I say “Pacific Languages” are those truly indigenous to the region, and this year brought me into the arms of three of them specifically: Palauan, Tongan and Kiribati / Gilbertese. I’ve been extremely fascinated by all of them (and I would say at this juncture that Palauan is the hardest and Kiribati the easiest).

But today I’m going to talk about Tonga, because today is Tonga National Day.

Tonga is a country that continues to hold very strongly to its traditions, being an absolute monarchy even today, as well as one in which Christian identity is taken very seriously. What’s more I would venture that most people learning the Tongan Language might be doing so because they are missionaries.

The language itself is fascinating on every level and works unlike any other language I’ve seen. Let’s hop in!

The pronunciation, like many Austronesian languages (or “Languages of the Southern Islands” which stretch all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island / Rapa Nui) is extremely straightforward. You have a, e, i, o and u, pronounced virtually the EXACT same way as they would be pronounced in Spanish. If you see a line over any of these vowels, hold it a little bit longer. This principle, thanks to Finnish (which employed lengthened vowels very similarly but uses “aa” instead of “ā”, was not foreign to me.

Tongan also has a glottal stop, noted as the “ ‘ “ character. This is trickier, and it is pronounced with something like the breathing sound in the middle of “uh-oh”. (In singing this is extremely difficult to hear!)

Now let’s introduce you to what is probably the most commonly known Tongan word abroad, an interjection that literally serves ALL purposes (surprise, joy, anger, excitement), “ ‘oiaue!” Yup, all of the vowels and a glottal stop. Also super fun to say!

The consonants will not be slurred and, much like in a language like Hebrew, always have the exact same pronunciation! Given how similar they are to English that’s not something you need to worry about.

One aspect in which Tongan has really caused me to enter a word of mental gymnastics is the fact that, instead of indicating a tense with changing a verb, you use a “tense marker”.

Let’s give an example. “ ‘oku” is a present tense marker, so if you see it, a verb that follows it will be in the present tense. And PRONOUNS also change with tenses accordingly!

 

Ou -> present “I”

Ku -> past “I”

U -> future “I”

 

‘oku ou -> I am (lit. present-marker I-present)

Na’a ku -> I was (lit. past-marker I-past)

Te u -> I will be (lit. future-marker I-future)

 

You put verbs afterwards

Now there’s yet ANOTHER version of “I”, one that is utilized when it goes at the end of the sentence after a verb. “au”

 

‘Oku ‘alo ki kolo ‘a au. = I am going to town.

Present-marker go all-purpose-preposition town verb marker I-post-verb-version

 

The various pronouns in Tongan are all calibrated in various ways according, complete with exclusive and inclusive versions “we” as well as a singular / dual / plural system.

 

Much like some other languages, Tongan also has an interesting way of asking “what” you ask “Ko e hā e meʻa” = “what is the thing …”

It can be set up in other ways:

 

Ko e hā e lea faka-Tonga ki he _____?

What is the Tongan Word for _____?

 

The word “ko” is translated in so many ways and used is so many constructs that it’s dizzying to even think about how I would begin to describe it on paper. After all, I just got into Tongan a few months ago.

But you probably noticed something about “faka-Tonga”, which translates to “the Tongan Way”, something that is, obviously, at the center of the country’s national identity. Lea faka-Tonga, speaking in the Tongan Way, refers to the Tongan Language (of course).

Faka- as a prefix can also turn any noun into an adjective of the noun. Tonga is, of course, the Kingdom we all know and love (or, at least, we NOW know it and love it!). faka-Tonga turns it into an adjective. Not just Tongan, but an adjectival word that encapsulates everything that is the Tongan Way.

Another thing I didn’t find on the internet so far was how to say “why” in Tongan. That would be “ko e hā … ai” (and it is a sentence construction, with the thing you are asking the “why” about goes in the area with the three dots).

In summary:

  • Pronunciation is extremely easy
  • Verbs don’t really change but you note the tense of a sentence with a word that indicates tense.
  • Pronouns also change for tense too, they also can change depending on sentence structure (there are four forms of the word “I” covered above suited for different situation)
  • I didn’t touch upon it here, but possessives come in two classes. Read more about it on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongan_language#Possessive_pronouns
  • Idiomatic differences and learning what constitutes a “natural” construct will be your biggest obstacle in learning Tongan (more than anything else would be.

 

What’s more, Tongan also (unsurprisingly) has a lot of English Loan Words, and much like in Japanese, they will be adopted to local spelling conventions. This includes NAMES sometimes!

 

David – Tēvita

Mary – Mele

Science / Scientist – Saienisi

 

Tonga has great music that makes you feel as though you’re on an island (no, REALLY!) as well as a history that features it on center stage locally many times (it has been described as “expansionist”). Pieces of Tongan culture have been featured on the global stage, with the national drink, Kava, having its name COME from Tongan, as well as having costumes from Disney’s Moana / Vaiana modelled after the dress from the Tongan Royal Family, not also to mention it having been a playable mini-civilization in a mode of Civilization V (No joke!!!)

Polynesia as a whole (not to mention the Pacific Island cultures as a group) has been featured in many aspects of both American and Japanese popular culture (it was the colonial frontier for both of them!) As a result, many aspects of any of these cultures will be oddly familiar to you, given how both American and Japanese popular culture have impacted the world.

I have a long way to go with speaking the Tongan way, but it’s been SUPER fun (as well as challenging!) and I can’t wait to see how well I speak Tongan in a year’s time!

And now a song that will get stuck in your head!

Happy Tonga Day, world!

LEA FAKA TONGA

The 2017 Polyglot Conference: Self-Assessment and Roadmap

The most legendary month of my life is about to close, one that brought me to Iceland and Greenland and, by extension, into meetings with some of the most legendary human beings who have impacted my life to date.

I got to meet Nanook, the legendary band from Greenland, as well as the lineup of my favorite Greenlandic TV show from years back, see my favorite Icelandic rapper in a 30-minute concert and, of course, visit and re-visit some of my greatest heroes that have shown be beyond a reasonable doubt that learning to speak a second or third or even twentieth language at any age is ALWAYS a possibility!

I got to use thirty languages over the course of few days and think about where I have been, where I am and where I am going.

Granted, some of these languages are ones that I speak fluently and use in my career. Others are those that I have literally not practiced for months. In the meantime, I’ll have to think about where I under-estimated myself, where I over-estimated myself and what great victories I scored as well as any possible defeats.

The Saturday of the conference had me feeling unbelievably elated at the end. So elated, in fact, that I slept very poorly that night. What’s more, I had to present the following day, making it LITERALLY the worst night of this year to get a bad night’s sleep.

But surprisingly I not only managed my conference presentation on Video Games and Language Learning very well, I was told that the organizers heard “nothing but positive feedback” about it including repeated hopes that I would make encore presentations at other conferences.

My secret to being a good presenter is simple: note whatever your boring teachers throughout your life did, and do the opposite of what they do. Easy!

Anyhow, I’ll write about which languages I think I did very well with, which ones I did okay with and which ones I really need improvement with.

Let’s start with that last one.

For one, I significantly overestimated my ability in Irish and it felt that when I spoke it I had flashbacks to when I was twelve years old and my teacher scrawled “DID NOT STUDY” on my quizzes. (This was in part because I was thrown into a Hebrew Day School where my knowledge of Biblical Hebrew was significant impaired because I was a latecomer!)

I forgot essential words at times and while I did put some sentences together, it occurs to me that I need work.

The same thing very much happened with Lao (although the only time I used it was in a Lao-Thai conversation, something that I have had no experience in doing).

My Welsh which I had neglected for months, obviously, did not even get a sticker on my name tag, but I added it to my list because with some “rewatering”  it will warrant an A1 level again.

I also flubbed Cornish a little bit as well

Three languages which I need to really work on. So what am I going to do?

For one this weekend I will devote entirely to studying these languages, to the exclusion of others.

Now for my “I did pretty well!”

Despite some grammatical flubs at times Finnish was truly something to be proud of and I’m very impressed by the level of L2 Finnish speakers that I’ve seen at the conference.

Hebrew was also very similar as well, although sometimes I worry that I’m a little bit TOO casual and not scholarly enough. This style REALLY impresses some Israelis and manages to vex some others. But it bears repeating that using the language with people who speak it is always a good idea! Regardless of how much you may convince yourself otherwise!

Greenlandic, despite the fact that I remember being just “manageable” in Greenland the week prior, also was a meager success, whatever people wanted to ask of me what meant I was capable of providing. Granted, mostly these were simple phrases but it occurs to me that I knew a lot more of the language than actually came out when I was in the country. Again, my own nervousness holding myself back.

Icelandic and French both involved some significant gaps in my conversational abilities, given the language-learning tornado (and Jewish-holiday tornado) I was in in the weeks leading up to the conference.

Lastly, the one chance I got to use Krio went off better than I expected!

Now the greatest victories of the bunch, not surprisingly, go to my truly fluent languages, the Scandinavian Trio and Yiddish. Being in Greenland the week beforehand sure did help with Danish, but the practice I’ve got while teaching really, REALLY shined through. I also managed to speak significantly better Spanish and German than I literally ever remembered doing, EVER.

Every other language on my list was “not enough chances to use it” (for my fluent languages like Bislama) or otherwise “okay, I guess, but you still need some noteworthy improvement” (pretty much every other language I haven’t named).

The fact that I significantly slouched in my conversational abilities on Sunday is testament to the fact that mental and physical conditions matter in conversational abilities in any language, and languages you don’t use as often are even MORE likely to be impacted. My fluent languages (like Danish and Hebrew) stayed the same, but my less-than-fluent languages (like Hungarian or Polish) got worse.

 

Where do I go from here?

It seems ever more likely that 2018 is going to spell no more new languages for me for the time being. Right now, even though I’d really like something like Turkmen or Tuvaluan or Lithuanian, I have my plate full and now it’s time for me to invest in what I have in significantly more depth. I know it’s possible. I’m good now. Some would even call me very good. But I want to be divinely unstoppable.

Obviously I understand that the “activation energy” required for going to a higher level is more the higher you get (this ties into the idea of “diminishing returns”. Getting my Breton to C2 is going to take a LOT more effort than getting Lao to B1. Looking at the ungodly amount of time I put into my best languages, it’s no surprise.

Right now I just have ideas for a plan, but “improve tons of languages” is not really a recipe. I need a recipe and I’m probably going to need more than just a day to come up with a plan.

We’ll see how my little mini-mission on Saturday and Sunday goes!

NOTE: This is primarily a self-reflection about MY OWN progress rather than anything about the conference itself. That’s likely to come later on, probably when I’m back in the US and have had time to reflect on it!

I wish every day were a Polyglot Conference, actually!

IMG_4725

From my first Polyglot conference two years ago!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A1 – Gilbertese, Tongan

A2 – Lao, Burmese, Hungarian, Polish

B1 – French, Irish, Greenlandic, Cornish

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

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

C2 – Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin

Native – English (US)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals right now:

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

 

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

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

Whatever happens, I have to stay optimistic and determined.

Hope to see you there!

IMG_4725

I Want to Learn Indigenous Languages! How Do I Start?

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

I’m writing this article from Brooklyn, not far away from the Peace Corps HQ, a company that pioneered the study of indigenous languages throughout the Americas (although I don’t think they’ve published any materials for indigenous languages of the US specifically.)

You can see their extremely impressive and useful list of language-learning materials here (and this is probably more useful than most bookstore Language-Learning sections I’ve seen can hope to be): https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

This may surprise you, but in many areas of the Americas indigenous languages are not only markers of cultural identity but also thriving more than you would expect.

Transparent Language Online actually has an indigenous language of LOUISIANA (Koasati) available in its offerings! As well as indigenous languages of Canada such as Ojibwe and Cree, and Lakota (and probably many others I forgot) from the United States (and I have it on good authority that there are more of them on the way.)

I love the fact that I live in a time in which the many painful legacies of colonialism have been confronted, and in particular Christopher Columbus’s moral shortcomings (putting it as lightly as I can).

Indigenous communities from throughout the American continents, all the way from the Inuit in the far north (I’m going to GREENLAND NEXT WEEK!) all the way down to the Mapuche in Southern Chile, now have tools to make their languages more powerful with an online presence. I think one thing that may be holding such prospects back is a self-defeating idea of “why would ANYONE use or need this?” But I think if more such publications were made possible, more people (even people who are complete outsiders to these indigenous communities) would find avenues to learn these languages, thereby creating a very positive “vicious circle”.

Okay, that was enough musing to open the article with, now let’s get to HOW to find resources for indigenous languages!

 

  • Omniglot

 

The A-Z Index of Languages on Omniglot is like window shopping. Languages will be provided with histories, scripts, samples, links for further study (usually) and lists of useful phrases (on some occasions)

Poke around this website in order to find what sort of indigenous languages (or any other) YOU would like to see in your life, and how to proceed.

A word of caution, however: there have been some times that I have literally been unable to learn languages due to a dearth of materials (Chuukese from the Federated States of Micronesia being the most potent example in recent memory). You may or may not encounter such a dearth, but you may also expect to be pleasantly surprised!

 

  • Transparent Language Online

 

With various libraries offering this service for free, you are welcome to explore many indigenous languages of the Americas with their fantastically useful sets of flashcards.

 

You can find a list of offering languages here:

https://home.transparent.com/transparent-language-online-available-languages?_ga=2.108520199.400276675.1507569656-1845425504.1451068801

 

On the desktop version, not only will you have all languages available but you’ll also be able to choose from MANY different modes of study for your cards, like matching, blank-filling, or even rattling all of the audio in the target language for your entire collection! (I tried this and I got bored after a few seconds).

 

The mobile version is more simplified with only flashcards being available (although it is nonetheless extremely useful on train rides, for example)

 

If there is one weakness, it is the fact that grammar explanations are usually lacking unless they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY (e.g. with Icelandic)

 

  • Your Bookstore / Your Library

 

I discovered the Quechua Lonely Planet Guide in the Columbia University Bookstore one fine day and I was enchanted by the very idea of speaking the language of the Incas (although there are many different regional variations thereof depending on where in the Andes you are).

 

I also found a book on Australian English and it actually had a guide section in the back about basic phrases in various Australian Aboriginal Languages! (Not enough to make one fluent or even reach A1, not by a long shot, but still interesting. If memory serves correctly, I don’t think the book is in print any more, but print-on-demand may provide you a save if you’re still seeking it…)

 

And, of course, Greenlandic, which I also discovered in a Lonely Planet Guide…one thing led to another and my dream to learn a language with ultra-mega-long words led to me designing a video game set in contemporary Greenland. Fancy that!

 

Still haven’t gotten around to speaking Quechua, although I’m going to shamelessly plug myself when I mention…

 

  • YouTube!

 

I originally discovered Guarani, an indigenous language of Paraguay and the surrounding countries, thanks to Duolingo (a resource not on this list because it offers just one indigenous language of the Americas with currently no plans to add other ones that I’m aware of).

I found online tutorials (in Spanish) on how to learn Basic Guarani. Somewhat unsatisfied with their level, I decided to…take it up a notch!

 

Found a Public Domain book on how to learn Guarani online and began filming the process bit-by-bit. Hey, you could do this with your other languages to and help raise awareness or just get feedback from fluent speakers or experienced learners!

As to where I got that book…

 

  • The LiveLingua Project

 

https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

COME HERE KIDZ FREE BOOKZ!!!!1!!! (And by “free” I mean “legally free” not “pirated”!)

 

  • Religious Materials (for Christians)

 

Even if you’re not Christian yourself, you can use materials produced by missionaries in order to aid your journey. The Bible (sometimes both the Old and New Testaments) has been translated into more languages than any other in human history, keep in mind that the New Testament does tend to be translated more often by a small margin.

Also, the most dubbed-film in human history is The Jesus Film, and while it does remind me a lot of something I would watch in high school classes when the syllabi ran dry (I don’t really mean that as a genuine compliment, although my teachers there were great!), it can also be a very useful language-learning resource given how visually-oriented the plot and dialogue are.

The most translated website is that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well. Yes, more commonly translated than…

 

  • Wikipedia

 

Sadly in some indigenous languages (like Cree and Greenlandic) there is a lot of the “colonial” language used in the interface (that would be English and Danish respectively), but in many others the words are more complete, such as the Guarani Wikipedia (https://gn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ape), the Quechua Wikipedia (https://qu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qhapaq_p%27anqa) and “Huiquipedia (the Nahuatl Wikipedia) (https://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl)

 

You can also find out how to contribute in some capacity even if you’re a beginner in the language! (There are a lot of times that I’ve seen articles that are literally three words long, and then this gem from the Bislama Wikipedia: https://bi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven [as of the time of writing, it just shows the number seven in a picture with the caption “Seven, namba 7”)

 

You’ll pick up a significant amount of useful vocabulary to discuss languages and cultures with these wikipedias if you look at the articles detailing these languages or countries respectively.

 

This is a list that is just going to keep growing

 

With accelerated growth of technology will come more opportunities for indigenous communities to proliferate the usage of their language as well as, perhaps, a more keen sense that “time is running out” if they perceive their traditions as threatened.

 

New resources are coming into the world every year and it seems that more and more people are open to the idea of learning indigenous languages, which I think we, as polyglots in general, should do.

 

We need to use our strong, cohesive identity and passion to heal the world. And where else to start by telling these small cultures that we care about them and want them to keep creating in their languages, many of which have been lost to us forever?

 

May this Indigenous People’s Day be a source of determination to you!

greenland asanninneq

 

October 2017 Immersion Mission: Greenland / Iceland!

Well, here it is. The month in which I present at the Polyglot Conference 2017 is finally upon us.

October 2017 also promises to be one of the most exciting months of my life to date for ANOTHER reason: I am finally going to be visiting my favorite country! (Or, what I would pick as my favorite if I had to…)

It is my great pleasure to tell you that, when the Jewish holidays conclude, I will have the priviliege of visiting Greenland!

You know what this means: I’m going to have to prepare for language immersion, much in the same way that I did before my trip to Myanmar back in May 2017.

But this time, the trip promises to be different for the following reasons:

(1) I’ve had years of experience behind each of the languages involved (even though my Greenlandic is, in my opinion, quite weak).

There are a total of three languages that I expect to use when I’m in the North Atlantic (in addition to English, if the occasion arises). Icelandic in Iceland, Greenlandic in Greenland, and Danish in Greenland (although Danish is commonly studied among Icelanders and some I’ve met speak it quite impressively, usually those that have spent time in Denmark. For those unaware: Iceland used to be part of the Kingdom of Denmark, much like Greenland and the Faroe Islands still are).

(2) I also have to rehearse MY COMPLETE COLLECTION before the Polyglot Conference.

And I’m quite worried about it.

I’ll plan on bringing the following languages to the conference: English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Finnish, Spanish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Irish, Krio, French, Cornish, Polish, Greenlandic, Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole, Myanmar / Burmese, Lao, Tongan, Guarani, and Khmer. (Ranging from “I speak this language fluently” to “I can have simple conversations in this language” in descending order. Khmer and Guarani may get the boot, but it seems unlikely that any of the others will, even though for all the languages from French downards I have gaps in my vocabulary that I need to address…)

Between rehearsing for the conference specifically and this trip specifically, I am more inclined to put effort towards my weakest languages rather than the trio that I am likely to be using during the trip. This may change during the days leading up to the trip itself.

(3) This is the first language immersion mission in which I’ll be using languages that I have strong command of.

Danish definitely, and I’ll see how my Icelandic and Greenlandic stack up (I’m inclined to think that I’ll do very well with both of them in tourist functions, and reasonably well with Greenlandic in conversation and quite well to very well with Icelandic. I’ve been rehearsing Icelandic and Danish quite regularly during my weekends, although I’ve neglected the study of my Greenlandic quite badly!)

this-is-the-article-youve-all-been-waiting-for

What sort of traps will I expect and I will I try to diffuse them?

For one, I’ve notice that by far my biggest enemy is my own self-doubt.

I’ve seen this being played out with cruel consistency at many language-exchange events. Sometimes I use the wrong word or say SOMETHING that isn’t congruent with my extremely high standards that I set for myself, and then I get vexed to the point of being self-conscious during the rest of the evening, certainly far away from being at my best.

This could even be something like “I used a word or expression that I’m not entirely sure is correct” (that’s what it usually is, come to think of it).

I think that what I’ll definitely be needing more of in this mission is more mental discipline.

Namely, well-disciplined people are more likely to control their emotional stimuli, and less-disciplined people are more like to be controlled by them. I can’t let my ego get in the way so often.

There is one good note that I’ll end on: I’ve noticed that there is a very small minority of people who, despite the fact that English is not their first language, will not use their native language with you, sometimes even if you’ve demonstrated that you’re fluent (or otherwise very good) in that language.

This has only happened a handful of times over the course of this year (and one of them was actually yesterday) and I’ve fully learned to actually disregard such people. There are few things that you can do to make me significantly lose respect for you and that is one of them. (I’m sorry. But hopefully you’ll learn not to do that).

And this brings yet another issue concerning Danish in Greenland, that I won’t get too hurt if people refuse to speak Danish with me (regardless of the case) because no doubt there are painful colonial memories and a process of reconciliation involved. In places like Spain like Catalonia or the Basque Country, or in France like Brittany, or perhaps even among some Palestinians (the last of which have been, surprisingly, more than happy to converse in Hebrew with me), I can understand why they wouldn’t want to use Castillian, French or Hebrew respectively, regardless of how well I spoke it.

After all, my less-than-savory memories of previous chapters of my life in the United States have sometimes made some languag situations uncomfortable for me (e.g. sometimes using American English with foreigners makes me uncomfortable, or Yeshivish English can also rub me the wrong way at times. It reminds me of a time of my life I’d like to forget, and that world that I was a part of had a horrifying revelation that I’ll write about when it gets settled, but not until then. But prepare to be shocked.)

That was a nice note to end on.

My clothing is in the washing machine, I need to go get it.

Have a good day and keep getting closer to your dreams!

How to Recover From an Embarrassing Defeat (In Language Learning)

Especially if you’re not a veteran language learner yourself, it may not be apparent to you, but the path to poylglottery (well, mine, because it is the one that I see best and, what’s more, in a “behind the scenes” manner) is littered with great pain alongside great mirth (but isn’t this true about acquiring any skill?

Let me tell you about some extremely embarrassing incidents that have taken place throughout the years:

  • Froze up in front of an Icelandic native speaker (last November)
  • Froze up in front of a novice Irish speaker, hadn’t practiced for weeks (earlier this month)
  • Had difficulty having an Ecuadorian visitor understand my Spanish (March of this year)
  • Struggled in giving a presentation in novice German so badly that one of my lecturers was visibly frustrated (February 2014)
  • Told off by some speakers of Hasidic Yiddish (twice this Spring / summer)
  • Crashed during a German conversation (earlier this month)
  • Pretty much every time I’ve been answered in English while ordering food in places like Israel and Sweden (in Israel it was more frequent, I’ve noticed that Swedish-speakers from immigrant background NEVER used English with me after I got the basics “down”) (2012 – 2013, and 2009 in the case of Hebrew only)
  • Having a Burmese taxi driver telling me that I needed to work on my tones (May of this year)
  • Having that same Burmese taxi driver telling me that I should learn languages from “people” rather than from “books” (he has a point, actually! But I didn’t have access to too many Burmese speakers in New York. Hoping this will change in the future!)
  • Having trouble understanding Burmese numbers at times (also May of this year)
  • Drawing blanks when trying to speak novice Vietnamese (July of this year)
  • Speaking super-slow Hungarian with iffy grammar with both native speakers and learners of all stripes (pretty much this whole summer)

A good deal of my languages from across levels are involved in this list, but interestingly some of my strongest languages (Danish, the one language that I have CONSISTENTLY been complimented the most by native speakers, as well as Norwegian and all English Creoles) are absent from this list. And those of you who know me well know that, very sadly, I keep a tally of pretty much every negative thing that has ever happened to me (hey, I’m working on improving it!)

It goes without saying that I’ve noticed patterns in my “defeats”:

  • Rusty practice (Irish and Icelandic have been subjected to this the most…)
  • Novice status (Burmese!)
  • Lack of deep cultural resonance (my mild antipathy towards global languages like Spanish or German is well-documented in this blog, I say that I “don’t love them any more than I have to”, and I’m under the impression that they’re not my strongest languages, nor will they ever be, barring circumstances like getting into a relationship with a native speaker)
  • Sometimes not feeling well (interestingly one time I showed up to Language Exchange NYC, met a Danish native speaker and managed an entire conversation with a native speaker without slipping up. I was on five hours of sleep and kept telling my friends that I “shouldn’t have gone” and that I “should have stayed in bed”)

The one important thing to do in situations like these is detach yourself from the situation. I don’t care if you’ve been interviewed by global news outlets or are revered as a global star of language learning, realize that you’re allowed to be defeated at times and that, at your core, you are someone who is (1) either on the way up or (2) very much on the top with well-deserved work.

Recognize the many times you’ve managed with languages that are not your native language(s), or without using your native language or English. Remember the many victories and compliments from native speakers, not also to mention the bridges that your languages have built, including those you’ve learned to fluency and those that you haven’t made fluent quite yet (I got free drinks out of Hebrew, I also got it out of French back when I was quite bad at it, and also with Burmese with three weeks of practice [at the Shwedagon Pagoda, no less! Relax, by “drinks” I mean “water bottles”! I wasn’t drinking beer at the Shwedagon Pagoda! I promise!])

If you’re still feeling pain so deep that you can’t bring those victories to mind, allow yourself to experience pain and just…wait. (thankfully I haven’t undergone anything like what Ziad Fazah underwent on Viva Lunes, nor has any friend I know—namely, being asked to speak a handful of languages and being unable to muster basic phrases in almost any of them. Oh, and I’m super-careful to ensure that what happened to him won’t happen to me in the slightest).

Come to the realization that it is through these defeats that you will find progress. Mr. Burmese Taxi Driver Who Said that Jared Needs to Improve His Tones served as a motivator for me to get better with the language, even though it doesn’t seem that I’m returning to Myanmar at any time in the near future (plenty of Burmese diaspora folks around many places, though!). Each of the embarrassing incidents above motivated me to get better. EVERY. ONE.

In the event that you weren’t feeling well that day, keep in mind that it doesn’t reflect on your true abilities. And in the event that you DID manage to speak a language very well when you were ill, give yourself applause. You deserve it!

Keep in mind two things:

  • Don’t compare your L2’s (or L3’s or any other languages beyond that) to a higher standard than your native languages. So, SO many English monoglots expect me to understand EVERYTHING that’s said in (Spanish / Hebrew / Yiddish / Swedish) all of the time. I don’t understand everything in ENGLISH a good deal of the time, so why would I expect it in any other language?
  • Don’t compare your L2’s to foreigners having learned English. English is like half-a-native-language to many people almost everywhere. In some places like the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or areas of the Pacific or Africa where English is an official language (and any other places besides these), it’s even more than half-a-native language. They’ve been encouraged to learn English their whole lives, you’ve probably received loads of discouragement, even from learning global languages like Spanish, and possibly even more for languages like Danish, and even MORE for endangered or minority languages.

Realize that every journey comes with slip-ups, regardless of HOW good you are with a language. Heck, I’ve even messed up English spectacularly on several occasions (and some HATERZ might like to think that it is because I’m a polyglot, but that’s not true because I’ve heard monoglot English speakers mess up their native language in similar ways).

Remember to give your “failure” some time, and then it will be something to laugh at. But it will become something to laugh at on one condition: if you rise above it and use it as a motivator to become even better at the language(s) involved!

I’m with you, encouraging you every step of the way! Don’t pay attention to discouragers or haterz! Get up and get going again! You’ll reach your goals before you know it!

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