All About Solomon Islands Pijin, or How I Learned a Language in Two Weeks

Would you believe me if I told you that I became conversational in a language in nearly two weeks? It happened, actually, and it was during Passover 2016 when I was “vacationing” at my parents’ house.

The language I mastered during that “holiday season”, as it were, was Solomon Islands Pijin, which is unique among the languages I speak by virtue of the fact that it was, until VERY recently, almost entirely a spoken language!

Yes, there are translations of the Bible into Pijin, but what really brought about a “writing revolution” in the Solomons was actually the advent of mobile phones.

(Something you should know about mobile phones in the developing world, and I saw this when I was in rural Myanmar as well: they are a LOT more common than you think they are! This is true even among very poor people).

You’re probably here wondering “Jared, why are you writing about this topic today rather than, let’s say, any other day?”

Well, you’ve probably guessed the pattern by now…today is July 7th, the Independence Day of the Solomon Islands—home to a culture of forward-looking and friendly people who also have been responsible for some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my life.

You’ve gotten this far and you probably want to know what Solomon Islands Pijin is. So let’s treat you to a sample, shall we?

Iso an Jekob

Okay, as an English-speaker you probably recognize a significant amount of words, but are probably genuinely confused with the most common words.

You’re probably wondering, “what is this and why does it exist?”

Well, allow me to share the story with you:

When British Colonizers came to Australia and Fiji, they set up plantations and then proceeded to “blackbird” locals from the nearby areas to work at the plantation. Blackbirding did involve forced kidnapping and other morally questionable methods (although there were instances of fair work being involved).

So you have people from a variety of areas—namely, Australia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands—and they’re speaking a huge host of languages with each other but, for the sake of working for English-speakers, they need to find a way to communicate both with themselves and with their colonial masters.

Enter the Pidgin Languages, later to become creoles.

The variety of English that was created as a result of these plantation experiences was a Pidgin English, one that was used to communicate between the locals and the British who ran the plantations.

However, given as there was no formal language training for the workers, they made significant shortcuts in order to learn how to communicate as quickly as possible (you can probably guess from this that Creole Languages can be mastered in a very short time in comparison to other languages!)

The pidgins thereby developed were noted by the British as being highly efficient, although no doubt they were made fun of by English speakers very frequently (and, in some cases even today, continue to be).

Now the story continues with the pidgins turning into creoles.

The primary difference between a pidgin language and a creole language is that a creole is a pidgin that has acquired enough vocabulary to be someone’s native tongue. A pidgin language is just a fusion of various languages, usually with a base in a European tongue (Portuguese, French and English are the most common for creole languages) used to communicate, but its vocabulary does not have to be extensive the way a creole does.

Even so, creole languages usually have significantly smaller comprehensive vocabularies than many other languages (again, efficiency).

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Solomon Islands?

So when the plantations ceased to be, the various workers often found their way back home. But as a result of the experience in the plantations in which various ethnicities that had not been in contact with each other developed a means to talk with each other as a result of the pidgin, that language followed them home.

Not only that, it also transformed into creole languages and became widespread enough in places like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Torres Strait in order to become the primary method of communication in those countries.

This also became important because it enabled these countries to develop linguistic identities that were separate from European powers. This is the reason that Vanuatu’s national anthem is actually the only in the world that is written in an English Creole Language. Sandwiched between British and French influence and constantly pressured to “choose teams”, the Ni-Vanuatu national movement opted for its own team…namely, Bislama, one of the “children” of the plantation creoles.

So that you know, Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Bislama in Vanuatu, Pijin in the Solomon Islands and Torres Strait Creole are siblings. There are also related creoles spoken by some aboriginal communities in mainland Australia, although they diverge from these four more substantially.

It makes sense, because barely a few centuries ago these were actually all the same language! But as a result of varying factors (due to [1] what local languages contributed to the creole spoken there and [2] which European powers exerted more influence), these languages are different.

Bislama has French loan words, Tok Pisin has German loan words, and Solomon Islands Pijin is comparatively lacking in both of these.

 

Okay, Why Should I Care? Are You Going to Tell me a Reason (or four) that I should learn it?

 

Yes, indeed!

For one, the Melanesian Creoles (that I’m not listing again for the umpteenth time) are very similar. Given that I studied Tok Pisin before studying Pijin it is no surprise that I became conversational, if not fluent, in record time.

Yes, there are differences, especially with the Pijin-trademarked question word, “waswe”, which goes at the beginning of sentences (probably a fusion of “which-what-where”, if you ask me). It also serves as a “why?” or a “what if?” or a “is it really?” or “do you think so?”. Pijin also relies more heavily on the f sound which does not appear as frequently in Tok Pisin (and a lot of Tok Pisin I’ve heard actually excludes it with noteworthy frequency).

Pijin and Bislama are sometimes even believed to be dialects of the same language (and some would even include Tok Pisin in this dynamic). No doubt they were, once upon a time, but I think that there are enough differences between them to actually separate them as genuine linguistic entities but that essay is a story for another time (or you could ask me in the comments!)

Pijin is an excellent moral choice for your next language, given that a lot of the struggles concerning countries that many people in the world don’t think about (as well as the developing country’s choice whether or not to partner up with developed countries for the sake of resource harvesting or economic development) will give you a truer insight into where the planet stands and where we should go from here.

What’s more, given that English is an official language of the Solomon Islands and is used in business writing as well as in the country’s national anthem, a lot of prospective language learners tend to overlook Pijin. This leaves the Pijin learners primarily in two camps (with exceptions like myself): (1) missionaries and (2) Peace Corps folks.

Your language choice can be morally motivated and it can make you a mini-ambassador for the countries and cultures that you may not represent on your passport but do represent in regards to which cultures you “tip your hat to”. We need more people who can share stories and cultural narratives from all over the world, rather than from the world’s most powerful states. And with Pijin’s similarity to English, you can become that ambassador in no time! (well…in some time…)

Solomon music is also the best I’ve heard from the developing world, period. Sharzy has become an international icon of sorts, and his music may seem uncannily familiar to you. What’s more, if you speak English, especially as a native language, you’ll be surprised how many Pijin songs you may come to understand with a few days’ practice, sometimes so well that you may even think yourself capable of transcribing them!

 

 

There are also a number of resources you can use to improve your understanding of Pijin (and your speaking of Pijin if you choose to “shadow” [repeat after the narrator bit-by-bit]). A lot of religious material for Christians has been published (and you know that “The Jesus Film”, which has been dubbed into over 1,000 languages [not a typo!] is probably going to get an article on this blog one of these days). While I am not Christian myself, I find this material helpful for understanding not only the processes of missionaries (then as well as now) but also concerning how Christianity is perceived and practiced in places like the Solomon Islands.

And another song just because I feel like it:

Another slice of videos you can watch include informational videos about diseases, economic development, science (especially environmental science) and more! Many of these are localized into Solomon Islands Pijin by organizations from Australia and beyond!

I bet “watch Claymation films in Solomon Islands Pijin” was probably not on your to-do list for today, but here this is anyhow:

Yes, there is radio and you can learn a lot about the many cultures of the Solomon Islands by listening to it, but be aware of the fact that, especially in Honiara (the capital) a lot of English is interspersed between Pijin, so you’ll get an “on-off” feeling at times. But even when Solomon Islanders speak English, you’ll be able to hone your pronunciation and may even learn how to speak English the way they do in Solomon!

A lot of ads and other programming are also available and Pijin and you’ll sometimes listen to them quite frequently on the radio! I’ve also heard fantastic things about Pijin-language storytelling (a true art in the Solomon Islands and in all of Melanesia in general), but I’ve had trouble finding links to Pijin stories so if you know of any, let me know!

Lastly, you can actually help! Pijin Wikipedia may happen if you contribute a handful of articles! Have a look at the progress here! (I think if a Wikipedia incubator reaches 50 articles, it gets launched! Maybe I should just write the remaining ones and get it over with as a “birthday present” to the country. Or maybe I have too many other classes to teach today…)

https://incubator.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wp/pis

Anyhow, after listening to all of the songs, watching the films, and having a good dosage of written Pijin, perhaps it doesn’t surprise you that I learned this language well enough to speak it convincingly within two weeks…or does it?

Happy Birthday, Solomon Islands!

solomon

 

Tahitian: My First Polynesian Language, My First Impressions

Every time I glimpse a language from the post-colonial world, I gain extraordinary insights into the damage and cruelty afflicted by the process as well as the fact that some cultures find themselves to various degrees of confusion.

Some are significantly healthy in terms of their cultural and linguistic identity, despite a lingering sense of having been hurt in the not-too-distant past (Greenland is one such example).

Others are similarly safe (more or less) but often find themselves under the boot of either economic attitudes, cultural disdain or wounds inflicted by the past (Welsh-speakers throughout the UK, both within and without of Wales, have encountered a vocal minority spreading lies that bilingual education harms children and that keeping Welsh alive is merely a waste of money and serves to exclude English speakers. I’m not even going to dignify these claims with a response.)

Others have found their languages on life support, or, in many more cases, have been killed, due to the results of colonialism. The vast majority of languages spoken on the continent in which I am now writing this have been sadly relegated to that graveyard.

Here’s about one more such language that finds itself on the brink, and it comes from a place you’ve definitely heard of.

Last week, knowing that I should start my projects now rather than later (even if I attempt to “pause” them later on down the line), I began learning a language of a place that my father visited before I was born, a place that I’ve been curious about since my childhood.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Tahiti.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "french polynesia flag"

Today is June 29th, which is a day in the history of French Polynesia that is fairly confused in its role. The Day (as well as the celebrations that tend to last for weeks afterwards) is the celebration of French Polynesia’s Autonomy.

Some see it as an Independence Day, others see it as a day worth mourning, given that it is a celebration of autonomy within the French Commonwealth rather than a full independence.

Regardless of how you see the day, I thought today would be a good day to write about my first impressions.

I’ve just been at it at nearly a week, so if you have any advice or comments, let me know. I feel fulfillment knowing that this dream that I’ve deferred for so long is finally becoming a reality, and that maybe other Polynesian Languages (such as Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan and Maori) may similarly follow suit.

Here are some of my reflections that I’m going to look back on one day. Who knows? Maybe in five years I’ll be a specialist in Polynesian Languages. I’d never say never… especially when I thought in 2008 that I would “never learn Finnish”!

  • I Had to Learn Danish to Access a Lot of Learning Materials in Greenlandic. Similarly, a Lot of Tahitian Learning Materials Are in French.

 

Interestingly enough I could say the same thing about Breton…sort of…given that a lot of scholars of Celtic languages may actually be from the British Isles, I found a significant amount of material accessible for English-speakers as far as the Breton-learning market was concerned. It goes without saying that knowing French would be very advantageous indeed in that department (and I learned Breton before I deemed my French was any good, precisely so I could write about the experience).

 

But for Tahitian, I’m finding that, aside from some phrasebooks and the like, material for learning Tahitian in-depth seems lacking unless I go over to the French side of the Internet. And this leads into my second point…

 

  • A Lot of the French Polynesian is, well in…you guessed it!

 

I don’t know a lot of the details as to various quotas required for French-language usage on TV and radio even in the overseas dependencies, but French language usage dominates on the Internet in Tahiti. As to whether it does in real-life is another thing (and perhaps those of you who have been to Tahiti, as I may indeed one day, could share your experiences!)

Like with Breton, I have had trouble in finding a consistent stream of material for Tahitian immersion. Maybe I need to look a bit further.

That said, I’m finally grateful that I have an “excuse” to improve my French (and yes, learning about Vanuatu / Bislama did help to minor degrees, but there are those that believe that the government is hanging on to its Francophone status so as to keep getting French aid money. I’ll back out of this debate…)

Truth be told: I really like endangered and rare languages (SURPRISE!). I don’t have the same enthusiasm for popular languages unless they somehow serve as bridges to the rarer ones. Voila.

An interesting side note: sometimes I tell my Francophone friends that my primary interest in the Francophone world lies in the South Pacific (which was true before I began learning Tahitian, by the way). A lot of them tend to respond as something like, “Oh, yeah, Vanuatu! I remember him! Haven’t heard much about him these days. How is he?”  Announcing my intentions to learn Tahitian last week at Mundo Lingo got me a similar response.

I find it very heartwarming that the French people I have met actually have a significant soft spot for these endangered languages within their commonwealth and it shows. They tend to admire those who devote time to them. I have never encountered a “why would you do that? How on earth…” or the even worse “why bother keeping it alive?” from any of them.

 

  • The Pronunciation is Very Easy

Like in Finnish, there are longer vowels and the long vowels can actually change the meaning of a word when substituted for a short one. In Tahitian, the line above the letter indicates that it is longer. Pronounce it with more length.

With the exception of the elongated vowels, Tahitian has a, e, i, o and u, pronounced almost exactly the way are pronounced in the Melanesian Creoles that I’ve studied and now speak fluently (Tok Pisin, Bislama and Pijin). For those who don’t have that reference point, these are similar to their pronunciations in Spanish.

There is a (an?) ” ‘ ” that is pronounced as a glottal stop. Now this is like the pause between an English “uh-oh”. Surprisingly, given that a large number of Americans are familiar with some Hawaiian, this may be familiar to you.

On a side note about Hawaiian popular culture, I think it also influenced Japan in much of the same way (and perhaps the same argument could be made for Polynesian culture as a whole!)

 

  • You Never Learn a Language from Absolute Zero, and Tahitian is no Exception.

 

The word for a village in Tahitian is “nu’u”, which I instantly recognized from the name of the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa (for those unaware, the Polynesian languages resemble each other much like the Romance Languages do). Quick research reveals that Nuku’alofa is Tongan for “place of love” (nuku is the cognate word. One day I’d really like to learn Tongan, but I think one Poly Language at a time will do for now as well as … dropping or pausing a lot of my previous projects…)

The word for greeting is Aroha. Thanks to American Popular Culture / Pokémon Games, I need not tell you anymore.

The way to say “hello” is “ia ora na”, which I recognized from that one week I spent with Maori back in 2014 – “Kia ora” is their greeting.

And the Tahitian word for the ocean is certainly a word you may recognize:

“Moana”

EDIT: WHAAAAAAT? WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!!?!?! WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT???!!?!

 

Wow, I honestly…wasn’t expecting that…I may have some issues with big corporations in general, but sometimes I have to hand it to Disney concerning the work they do with multilingualism, even if they do mostly focus on the developed world. (And hey…thanks for the Icelandic dubs!

Another thing to keep in mind, on the topic of Disney, is that Moana is actually known as Vaiana in Europe on account of…I’ve heard copyright issues and the other story I’ve heard involves the name of an Italian…well, you can look it up yourself if you’re so curious.

Vaiana is Tahitian as well, “water cave”

 

  • Can’t Wait to Learn More!

 

Seems that I have an exciting journey ahead in regards to seeing the true side of French Polynesia and its best-known island! I can’t say I’ll head in knowing what to expect, but much like the rest of my language journeys, I’ll know I’ll be forever changed!

 

Polyglot Report Card: June 2017

A new polyglot video is coming soon and its production is within sight! So therefore, given that I want to return to the world of video-making with an experience you will remember (I think maybe three / four videos a year would probably be a good benchmark of my progress unless one of my creation goes COMPLETELY viral), time for me to rate myself.

come back when you can put up a fight

So that you know, I’m going to be as RUTHLESS as possible with myself and expose my weaknesses to their core. At the same time, I am going to realize that (1) there is always room for improvement, even in one’s native language(s) and (2) this is, in part, to expose my vulnerability (which a lot of Internet polyglots, I fear, tend to not do).

I am going to be featuring a total of 36 languages in this video, and I believe it will be the first-ever polyglot video to feature languages native to every continent (except for Antarctica).

They are as follows, although the order is to be decided:

English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Finnish, Spanish (EU), Breton, Bislama (Vanuatu), Pijin (Solomon Islands), Irish, Cornish, Polish, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), French (EU), Portuguese (both EU and BR), Dutch (Netherlands), Welsh (Southern), Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, Faroese, Northern Sami, Burmese, Estonian, Hungarian, Krio (Sierra Leone), Tajik, Tahitian, Guarani (Jopara) and Tigrinya.

Yes, I have studied MANY other languages besides, but I’ll be focusing on these in order to maintain my sanity and cover enough material within a reasonable time limit.

Yes, the last three are very recent additions and, while they are not going by very swimmingly and require some work, I know I’ll be able to include small bits of them in the video (and I’m not talking about “good luck” or “bye-bye” like in my last one, but complete sentences). One reason I made my March 2017 video so short was because I thought that it would match with people’s attention spans. Ah well. At least it was good enough for a first try.

Anyhow, time for me to get graded. Biggest Strength, Biggest Weakness, Accent, Grammar, and Future Course of Action before I film the video.

 

English

 

Biggest Strength: It’s my native language (despite what you may have heard, read or believed). I’ve had a lot of exposure to it throughout my life and I can easily use idioms and cultural references with ease. I’m so good at speaking English (even by native speaker standards) that often I have to train myself to simplify my thought patterns for languages that often required more direct methods of communication (French, Burmese, Bislama, etc.)

Biggest Weakness: Thanks to me having avoided English-language media for years now in order to raise my skills in other languages, sometimes my spoken English has detectable traces of influence from other languages. Sometimes I even find myself talking in Nordic accents without even realizing it, as well as expressions and grammatical pieces from English Creole Languages. (NOTE: Do not let this serve as any discouragement from learning English Creole Languages! American, Hiberno- and Caribbean forms of English are 110% legitimate versions of the language that came about through similar influences as well and also have traces of other people’s native languages present throughout! Maybe the same could also be said about…any language anywhere!)

Accent: I need to sound more American sometimes rather than something “international”. I pull it off with my family well enough, but sometimes I have to get myself to deliberately sound “lazier” in order to not get the “where are you from? You have an accent” spiel.

Grammar: My sentence structure also shifts sometimes to something more distinctly German or Romance-Language oriented. Sometimes this makes me sound like a foreigner and I would obviously catch it in editing. I really need to stop this.

Future course of Action: Just be cognizant of when I make mistakes and try to avoid them in the future. This will certainly be an interesting topic to write about in the future.

 

Danish

 

Biggest Strength: Where do I start? I’m very good at reading and understanding things seldom becomes an issue for me. Yes, I can’t pick up “every word” as clearly as I could with Norwegian or Swedish but I can’t even do that with English a lot of the time either. You see, this is a problem a lot of novice language learners have. They judge their L2 to a higher standard than the one they have for their native languages. Please, be aware of when you do this. My biggest strength? I’ve finally gotten over the understanding hurdle, and it’s been years since I’ve done it and I’m getting better. Those of who you have studied Danish know exactly how much of a pain this can really be.

Biggest Weakness: In speaking, I think I need to use idioms and expressions more often, although going through a 16,000+ word Danish – English dictionary on Anki certainly is helping. What’s more, I need to be VERY cognizant of slip-ups when it comes to vowel shifts, especially as far as the infamous letter a is concerned (the Danish a is often pronounced like a short-a sound like in “bat”, English also has a similar quality. This actually makes Danish more approachable to native English speakers who have never spoken any other language aside from English before).

Accent: I’ve been told that my accent is fantastic. But sometimes when shifting very quickly from another Nordic Language to Danish (or from any language to Danish, period), I need to take a second or two to get my pronunciation “sounding right”. That, and singing has really done significant wonders for my accent, especially since the beginning (which is the hardest part, esp. with Danish)

Grammar: No glaring issues that I can think of.

Future course of Action: I need to sing more! Out loud! And talk to myself more often when I’m using Danish to study (e.g. while reading a text for research or using Anki)

 

Swedish

Biggest Strength: Why couldn’t I be like this in Sweden? Took me years to get here, but Swedish is now solidly one of my strongest languages. My Swedish-American heritage propelled me into this journey with a sense of purpose and, while I still haven’t read the letters in Swedish from my deceased family members, I know 110% I’d be able to talk to them (if I…ever had the opportunity to have spoken to them…). I can use idioms, synonoms, a wide variety of words and put them together in a way in which my personality genuinely comes through. If that isn’t fluency, nothing is.

Biggest Weakness: Two things (1) sometimes I flub pronunciation of a word once or twice (although rarely) and (2) sometimes I let some of my negative experiences with the Swedish language (e.g. having had native speakers once or twice refuse to speak to me in Swedish or otherwise treat me not very nicely) attach themselves to me even though I shouldn’t. I should know better than that to realize that I’m not that insecure beginner anymore! But sometimes my emotional core sometimes likes to think that I am, despite the fact that on some days I use Swedish for 4-6 hours.

Accent: Not the Finland-Swedish I was talking when I was living there, that’s for sure (although Finland-Swedish is finally growing on me!). I think it’s a really good job and the worst I’ve ever gotten within the past year is being asked if I spent a significant amount of time in Norway / if I’m Norwegian (and, once or twice, being switch to Norwegian on, but I’m okay with that, of course!)

Grammar: Very few, if any. Had trouble for a while as to exactly when to use the word “fast” (too difficult to explain in a single sentence), but that’s been dealt with.

Future course of Action: Mindfulness. I have to let my bad memories go. And stay gone. Otherwise, I’m gonna keep on doing what I’m doing. Come a long way.

 

Norwegian

 

Biggest Strength: I got a lot of exposure to this language with television and as a result my knowledge of the culture and general patterns is very, very sharp. My exposure to this language on YouTube ensures that I can pepper my speech with idioms and a very natural flow.

Biggest Weakness: I have trouble reading very complicated and specialized texts. Casual dialogue is not a problem for me, ever. Also Norwegian is probably my weakest of the Scandinavian Mainland Trio, by virtue of the fact that I’ve interacted with Norwegian speakers the least. I sometimes have issue understanding dialects that are not Oslo or Sami.

Accent: Sometimes I think I sound like a cartoon character. Been told that my accent places me squarely in Eastern Norway. Good. That’s what I want.

Grammar: Some arcane forms of pasts and plurals that I’ve heard referenced in some songs are things I need to gain more familiarity with. Aside from that, very few issues.

Future course of Action: I literally haven’t watched Norwegian TV all year and I need to do it more often. Not YouTube. Go on NRK and watch stuff.

 

 Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea)

 

Biggest Strength: I can understand radio broadcasts and television with extraordinary ease. I could even transcribe a lot of it!

Biggest Weakness: Understanding the language as used by locals in documentaries can be possible but sometimes is a bit of a problem. The fact that I haven’t had a lot of practice with the spoken language, while I use it with my family members (regardless of whether or not they understand it), needs to be accounted for.

Accent: Yes, I can imitate a lot of people who sing and who present on TV or on podcasts, but I think my Tok Pisin accent needs something to make it sound less American. Difficult to say what.

Grammar: Bislama and Pijin have more prepositions and I have to be conscious to avoid their usage in Tok Pisin. Which I usually do.

Future course of Action: Watch PNG documentaries where Tok Pisin is featured. Otherwise, hey…maybe speaking the official variety as used in the programs described above isn’t a bad thing at all! More reading practice would also be good.

 

 Yiddish

Biggest Strength: The one language I’ve spent the most time with being fluent. I’m committed, its a language that echoes with me and it shows on every level.

Biggest Weakness: Still have some Yinglish here and there, although rarely. I also really want it to be more idiomatic, referencing well-known phrases and proverbs. And by “well-known phrases” I don’t mean “bible verses”. Sometimes it takes me a while to “switch” into fluent Yiddish from English (and by “ a while” I mean “ a few seconds”)

Accent: Some people really like it, saying that it sounds like the true Yiddish of the Lithuanian Yeshives. Others think is sounds too close to German or thinks that it sounds “strange”. Non-native speakers, especially from secular institutions, love it.

Grammar: Sometimes I make stupid mistakes, although never in my classes, thankfully. This only happens when I’m switching languages really quickly.

Future course of Action: Keep going through my comprehensive Anki list (it is 7000+ words). Has a lot of words that would make my language sound more natural than it already is.

 

Hebrew

Biggest Strength: I have a lot of cultural resonance with the Hebrew language, given that it (along with French) were the first ones I was exposed to as a child alongside English. My knowledge of Biblical quotes is top-notch (which is surprisingly useful in conversation and rhetoric in Hebrew), as well as my knowledge of prayers. I also know a lot about the culture and mentality in general, more than anywhere else aside from the US.

Biggest Weakness: However, there are gaps in my vocabulary as far as purisms go, and if there weren’t Yiddish’s Hebrew words (that were taken back into Modern Hebrew in the days of Zionism) in the equation, it would be a lot worse off. I’m good conversationally but there’s something missing in comparison to the way I speak Swedish or German or Tok Pisin. That something is an extended vocabulary of abstract nouns.

Accent: Good enough to fool the staff members at Ben Gurion. That was 2015. I’m even better now.

Grammar: The Binyanim are second-nature to me, which presents interesting problems when I’m trying to…well…explain how they work. Fun fact: native Hebrew speakers get disqualified from teaching their native language because they “crash and burn” while being asked to explain binyanim, not also to mention that colloquial speech also bypasses a lot of complicated verb forms as well as using grammatically incorrect forms (much like English speakers in this country!)

Future course of Action: I’m supposed to be programming this list of 10,000 most common Hebrew words into Anki. Unfortunately I have to edit the list to make it consistent and I’m not making steady progress with it. Israeli TV shows would also really help me with my vocabulary gaps. While I don’t need the subtitles at ALL to understand it, maybe I should use them from English (or even another language!) just in case I need to gain an extra degree of wisdom in the translation business.

 

German

Biggest Strength: Thanks to the Kauderwelsch series, I’ve read more German than literally any other language on this list (barring various forms of Hebrew). I can watch Let’s Play Videos online and follow them consistently, my passive vocabulary is huge. Lots of people, native speakers and otherwise, think that I do a good job. Yeah, if only I could have been this good…when I was living there!

Biggest Weakness: Gender shenaningans, issues with some relative pronouns (a sentence like “The cities in which I have lived” can present some problems for me, and by “problems” I mean “hold on a moment”)

Accent: I speak like I’m from the South of Germany thanks to my guilty pleasure of watching Domtendo on a weekly basis. Somehow thinks that it needs some fine-tuning, although I don’t know how or why. Maybe it sounds too Scandinavian sometimes.

Grammar: What’s more, sometimes I have to correct my grammar errors in German but I do the same in English too. I would say that my German grammar is mostly acceptable.

Future course of Action: The relative pronouns need fixing in this regard. Also playing video games in German with more complicated vocabulary sets would really help me.

 

Finnish

 

Biggest Strength: I’m really used to spicing up my Finnish so that it doesn’t sound like a textbook. I also have a broad knowledge of Finnish morphology

Biggest Weakness:  I have the reverse problem with Hebrew—I know a lot of abstract nouns but often names of material things can elude me at times.

Accent: I’ve noticed that my accent tends to sound like one of the last five Finnish-language voices I heard last. Aside from that, I would say it is good although I have trouble imitating Finnish-accented English.

Grammar: Good in regards to colloquial speech, could use work in regards to the written language. Given that I mostly want to use Finnish to engage with the popular culture, part of me is okay with the dynamicI have now.

Future course of Action: I guess I’ll have to speed through that Anki list of 22000 Finnish words now, won’t I? Any way I could randomize it? Or I could do the less intensive thing and use clozemaster. Television would also be good but part of me worries exactly how much time I’ll have to practice langauges with it.

 

Spanish (EU)

Biggest Strength: The one official EU language I can read best! It’s obviously the doing of video games.

Biggest Weakness: I sometimes feel self-conscious to talk to native speakers, given how I’m haunted by past memories of screwing up this language and feeling like a failure when attempting it. Sometimes I don’t e even tell native speakers that I know it!

Accent: Irritiatingly Peninsular, which causes Spaniards to swoon and a host of reactions from Latino Spanish speakers, ranging from “so cool!” to “huh? I can’t understand anything…”

Grammar: Only a handful of knots in irregular verbs.

Future course of Action: I’ve tried and tried to find a way to improve and seldom does “more TV” or “more Anki” or “more Clozemaster” actually do anything. I think it’s a mindfulness thing and I don’t really know how to push away my bad memories. Sometimes they were so bad that I literally gave up the language three times. This sadly resulted in me having gone to a Puerto Rican New Year’s Party and me being unable to understand a lot of what was being said. What got me back into it? Let’s Play Videos in Spanish. That’s what. Oh, and video games in general.

 

Breton

Biggest Strength: Casual conversation goes by well when I get the chance to use it. Although given the level of Breton speakers I’ve encountered in the past few months, this isn’t a very high standards. I have a friend of mine who is in an intensive Breton language program right now! Hopefully we’ll be able to hone each other’s skills upon his return!

Biggest Weakness: Reading.

Accent: Good enough, I guess.

Grammar:  My one blind spot is verb conjugation, and maybe some forms of mutation (for those unaware: Celtic languages have some initial letters of words change under certain circumstances, this is called “mutation”)

Future course of Action: The reading-with-the-glosses procedure I outlined many posts ago (split an article into sentences, look up the words you don’t know, read the article aloud and translate it into your native language).

 

Bislama (Vanuatu)

 

Biggest Strength: Can understand almost anything spoken in it.

Biggest Weakness: While I can speak it very well, Bislama has a rich array of exclamations and I haven’t mastered anywhere close to all of them.

Accent: Good, or acceptable at the absolute least.

Grammar: Mastered.

Future course of Action: listen to the Radio more often in Bislama

 

 Pijin (Solomon Islands)

 

Biggest Strength: Can understand almost everything spoken in it

Biggest Weakness: Sometimes I sound too proper (in using too many English words).

Accent: Good, I think.

Grammar: Mastered

Future course of Action: use YouTube to watch stuff in Pijin more often, the Radio, especially in Honiara, is primarily English.

 

 Irish

 

Biggest Strength: My accent is very good. That’s what Irish people have told me.

Biggest Weakness: The spoken language, especially outside of Connemara, can elude me. Some verb forms could use work.

Accent: Very good, according to Irish people.

Grammar: Good enough for converseation, but I need to get many other verb forms under my belt to go from good to great.

Future course of Action: Find fun stuff to do in Irish and do it, but it has to involve listening.

 

Cornish

 

Biggest Strength: My listening abilities. I can understand a great deal of my favorite Cornish podcasts without a sweat!

Biggest Weakness: I do have trouble understanding songs in Cornish, however, and my grammar needs work.

Accent: Good? Okay? Questionable?

Grammar: I. Need. Work. With. This. Verbs can be a mess especially as well as prepositions. Oh, and like Hebrew and the other Celtic languages, prepositions change if it matches a person.

Future course of Action: Speaking exercises about myself.

 

 Polish

 

Biggest Strength: My pronunciation is good and I can make things flow a good amount of the time until I get tripped up.

Biggest Weakness: Vocabulary gaps concerning things like politics, jokes, etc.

Accent: Very good to good.

Grammar: Verbs good, cases okay, adjectives very good, articles not something you need to worry about with Polish (given that they do not exist).

Future course of Action: Read stuff on Facebook more often and translate it using your gloss-method. Also using Clozemaster is good to learn both vocabulary and brush up on elements of grammar.

 

 Greenlandic (Kalaallisut)

 

Biggest Strength: My pronunciation is good.

Biggest Weakness: My reading is terrible and my writing is almost non-existent.

Accent: I’ve been told it is good.

Grammar: Read almost everything on the topic by now and this is actually one thing I don’t need to worry about.

Future course of Action: Reading exercises with the glosses.

 

 French (EU)

Biggest Strength: I can have fluid conversations about many topics, especially about languages and travel.

Biggest Weakness: Verb conjugations and idiomatic phrases drawing blanks.

Accent: All over the board. I’ve heard that it is mostly good, however.

Grammar: Verbs need work.

Future course of Action: Clozemaster and Duolingo for verbs, look at table after table and also that gloss exercise couldn’t hurt you.

 

Portuguese (both EU and BR)

Biggest Strength: Can read very well.

Biggest Weakness: Have trouble speaking. Thanks to the fact that I don’t have much of a cultural resonance with any Lusophone country (the way I do with many of my better languages…see a pattern?), I lapse frequently into Portuñol.

Accent: Okay to good, based on feedback.

Grammar: Surprisingly not too weak.

Future course of Action: Watch cartoons, get songs, find things to like about Lusophonecountries and movies and what-have-you.

 

 Dutch (Netherlands)

 

Biggest Strength: A lot of casual phrases make me sound like I speak the language better than I do.

Biggest Weakness: I can’t read it very well.

Accent: I don’t think it is that good.

Grammar: Gaps with irregular verbs.

Future course of Action: Between reading and singing, all of your weaknesses would go away.

 

Welsh (Southern)

 

Biggest Strength: I have a convincing accent.

Biggest Weakness: Vocabulary gaps and virtually no good knowledge of verbs. Questions can pose a problem.

Accent: Convincing.

Grammar: Verbs need work.

Future course of Action: Reading things would help, as well Duolingo but only with verb-related or question-related skills.

 

Ukrainian

 

Biggest Strength: My accent can be good.

Biggest Weakness: Literally everything else.

Accent: The one good thing I have.

Grammar: Okay, I lied, the second good thing I have.

Future course of Action: I have issues when I speak and often I have to go slowly. Films haven’t really helped much so I’ve enlisted Mango Languages’ Ukrainian to help me. Maybe more Duolingo would help too. Maybe I should spend more time with language-learning materials before I try immersion again.

 

Russian

Biggest Strength: I can say a significant amount of basic phrases convincingly.

Biggest Weakness: Consistent vocabulary gaps.

Accent: I’ve been told it is good.

Grammar: Learning it for that one year in college was good for something. I’d say “decent”

Future course of Action: Anki + Songs + Clozemaster.

 

 Italian

Biggest Strength: I can understand and read a lot of it.

Biggest Weakness: My active skills are usually trash unless I have had a lot of exposure in the previous days.

Accent: Good, I’ve heard.

Grammar: Inconsistent.

Future course of Action: Let’s Play Videos are not working, but maybe if I watch cartoons in Italian, they MIGHT…work…

 

Faroese

 

Biggest Strength: Pronunciation isn’t an issue.

Biggest Weakness: Haven’t rehearsed in a while and forgot a lot of it.

Accent: Decent, I think

Grammar: Needs work.

Future course of Action: Use Memrise to help you get back on your toes, and use Faroese music to job your memory a bit.

 

Northern Sami

Biggest Strength: Pronunciation isn’t an issue.

Biggest Weakness: Everything that isn’t basic phrases.

Accent: O…kay?

Grammar: Tons of gaps.

Future course of Action: See how much you can remember from watching the TV shows in Northern Sami you used to watch before you decided to drop it.

 

 Burmese

Biggest Strength: I have a good grasp of the grammar.

Biggest Weakness: I can’t read too well + my tones need work

Accent: Okay for a foreigner, I think.

Grammar: Good.

Future course of Action: Read through all of my books, recite everything outloud and, where there is Burmese script (because not all of my books have it), write it out.

 

 Estonian

Biggest Strength: I’m good at casual speaking at a basic level.

Biggest Weakness: The letter õ, comprehension and reading issues.

Accent: All over the board.

Grammar: Good, thanks to Finnish.

Future course of Action: Songs, cartoons, reading.

 

Hungarian

Biggest Strength: My accent is good and pronunciation is not an issue.

Biggest Weakness: I don’t know the cases too well and there are very predictable vocabulary gaps.

Accent: Good to very good.

Grammar: LOL

Future course of Action:Tried immersion once, didn’t work too well, should probably go through book dialogues and simple sentences at this juncture. Mango Languages is also deployed.

 

Krio (Sierra Leone)

Biggest Strength: I can understand a lot!

Biggest Weakness: Need less English-language content when I speak to sound genuine. I also forget key words every now and then. But hey, I started a month ago!

Accent: I think it’s good.

Grammar: Decent

Future course of Action: I have this Peace Corps book and all of the words in the glossary should be put into a flash card program without any second thought to it.

 

Tajik

 

Biggest Strength: I can pronounce things.

Biggest Weakness: Everything else.

Accent: I think it’s either good or silly.

Grammar: I can do possessives…! …?

Future course of Action: You have a book. You have grammar guides. Go through the grammar guides. Form sentences about yourself when you can.

 

Tahitian

Biggest Strength: I began last week.

Biggest Weakness: I’m still a beginner.

Accent: Coming to terms with it.

Grammar: Needs work.

Future course of Action: Just keep going!

 

Guarani (Jopara)

 

Biggest Strength: My pronunciation is good.

Biggest Weakness: I literally cannot form sentences.

Accent: Interesting to good to consistent.

Grammar: LOL

Future course of Action: Prepare a stump-speech about yourself. Somehow.

 

 

Tigrinya

 

Biggest Strength: I just began today!

Biggest Weakness: Yeah, who are you, do you expect me to say “NO WEAKNESSES” on day 1? Really?

Accent: Needs significant work.

Grammar: LOLOLOLOLOLOL

Future course of Action: Invest in free books and YouTube Tutorials.

 

So, to lay out my recipes in short:

 

English: Just be cognizant of when I make mistakes and try to avoid them in the future. This will certainly be an interesting topic to write about in the future.

Danish: I need to sing more! Out loud! And talk to myself more often when I’m using Danish to study (e.g. while reading a text for research or using Anki)

Swedish: Mindfulness. I have to let my bad memories go. And stay gone. Otherwise, I’m gonna keep on doing what I’m doing. Come a long way.

Norwegian: I literally haven’t watched Norwegian TV all year and I need to do it more often. Not YouTube. Go on NRK and watch stuff.

Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea): Watch PNG documentaries where Tok Pisin is featured. Otherwise, hey…maybe speaking the official variety as used in the programs described above isn’t a bad thing at all! More reading practice would also be good.

 Yiddish: Keep going through my comprehensive Anki list (it is 7000+ words). Has a lot of words that would make my language sound more natural than it already is.

Hebrew: I’m supposed to be programming this list of 10,000 most common Hebrew words into Anki. Unfortunately I have to edit the list to make it consistent and I’m not making steady progress with it. Israeli TV shows would also really help me with my vocabulary gaps. While I don’t need the subtitles at ALL to understand it, maybe I should use them from English (or even another language!) just in case I need to gain an extra degree of wisdom in the translation business.

 

German:  The relative pronouns need fixing. Also playing video games in German with more complicated vocabulary sets would really help me.

Finnish: I guess I’ll have to speed through that Anki list of 22000 Finnish words now, won’t I? Any way I could randomize it? Or I could do the less intensive thing and use clozemaster. Television would also be good but part of me worries exactly how much time I’ll have to practice langauges with it.

Spanish (EU): I’ve tried and tried to find a way to improve and seldom does “more TV” or “more Anki” or “more Clozemaster” actually do anything. I think it’s a mindfulness thing and I don’t really know how to push away my bad memories. Sometimes they were so bad that I literally gave up the language three times. This sadly resulted in me having gone to a Puerto Rican New Year’s Party and me being unable to understand a lot of what was being said. What got me back into it? Let’s Play Videos in Spanish. That’s what. Oh, and video games in general.

Breton: The reading-with-the-glosses procedure I outlined many posts ago (split an article into sentences, look up the words you don’t know, read the article aloud and translate it into your native language).

Bislama (Vanuatu): listen to the Radio more often in Bislama

 Pijin (Solomon Islands): use YouTube to watch stuff in Pijin more often, the Radio, especially in Honiara, is primarily English.

Irish: Find fun stuff to do in Irish and do it, but it has to involve listening.

Cornish: Speaking exercises about myself.

Polish: Read stuff on Facebook more often and translate it using your gloss-method. Also using Clozemaster is good to learn both vocabulary and brush up on elements of grammar.

Greenlandic (Kalaallisut): Reading exercises with the glosses.

 French (EU): Clozemaster and Duolingo for verbs, look at table after table and also that gloss exercise couldn’t hurt you.

Portuguese (both EU and BR): Watch cartoons, get songs, find things to like about Lusophonecountries and movies and what-have-you.

 Dutch (Netherlands): Between reading and singing, all of your weaknesses would go away.

Welsh (Southern): Reading things would help, as well Duolingo but only with verb-related or question-related skills.

 

Ukrainian: I have issues when I speak and often I have to go slowly. Films haven’t really helped much so I’ve enlisted Mango Languages’ Ukrainian to help me. Maybe more Duolingo would help too. Maybe I should spend more time with language-learning materials before I try immersion again.

Russian: Anki + Songs + Clozemaster.

Italian: Let’s Play Videos are not working, but maybe if I watch cartoons in Italian, they MIGHT…work…

Faroese: Use Memrise to help you get back on your toes, and use Faroese music to job your memory a bit.

Northern Sami: See how much you can remember from watching the TV shows in Northern Sami you used to watch before you decided to drop it.

 Burmese: Read through all of my books, recite everything outloud and, where there is Burmese script (because not all of my books have it), write it out.

 Estonian: Songs, cartoons, reading.

Hungarian: Tried immersion once, didn’t work too well, should probably go through book dialogues and simple sentences at this juncture. Mango Languages is also deployed.

Krio (Sierra Leone): I have this Peace Corps book and all of the words in the glossary should be put into a flash card program without any second thought to it.

Tajik: You have a book. You have grammar guides. Go through the grammar guides. Form sentences about yourself when you can.

Tahitian: Just keep going!

Guarani (Jopara) Prepare a stump-speech about yourself. Somehow.

Tigrinya: Invest in free books and YouTube Tutorials.

 

(NOTE from 29 June 2017: Since writing this post, I tried to learn Tigrinya but found the resources difficult and scarce. As a result, I’ll be learning a bit of another African native language, Mossi / Mooré, which is the primary language of Burkina Faso and also used in some surrounding states. But who knows what other languages I’ll learn and/or forget in the future?)

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, so what’s the problem?

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

come back when you can put up a fight

This is an abbreviated list.

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

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

 

And then a handful of those like this:

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

  • I’m secure in my abilities

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  • I expect to make mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards!

8 Important Lessons I Learned Speaking Elementary Burmese in Myanmar for 2 ½ Weeks

My goal: learn Burmese well enough to get by. Did I succeed? Yes I did! Did I leave fluent in Burmese and being able to talk about philosophy and politics? No, but that’s okay.

More importantly, I did pick up some very important lessons.

Shortly before taking off, I got a message from one of my friends who is a native speaker of another East Asian Language, saying “now we’ll see how our Western polyglot fares with our Eastern languages!”

(Full disclosure: my only other Asian Language up until that point was Hebrew. Even then, there are those that would consider the languages of the Middle East, Central Asia or even most Indo-Aryan Languages as “Western”)

Burmese was VERY different from every other language I’ve studied (although interesting it had grammatical similarities to the Melanesian Creoles like Tok Pisin [of all things], which gave me an advantage, as well as odd similarities to many other languages I can speak as well). It was a challenge. Obviously I would have fared better with languages more similar to those I knew already, but it is what it is and I’m glad that I did it.

 

20170525_165915

Victory. Is my Destiny.

 

It seems that, after this enchanting experience, I’m likely to want to pick up more languages from outside Europe in the future. That is…if I could even manage the whole maintenance thing or have the heart to actually abandon some of my previous languages…

Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!

 

  1. Just because English isn’t widely spoken where you are, doesn’t mean that your chances of being answered in English are any lower. Actually, you’re probably MORE likely to get answered in English in such a country!

 

“Burmese people speak terrible English”. That’s what I read once on a Swedish-language travel site. Part of me was surprised (former British colony? Bad English? Really?), part of me wasn’t (all that isolation is probably responsible for that). But I thought, “I don’t need to worry about getting answered in English at all! Yippi”

WRONG!

Actually, looking at it neutrally (and this is taking into account the fact that I am a white person who would, under almost all circumstances, not be mistaken for a Myanmar local), I got answered in English more frequently in Myanmar than in SWEDEN.

(And, looking back on in, Sweden wasn’t really all that bad in that regard, unless I hesitated / made a grievous grammar mistake / did something very un-Swedish. Even with my English-speaking family members nearby and even when I handed the cashier my American passport at Systembolaget, I still got answered in Swedish!)

I did encounter fluent English speakers in Myanmar, but only near high-end places in Yangon (and these were the richest areas of the whole country).

With most Burmese (including these fluent speakers as well as those what spoke elementary English), it seems that they wanted to prove that they knew English (to whatever degree they did). In a place like Sweden or Iceland, with heaps of hackneyed articles being written on why they speak English so well, it seems that most feel no need to prove it.

In Italy and in France (back when my Italian and French was even worse than my Burmese was when I took off), the situation was very comparable to that of Myanmar, with the English of the locals usually being a lot higher than most areas of East Asia.

That said, all hope is not lost, because…

 

  1. With the exception of places where global / popular languages are spoken, few foreigners will even attempt the local language. This, already, makes you stand out.

 

In Myanmar, it is common for local to greet tourists with “Mingalarbar”(မင်္ဂလာပါ).

Some tourists respond in kind (and only once did I hear a group of tourists profess any knowledge of Burmese beyond that, my only interaction with expatriates [who , according to my knowledge, spoke Burmese about as well as I did], was at the “Myanmar Shalom” Expatriate Shabbat. Yes, there are Jews living in Myanmar! More on that some other day.)

But I noticed something whenever I would interact with restaurant staff or locals on the street and there were other tourists nearby. Often they would stare at me with amazement. Locals would also react differently to me, even though I was travelling with people who didn’t even know a lick of Burmese. Even if I had trouble understanding what was spoken back to me, or even if I got answered in English, I still got complimented very heavily.

In Iceland, I also had a very similar reception as well when I spoke Icelandic to locals. This is what knowing the local language does (even if you speak a little bit, which would mean “I can order food in this language and ask how much things costs or ask for directions”). It gives you an aura of enchantment that those who don’t make the attempt and even those who have been speaking the language since birth. This is even truer with languages that are more rarely studied.

 

  1. Your Skills Fluctuate as a result of Travel, as well as of the Learning Process

 

At some points during my Myanmar trip, I was “on a roll”, I was getting all of the tones right, I was not making pronunciation errors, no hesitation and sometimes didn’t even need to peek in my books for a vocabulary refresher!

Sometimes I was too tired and “wasn’t feeling up to it”, and therefore wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic, able or confident. But interestingly, if I had to interact in a language I was consistently good with (like those that I teach), I wouldn’t have had an issue even if I was tired or sick or being eaten by bugs (this didn’t happen to me, thankfully).

Only once or twice was I so “out of it” that I defaulted to English.

But only a few hours later did I use my Burmese skills that actually resulted in me getting free water bottles! (This was at Shwedagon Pagoda, no less!)

You are learning. Until you are consistently good, your skills are going to fluctuate wildly. And even with your native language, your ability to apply grammar or come up with meaningful expressions is going to fluctuate (to a lesser degree). And this is true even if you are a monoglot who only speaks your native language.

 

  1. Use What Resources You Have. Obviously for Less Politically Powerful Languages, You’ll Have Less. But Take Your Disadvantages into Account in the Learning Process.

 

I looked at the Google Translate App in frustration, wondering why on earth I wasn’t able to download the Myanmar / Burmese translation package (the way I was capable of doing with Icelandic).

If I were headed to somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, I would have had my work cut out for me more easily, with more books, more tips and more technological resources to deploy.

My books for learning Burmese, however, weren’t nothing (and I had two that I carried on my person at all times).

One thing I learned to do within the first few days was keep a ready mental note to use the index if I saw a certain situation was coming up. For the Lonely Planet book, this was easier. But for the Kauderwelsch book, I often had to remember page numbers where I encountered certain phrases or use the mini-images at the top of the page in order to serve as a guide to when I would need to use what.

And speaking of books…

 

  1. Use your books or your tech resources during your downtime (at the hotel, waiting for a meal, etc.)

Something to note: as of the time of writing there are a lot of people, especially older folk, that will get visibly irritated if you use your phone excessively. Interestingly, they will have no such reaction to you referencing a book (unless you are really engrossed in it).

That said, keep in mind that whenever you are having an “I’m bored” moment, get out your book and look at something you think you may need or otherwise look at something related to a consistent weak point.

For Burmese, one consistent weak point I had was numerical classifiers (fail to use these well enough and this means you’ll get answered in English in a yap). For those who don’t know what a classifier is (they exist in a lot of East Asian Languages across the board), it is a word used to indicate a number of a measurement of something. That something comes in various “flavors”, and you choose what “flavor” depending on what class of thing you are talking about.

So when I was in a hotel or waiting for a meal, and it seemed that conversation was slow or that there was an aura of laziness in the air, I would take out my book, review classifiers, and do so until circumstances required me to do something else.

But just reading the words off the page isn’t going to do much…so you’ll need…

 

  1. Memory Devices are your Best Friends. I used (1) similarity to words I already knew in other languages and (2) using the memory palace technique in order to mentally “place” the word where I knew I would use it.

 

 

Let’s look at the Burmese classifier list on Wikipedia, shall we? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_numerical_classifiers)

Now, how exactly would I remember the first entry in the list (ကောင် / kàuɴ), a classifer used for animals?

Well, it sounds like “cow” and I would remember a cow falling, but there’s also an “င်” at the end which is pronounced like an “ng” sound. I kept in mind “kong” (whether exactly you may be thinking of King Kong of Hollywood Fame or the Kong Family of the Nintendo Franchise is entirely up to you)

Then, of course, there were my first evenings in a restaurant where I was required to remember words for what I wanted to order. I took in the surroundings and I “placed” the various words on the tables in my mental space. That did the trick.

 

  1. Discouragement and “Why Did I Even Try This?” May Come. Resist these feelings and don’t dwell on your mistakes.

 

You are almost certainly going to be making mistakes on your immersion journey. Back when I was in various European countries from 2011 until 2014, I sometimes dwelled on my mistakes too often. Now I’ve known better.

Misunderstood? Eh.

Answered in English? Bleh.

Didn’t know how to respond in a conversation? Meh.

I usually don’t get too vexed when I’m playing a video game and I lose a life. I expect losing lives to be the natural course of playing a video game. Similarly, I don’t think I should overreact when the same thing happens in language learning.

And this leads to my final lesson…

 

 

  1. Be easy on yourself and take what you can get.

 

I didn’t leave fluent in Burmese. That’ll take a while yet. What I did get, however, was motivation, practice, and tips for the road forward.

Knowing that one day I will look back on these days when I was making mistakes more frequently, knowing that I would remember “back when I couldn’t speak Burmese all that well”, and that I would probably laugh at it with a smile…fills me with determination.

2016-10-31-19-21-52

I know. I said I would knock off the Undertale Jokes. Come to think of it, I think I made the exact same joke some twenty-odd posts ago?

It’s easy to compare yourself to other learners, including those who have lived in the country for a brief while and left fluent (I can only think of a handful of instances, I think Benny Lewis in Brazil was one such occurrence, but obviously learning Portuguese as a Native English speaker is going to be nothing like learning Burmese as a native speaker of … any European Language, actually).

Take what you can. You have plenty of time to get to the rest later (and “the rest” is actually of infinite volume, and this is true for any language). And even if you don’t return, you’ll have the chance to interact with native speakers, wherever you meet them, for the rest of your life.

myanmarsaga

I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.

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.

Video of Me Speaking 31 Languages (and Humorous Commentary): March 2017

It happened. I made my promise in October 2015 that my first polyglot video would come out before my birthday (which is November). Then I got Lyme Disease. Holding it off, I thought it was a good time for me to finally fulfill it.

Anyhow, I don’t know how many videos there are of people speaking Greenlandic, Tajik and Cornish within four minutes, but here’s one of them:

Some of my thoughts on each bit:

 

English: Since my “big exile” in which I hopped countries for three years, people who knew me beforehand said that my accent had changed. I tried to make it as neutral (read: American) as possible. I don’t sound like a Hollywood character (I think) but I think it is fair to say that my true-American accent is off the table for the near future. Ah well. It was giving me trouble anyway (literally the second post I made on this blog!)

Hebrew: Ah, yes, feeling like I’m presenting about myself in the Ulpan again (Fun fact: in Welsh, it is spelled “Wlpan”). I remember the Ulpanim…in which I was allowed to draw cartoon characters of my own making on the board whenever I wanted…or maybe memory wasn’t serving me well…wasn’t there a Finnish girl in that class?

Spanish: Certainly don’t sound Puerto Rican, that’s for sure. Having to listen to Juan Magan’s “Ella no Sigue Modas” on repeat for an hour (and undergo this procedure against my will about once every week for a semester!) certainly didn’t hurt my ability to develop a peninsular Spanish accent, though!

Yiddish: *Sigh* well this explains why people ask me if I learned Yiddish at home. It’s one of the most common questions I get, actually. I was not born in Boro Park, Antwerp or Williamsburg. I am not an ex-Hasid.

Swedish: “Rest assured, you’re never going to sound Swedish”. Yeah, thanks Rough Guide to Sweden, just the sort of encouragement we all need. I need to have a word with you! Also, that mischievous inclination was trying to tell me that I should just say “sju sjuksköterskor skötte sju sjösjuka sjömän på skeppet Shanghai” and be done with the Swedish section.

Norwegian: My favorite national language of Europe, worried that maybe I didn’t give it enough time. Also, my voice is deep.

German: I hope I get this grammar right…I REALLY hope I get this grammar right…I hope this is good enough to impress my friends…

Danish: Remember the days that I was struggling so much with that language that I almost considered giving up several times? Yeah, me neither. Was so worried I would screw this up. Then it occurred to me exactly how much time I’ve spent watching anime dubbed into Danish.

Finnish: With the exception of Cornish, the slowest language I’ve learned. I hope my accent doesn’t sound too Hungarian…and also! Notes for polyglot video-makers! If you know Finnish, add something with –taan /  -tään and -maan / -mään for instant cred! Works wonders! (These concepts are too hard to describe in a sentence). Also, how come it is that any Finnish singer/rapper, including Cheek, more clearly pronounces his /her words than almost any English-language singer I’ve ever heard in any public place anywhere?

French: I AM TOTES GONNA SCREW THIS UP. But hey, I think…my accent is good…fun fact…I learned this language as a kid…when it down, just use your Breton accent…

Irish: I…hope…that…people deem my pronunciation…acceptable…and that…I don’t set off accidentally …any…debates…

Cornish: HAHAHAHAHAHA I TOTALLY SOUND LIKE THAT ANNOUNCER FROM “RanG” HAHAHAHAH HA HA HA HA HA…in terms of my intonations…in my actual voice, less so…

Bislama: I wonder if anybody will figure out from this video exactly how much I’ve studied those Bislama-dubbed Jesus films to get that accent down…

Italian: Lived with two Italians, one in Poland and one in Germany, this is for you!

Icelandic: I’m a big fan of Emmsjé Gauti, maybe one day I’ll do this rap-cover polyglot video, in which I rap in all of the various languages. I’m gonna have a hard time finding Tok Pisin rap lyrics, though…

Dutch: I literally binged-watched Super Mario Maker playthroughs in Dutch the night before filming, because this was the accent I thought needed the most training. Did I get the grammar right…I hope I…did…oh, why did I choose to forget you for a year?

Polish: WOOOOOW MY ACCENT IS GOOOODDD. Pity it’s my “worst best language”. And the hardest language I’ve ever had to sing Karaoke in…time’ll fix that!

Tok Pisin: It will be interesting to see exactly how someone from Papua New Guinea would react to me speaking Melanesian Creole Languages.

Greenlandic: Is it just me, or does my voice very heavily resemble that of Marc Fussing Rosbach? (He’s a brilliant composer and you should really listen to his stuff!) Given that my first-ever single (still unpublished) was in Greenlandic, my accent can’t be THAT bad…

Russian: In my first take (which I did the day before) I sounded so much like a villain…I wonder if my Russian teachers from high school and college would be proud of me. Probably not, given that I gave up on Russian from 2013 until a few months ago.

Welsh: I’ve been doing this since January 2017 and is my accent really THAT good? “Norwyeg” is also harder to say than it looks. Not sure I got it right, even…

Tajik: My pose is so classy, and I sounded like a villain in this one but it was too cool to leave out. Can’t wait to actually get good at Tajik.

Faroese: Yeah, I didn’t study this language for nearly half a year. Not even gonna self-criticize myself for this one. But hey, listening to the music for accent training…makes me wanna go back! And also the most beautiful love song I’ve ever heard is in Faroese…guess that means I gotta relearn it before proposing…no idea when that’s gonna happen, though…

Myanmar / Burmese: I’M GONNA GET LAUGHED AT. And I accept it.

Breton: The first take literally sounded like gibberish so I listened to Denez Prigent’s complete album collection while walking outside. I think it fixed it…

Portuguese: I hope I made these two versions…different enough…

English Reprise: I made this video based on exactly what I would have wanted to encounter from a hyperpolyglot back when I was beginning. I hope this video is someone’s answered prayer.

Ukrainian: I BET DUOLINGO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT ACCENT.

Estonian: Gonna relearn you, but right now, you get two words.

Hungarian: Ended with Hungarian as a tribute to my only living grandparent, Joyce Gimbel, for whom I will learn Hungarian for very soon indeed!