How to Learn to Read the Hebrew Bible in the Original

Happy Fourth of July! Over the course of the past week I wondered to myself, “Lord (no pun intended), what topic would be REALLY good and/or suitable to discuss and post on American Independence Day?”

Yes, I could write about American English but often that may come to be a bit too predictable….

Instead, I have come to write about a topic that many of you have been BEGGING me for—namely, the Hebrew of the Scriptures!

I think that the Bible and the United States go very well tog…never mind that…

Anyhow, time to begin!

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Antwerp, the home of the world’s oldest printing presses

A lot of people have told me throughout the years (people of all religions, mind you) that they would like to learn enough Hebrew in order to read the Bible. Another common question I get is “how similar (or different) are Hebrew as it is spoken in Israel today and Hebrew as it is used in the Scriptures and prayers?”

Excellent question!

  • Modern Hebrew has words from English (thanks to the British Mandate), French (thanks to it having been the international language in the days of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew) and Slavic Languages / Yiddish (given as that was the culture of many of the founding fathers of contemporary Israel). Biblical Hebrew has absolutely none of these.

 

However, one thing that may surprise you is the fact that there are loan words from other languages in Biblical Hebrew, although thanks to a millennia-long gap, post-colonialism and too many other factors to list, it’s not easy to detect all of them.

The culture of the Bible is one in which the Hebrews find themselves interacting with many, MANY other ethnicities. The sheer amount of them is staggering and nowadays I would venture that that sort of diversity of small mini-nations as described in the Bible would be found in places like Northern Australia, Melanesia and areas of Indonesia.

Obviously some of the big “players” would include the quilt of cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Eastern Mediterranean. As time goes on in the Bible, the array of mini-cultures starts to coalesce into global powers like Assyria, Egypt and Old Babylon. During the time of the “United Kingdom of Judah and Israel” (as my professor Wayne Horowitz used to call it), the union (a bit like a Poland-Lithuania or a Denmark-Norway, as it were) became a regional military power (as noted in the book of Samuel). This happened during the reigns of David and Solomon and the kingdoms split after Solomon’s death.

So what does this have to do with loanwords?

Hebrew is fairly purest at times, or so it seems…until you realize that the extent of loans or cognates from languages like Akkadian or Sumerian cannot be fully realized in their entirety.

One such Sumerian loanword in Hebrew is a word used to refer to the Divine Realm, “היכל” (Heykhal).

With knowledge of Akkadian, a lot of the Bible’s “hidden references” come to light, and we may never truly discover the full scope of it. (Jeremiah is said to have been able to read it, and that there are idiomatic and pattern parallels between his book of prophecy and those of prominent Akkadian language poets)

Planet Earth’s first great empire was Sumer, and then (much like Judah and Israel did later on), they coalesced into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. Like the Israelites, the Akkadians were also Semites, while the Sumerians were not. The tension apparently did result in the union’s dissolution later on down the line.

It’s unsurprising, then, that loanwords from these languages ended up in Hebrew.

Later on in the age of the Talmud, the Mishnah (the “alpha” version of the Talmud, with the “beta” version, the Gemara, coming later on) uses loanwords from Greek and even some from Latin (note to those unaware: Greek was the American English of the Eastern Roman Empire). The same way that Dutch youth may use a lot of English, German and French loan words in their speech, the Tanaim of the Mishnah also used loans from other languages that they recognized.

I’ve come a long way since Jewish Day School, haven’t I?

In short: Modern Hebrew -> Contemporary European Influence, Biblical Hebrew -> Influence from the Languages of Antiquity, Talmudic Hebrew -> Influence from OTHER languages of Antiquity (and we still haven’t even touched on the Hebrew as used by Jewish poets throughout the Diaspora for millennia!)

 

  • Verb Structure is different.

 

Like Irish (which shares a LOT of uncanny similarities to Biblical Hebrew in terms of its grammatical setup, causing people to think that the Celts were the Lost Ten Tribes), Biblical Hebrew uses a “Verb-Subject-Object” sentence structure. When God speaks to Moses, the words translate to “he-spoke God to-Moses to-say”

Modern Hebrew resembles something closer to English, Yiddish or Slavic Languages in terms of its sentence structure. Translating word-by-word from Modern Hebrew into English is less of a hassle for this reason.

 

  • Pronunciation CAN be different (in Ashkenazi or Temani Spheres)

 

Jews from Yemen and Jews from Ashkenaz (Central-Eastern Europe), especially deeply religious ones, may use different pronunciation than what Israelis will use in conversation.

But Israelis of all stripes, however, will use the Sephardic pronunciation in using Modern Hebrew.

Here’s why:

Yiddish has Hebrew loan-words in it. These Hebrew words in Yiddish (that can sometimes be significantly detached from their Hebrew-language meanings in the most absurd ways, including being some of the rudest words in the language…) are pronounced using the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

In the early days of Zionism, Yiddish was seen as a Ghetto Language, something to be shed. As a result, the Hebrew pronunciation adopted was that of the Sephardi Jews, so as to become detached from the Old World culture. Oddly enough, Modern Hebrew took a lot of idioms of Ancient Hebrew origin from Yiddish back into its contemporary version (although obviously the meanings shifted yet again in some cases!)

What does this mean for you?

There’s an Orthodox Jewish community right across the street from where I’m writing this. Sometimes they play Hasidic pop songs sung in Ashkenazi-pronounced Hebrew. This means that, unless you’ve had particular training listening to that brand of Hebrew, it may be strange to you (like listening to versions of English that you may have never heard in your life for the first time!)

Some Biblical Hebrew classes will have you use the same Sephardic pronunciation that you use for Modern Hebrew. But in some cases you may need to get used to (or at least recognize) the  Ashkenazi or Temani variant depending on what sphere you’re in.

 

  • Forms of Hebrew used in Antiquity can be wildly inconsistent.

 

The Mishna uses modified plural endings for verbs. Some portions of the Bible show slightly-different grammatical patterns. And then this isn’t even touching on the “kri uktiv”, the idea that some words in the Bible are not pronounced as they are written!

(HOWEVER! Your editor will usually let you know in some way how to pronounce the word in the event of “kri uktiv”, which is just the Hebrew term for “read and written”. Oh, “kri uktiv” is Sephardic, and in Ashkenazi it would be “kri u’ksiv”. Fun).
Imagine having no one tell you this and then be expected to read texts with very little prior knowledge in Hebrew from the Five Books of Moses and the Mishna and the prayers. 10-year-old me was very confused indeed.

And that’s why I became a teacher to prevent other people from being so confused.

 

I want to Read the Bible in Hebrew. Where do I start and where should I put my resources? I’ve never studied a “dead language” before…HELP!

 

Jared Gimbel to the rescue!

You need to recognize a number of things first:

  • The building block of the narrative will be verbs. Verbs, like in Modern Hebrew and in other Semitic Languages, will be made out of “shorashim” (the Hebrew word for “roots”), in which there will be a set of three letters that will indicate a certain meaning. These shorashim are not limited to verbs, but also nouns or adjectives that are connected to that action as well.

Most Shorashim in the Bible will be three letters long, and a lot of them will appear very frequently in the bible, verbs like “to send”, “to call out”, “to say”, “to go”, “to return” will be featured regularly. Learn to recognize verbs like these, and let translations of the Hebrew Bible into the language of your choice guide you.

  • The names of characters will be different! The English names of Biblical Characters are taken from the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible). The same is true with the names of the Biblical characters in European Languages or indigenous languages of places colonized by Europeans (the Americas, Africa, Oceania, among others)

In the case of English, you’ll note that the names changed by virtue of the restrictions that Greek had in regards to adopting sounds from Hebrew. Isaac is a Greek-ified version of the Hebrew “Yitzkhak” (and in Yiddish it came under Polish influence and became “Itsik”), and Jacob is a version of “Yaakov” (which is “Yankev” in Yiddish – again, under Polish influence).

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob become Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yaakov in Hebrew, and Avrohom, Itzik and Yankev in Yiddish. This is SO MUCH FUN, RIGHT?!!?

Also the Bible features a LOT of place names (and people names) that are mentioned once and sometimes they’re almost never brought up again. One issue I’ve seen with students trying to read the Bible is that they may not be able to recognize when a proper name is, in fact, a proper name.

Again, using translations on the side (as long as you’re paying attention, which I’m sure you are) will help you hone your “sixth sense” as to what is a place-name and what is a person-name. Even more confusing: place-names and personal names can also MEAN THINGS!

(What’s more, some Biblical characters are actually named after incidents, including…you got it…Isaac and Jacob. These word games don’t translate into any other language! Aren’t you excited to learn this stuff?

  • Words will appear over and over again in the Bible. Recite aloud. The more you’ll encounter these words, the more you’ll come to recognize them.

Favorites would include “leemor” – “to say”, which is also used to indicate an indirect statement (in plain English this means the “that” in “I said that this blog is the best in the world”), “hineh” (behold!), any words relating to birth and death at all, as well as prepositional phrases, which provide the learner as much frustration in Hebrew as they do with almost any language I can think of that isn’t a Creole.

  • Context always helps.

The fact that you’ve probably heard most of the stories before will actually help you with any information that you may be blanking on, whether it be verb tenses, prepositional phrases, or even a shoresh!

Think about what the people in the story might be doing or saying, how much info you can piece together given what you have already.

You have an exciting journey ahead of you. You are going to be able to read the most influential piece of literature in human history. And believe me, it is a VERY fulfilling feeling to get to read the Masoretic text in the original. Your friends will be impressed…as will I!

Happy Fourth of July!

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The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

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It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!

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

Llun Jared Gimbel.

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

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

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

 

  1. Israeli culture is refreshingly human.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of videos…

 

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

Have yourself a look:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

  1. Israeli Music is Like Daydreaming in mp3 form.

 

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

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

Check. Out. This. Channel. Now.

  1. Israelis travel EVERYWHERE

What I am about to say is not an exaggeration:

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

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

He told me a joke:

Scene: Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The point you should take is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Never Too Late!

P.S. Ah, I found that video!

Your Questions about Cornish: Answered!

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“I Read an Article That Said…”

Too often do I encounter people who bring to me scientific “proofs” that it is impossible to learn a language beyond a certain age / impossible to learn X amount of languages / impossible to get a native-like accent beyond a certain age.

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This frustrates me to no end, because these studies only act to discourage people from even trying. And even when people  do try, if these studies are taken seriously by people, then the learners will be holding themselves back, and severely so.

A few days ago I was told by someone that it was impossible for the brain to learn more than nine languages. The fact is that there are people with human brains who can process 9+ languages, and I have seen and heard it happen (with people other than myself, obviously), so obviously such an idea holds no weight because demonstrable phenomena in the real world disprove it.

In both my other blog and this one, I find myself in constant struggle with forces from mass media that serve no other purpose aside to shut doors on people’s dreams.

I myself had thought that I would never be a true polyglot because I believed those studies at one point. Now I don’t believe them and neither should you.

Among people who have spent time in countries other than the United States, the idea that learning a language is impossible beyond a certain age is just simply not believed. All who are reading this (or have the ability to read this) should take a similar stance.

Among scientific literature journals, there are lots of opinions to be found that can prove almost anything. Earlier this year I found a quote from a Norwegian linguist that said that Greenlandic was the world’s hardest language (on account of the dizzying amount of suffixes, or so he says).

Actually having studied Greenlandic, I find many words in the language to make more sense than equivalents in a Germanic language like English or Danish, and this is precisely because of the suffix system that was derided as being “impossible” in the study.

What am I trying to say here?

There will be some teachers that will open doors for you, and there will be others that will close doors for you.

Too often in the United States do I see that doors are being closed for language learners.

My job is to open them to you.

Will you come in?