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

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

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

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

Iso an Jekob

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

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

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

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

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

 

  • Gendered Speech

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

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

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

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

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

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

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

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

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

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

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

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

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

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

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

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

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

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

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

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

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

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

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep in mind two things:

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

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

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

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

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How to Do Polyglot Karaoke, Even If There are Only English-Language Songs in the Catalogue

I’ve performed Karaoke songs in a total of thirteen languages to date, not only have I done languages like German and Swedish but also Breton and Greenlandic. In an era in which English-language songs seem to be taking over everywhere, how do I do it?

This piece has been requested for a long time no one has ever written a piece on this before, so I’m going to relate my procedure as best I can.

For one, let me detail the variety of karaoke events I’ve been to thus far in my life:

  • The ones that take place in a bar with many people that sign up and take turns. (In some Chinese ones, you also pay one dollar per song).
  • The room that you rent with your friends, and
  • The living room variety in which you and your friends scramble for what you can find on YouTube or other video services.

For (3), the process in singing songs in other languages can be fairly straightforward. Find songs in your target language that you know happen to exist in Karaoke versions and just sing away (given that I’ve never heard a Breton-language cover song, this is how I got that language on the list).

For (1) and (2), as I already mentioned, you’ll usually need to rely on foreign-language covers of English songs, although you may be lucky and find songs in western European and East Asian Languages in your catalogue (e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). This is particularly common in establishments in international cities owned by people from Latin America or East Asia.

If you are in another country, you will usually expect to find hit songs not only in that country’s language(s) but also in the languages of nearby countries. (One example that is hardly surprising is that Swedish songs can be found in many Finnish karaoke establishments. I have a vague memory of Polish ones having some German- and Russian-language songs as well, and had I been more astute at the time I might have noticed ones from other Slavic-speaking countries as well, such as Czechia or Ukraine.)

You can use your smartphone in order to have the lyrics on reference, or otherwise you can memorize them beforehand if you’re feeling committed.

So, where do I find foreign-language cover songs?

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

Ah, yes, these have been covered in a vast host of languages, almost all Asian and European (although The Lion King was dubbed in Zulu and Moana / Vaiana was dubbed in Tahitian with a Maori dub on the way). What’s more, these covers are due to the official localization efforts of the Disney Corporation.

You can find many of the lyrics for these versions available online, and even if you can’t find them on lyric websites, you could find them in videos (in which the localized language in subtitled) and then you can type them out and post them online or just e-mail them to yourself.

These are usually by go-to songs in multilingual karaoke, although there are some things to know about:

 

  • Some songs require very fast-paced singing or chanting (“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, “You’re Welcome” from Moana / Vaiana). Unless you’re okay with messing up in front of other people, rehearse these beforehand. Obviously the better you know the language the more readily you’ll be able to use it quickly.
  • Some languages are “latecomers” to the Disney localization game (the Baltic languages [Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian] as well as Vietnamese come to mind). Interestingly many of the Nordic dubs (and some from former communist countries such as Hungary) were actually done in the 1990’s. Interestingly while the voice of Bianca the The Rescuers was a native Hungarian speaker (Eva Gabor), she could not actually voice the character in the Hungarian localization because she was deceased by the time it was in production. Some of the localization collections cover the whole collection of Disney films (even Icelandic, oddly enough) others start from a certain point (I think the Baltic Languages were from 2010 onwards).

 

  • YouTube / iTunes Store Fiddling Can Actually Turn Up Some Interesting Song Covers Across Many Languages

 

Yesterday I purchased a Burmese music album (10 USD for 101 songs, that is NOT a typo!). Across that album (entitled “Greatest Hits”), I encountered past Eurovision Songs, Britney Spears, “You Raise Me Up”, and ABBA…in BURMESE.

I’ve come across a number of very surprising covers, including Chris Brown in Tok Pisin, “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a host of languages, and “You Raise Me Up” in GREENLANDIC:

 

 

There’s seldom a chance that typing in “covers in (INSERT LANGUAGE HERE)” is actually going to turn up meaningful results. You’ll just have to play around with recommended videos, playlists and what-have-you until something interesting comes to you. When I bought that Burmese album, did you think I was getting a bunch of cover songs? Well, it was in the iTunes store, but I don’t have the time to listen to 101 song previews and I hadn’t purchased any new music since early July.

This is one way that the fact that English songs are “taking over the world” can be used to your advantage: you can find fan-covers and fan-translations of a lot of these online. Sometimes you may encounter “singable translations” via lyricstranslate.com or even find them in YouTube Comments(!) And this time, you have many, MANY more languages represented.

Also, one thing I should mention is that a lot of English-language pop songs are commonly translated with singable versions into Irish, which probably has among the richest collection of cover songs out of any market out there (except for maybe Myanmar or other East Asian countries that, as of the time of writing, I don’t know a lot about).

 

 

A lot of these Irish songs also come with full lyrics and English-language translations of these Irish-versions.

 

Other Comments

 

You’re probably wondering, “won’t people think I’m a weirdo for doing this?”

Well, let me tell you, in the United States, I’ve got NOTHING but positive reactions from doing this (from the audience, at least). Some organizers have had mixed reactions but nothing wholly negative (one encouraged me to “sing in Klingon next time”)

I’ve even got some prospective students and friendships out of it, not also to the mention the time I was stopped by a stranger in a bar saying that he saw me sing the Lion King in Icelandic…five months ago! (I do an awful job at being forgettable…)

And, of course, if you’re together with your polyglot friends, you’re with people who think like you, so what more is there to want?

Also, people are not going to be judgmental about your accent, even if you encounter native speakers of the language (happened once when I sung a Polish song), you’ll actually get more enthusiasm from THEM than from anyone else out there.

One of my big life lessons from a few years ago was that “different always does better in the store”. In the store of life, as long as you abide by the social contract, being different and doing it differently will only do you wonders.

Happy singing!

In Defense of Learning an English Creole Language

Today is actually a Jewish holiday of sorts, although one with very few religious practices involved. Tu B’av (Jewish Love and Harvest Festival of Sorts, which literally translates to “the 15th of the month of Av”, using a numerical systems in which Hebrew numbers are stand-ins for letters way before the Arabic Numeral system came around) is one of the most auspicious days of the Jewish Calendar, the other being Yom Kippur.

Being generally confused as well as having some issues with illness I thought yesterday was actually that holiday and so I posted this picture to announce that, yes, I will be coming out with a New Polyglot Video, hopefully very soon. If not August, than definitely September.

victory is my destiny

No doubt there are going to be those that are fuming due to the lack of French / Chinese / Italian / Portuguese / Turkish / other global languages, but come on. Too many other polyglot videos featuring those languages exist. Let others have their turn.

And if other people want to downvote my videos just because of leaving out their favorite language or including a minority language and not theirs, then so be it. It just speaks to a greater issue of ruthless pragmatism and conformity in the online Polyglot community.

One of my big memories of the Polyglot Conference in 2015 was hearing a well-known Polyglot whose opinion I respect very much say that he wished that many of his peers would investigate Asian languages other than Mandarin Chinese in more depth. My decision to study Burmese beyond my trip was not only motivated by him (even though I’m not really focusing on it at the moment), but I also got inspired to learn another Asian Language, Lao, because I’m just…generally curious to learn more about the most bombed country in the history of humanity (true story!) Oh, and … uh… snippets of Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil, etc. on the side. But I suck at these. A lot.

Besides, I can communicate with some Thai people with Lao and I prefer smaller languages, something that you knew by now.

Gee, you really love reading my ramblings, don’t you?

So if you looked at the picture above, there were probably very few of you that could recognize every single country in it (by the way, that’s not footage from a future video, that’s just a teaser).

But out of the 27 or so countries featured, there are six (SIX!) English Creole Languages and seven if you include Standard American English.

Let me count them for you:

 

Vanuatu -> Bislama

Papua New Guinea -> Tok Pisin

Solomon Islands -> Pijin

Trinidad and Tobago -> Trinidad English Creole

Sierra Leone -> Krio (Salone Krio)

Belize -> Bileez Kriol (Belizean Creole)

 

I would have become my Bileez Kriol videos a few days ago but I got tied up with a guest in town as well as not getting good sleep and what-have-you. And I haven’t published a new video or a day or two…

By taking on minority languages in my video (such as Breton) as well as English Creoles (like the list above), I know that I will get some very harsh negative responses.

A lot of people feel genuinely threatened by online polyglots in general, and even MORE so if they actually commit themselves to “useless languages”.

And imagine if you’re very proud of your country and your language and your language is a global language, and then this guy comes along having chosen to neglect the study of YOUR language and chosen languages spoken by significantly fewer populations instead. You may feel CRUSHED.

And then there are those that insist that their Creole language is actually a dialect of a European language (and this is especially true in some Caribbean countries, note that I did not say “Carribean Island Countries”, because there are some Caribbean nations [e.g. Guyana] that are not islands).

I could have chosen to leave out Trinidadian English Creole (which I’ve been studying on-and-off for the past few months, even though I got the book in January 2016 as a “you don’t have Lyme Disease anymore!” give), but I’m including it even if it will subject me to ridicule and dislikes.

Here’s the reason why.

 

Creole Cultures Need Legitimacy and Love

 

Some have indeed acquired it, with Haitian Creole being the primary example. Walking around New York City you’ll see signs written in it, especially on public transport. Haitian Creole is also in Google Translate as well, not to mention countless of other avenues to learn it online (Haiti has a fascinating history that actually served to permanently change the face of colonialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade).

However, too often do I encounter with disgust that Creole Languages are “not real” and that people “should never consider learning them”. (in Francophone and Lusophone areas, I’ll have you know, this is overwhelmingly not the case, and sometimes I’ve encountered people who have learned French and Portuguese Creoles from France and Portugal respectively).

The disdain towards Creole Languages seems to be an English-speaking hangup that I’ve primarily encountered in North America (in Australia and New Zealand languages like Tok Pisin are actually highly valued on the job market, even though some of those jobs may get you sent to places where they are spoken with great regularity. True story!)

That being said, I do have some theories as to why some people may be inhibited in learning them and also why learning Creole Languages, for me, is a moral imperative:

For one, there is always the issue of “number of speakers”, which is just plain silly if used by itself. Attracted by the culture of Argentina? A great reason to learn Spanish.  Genuinely concerned by the way Chinese culture is misunderstood in your country? Mandarin may thing for you. “Lots of people speak it, therefore I should learn it”, is just flock-following. I’ve encountered too many people who explicitly list that reason for learning such a language and when they speak these languages, it comes off as stunted and non-genuine. As it should! Because the cultural connection is usually lacking!

And why learn African Languages from the former French colonies when just French will do? Well it seems that China’s language institutions are investing in African languages precisely so that they can have an edge in business against people who think like that.

English Creole languages are spoken in places where Standard English is the language of the government until you actually step inside any of the actual government meetings.

Oh, and my parents needed a Krio translator when they were in up-country Sierra Leone, so especially in the case of African and Pacific Creoles, knowing the standard language is only going to get you so far (even though in some cases it may be wiser to use Standard English, especially in some urban areas in countries like Papua New Guinea).

Another hangup is appropriate usage. Especially if you are a white person, you may be concerned that your speaking a Creole language may be construed as making fun of their culture. Well, appropriate usage can always be discussed with your friends from places like Salone, Melanesia or the Caribbean.

In the case of Papua New Guinea, speaking Tok Pisin with too much English influence and not-too-well can be construed as “Tok Masta”, which is considered highly condescending. And we haven’t even touched on some of the Caribbean Islands in which people see their Creole as a version of English so much so that they deny having any knowledge of a Creole language whatsoever (the situation in some communities like these is very, very odd, although I think Jamaica is a holdout, after all, did you know there is Wikipedia translated into Jamaican? Hey, I’m living in Crown Heights, I should probably order my Jamaican Patois book sooner rather than later. Perhaps after an important milestone, maybe, although I don’t think I’m including Jamaican in my upcoming video…)

Another thing to mention is “opportunities to use it”. Online, tons. Even for developing-world creoles. This is true even if you go onto news sites in places like Vanuatu and see a lot of the news written in English rather than in Bislama. Comments on the articles may not be in English, not also to mention snippets of Creole Languages that are used in articles that are otherwise written in Standard English.

Yet another hangup is yes, it has to be said, undercurrents of white supremacy. An idea that, somehow, the way that these people speak actually isn’t worth your time, even with a lot of black people in the United States feeling increasingly unsafe. And another idea that the language of Europe are more important and have more money attached to them than the languages of any of the places they colonized or languages that came into being because of colonialism (=Creoles).

I want to help people and cultures heal and understand each other. I arrived to Crown Heights and seeing the Trinbagonian flag everywhere (yes, Trinbagonian is a real word!), I took it upon myself to know my community better (after all, I knew plenty about the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights prior to moving there!)

Am I going to get comments about usage of Creoles in my video? Most definitely. Some will be negative, no doubt, but I think that there will be many people from places like the Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone and Trinidad and Tobago that will appreciate the fact that I tipped my hat to their cultures when very, VERY few people (or perhaps almost not one) in the polyglot-video-making-world does that.

Already in my video series on YouTube I have caused people to rethink language learning (including many thank-you-notes).

I’m going to continue to do so for as long as I can.

Who knows? Maybe I’m the healing the world needs…maybe it’s you!

2015-03-17 20.17.12

“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!