30-Day Lao Speaking Challenge: 10 Days Left + Day Before My Birthday Reflection

 

My birthday is tomorrow! It will be a fantastic day to reflect on what I have accomplished in my life thus far. One thing of note is the fact that with each passing year I seem to accomplish what was unthinkable the previous year. I hope that this coming year of my life continues to amaze me beyond all belief.

I’m not going to remark on my progress or how I’ve changed in 2017. That will have to wait until December. But I thought I’d give a run-down of where I’ve been going since the conference:

 

  • For November: Lao

 LAO

Thanks to a friend of mine I discovered the 30-Day Speaking Challenge on Facebook. Realizing that I probably wasn’t going to progress a lot with a tonal language unless I did something seriously, I decided to take it on for November, choosing Lao (which has been a GREAT experience for me so far).

 

Three negatives about my experience with Lao so far, three positives;

 

  • Not a lot of good resources to look up words reliably
  • Not getting feedback on my tones (but this is honestly “what I signed up for”, and also really makes me understand how much EASIER it is to learn a politically powerful language, even one like Mandarin Chinese [you’ll hear more about that in a bit!]). Actually, not getting feedback from anything.
  • Not a lot of music I like in Lao. (Still looking!)

 

+ I’m significantly bolstered in my motivation to focus on one language at a time. This is in addition to the YouTube Series, which serve as “warm-ups” to the Internet challenges such as this one which will cast me on the way to genuine fluency

+ My “flow” has greatly improved. Some languages I know (Krio) and knew (Portuguese) quite well, but didn’t really have a flow for them in a way that made me feel genuine. When I speak a language like Yiddish or Danish, I don’t sound like a learner in the slightest, and that’s because the rhythms of me speaking the language sound flowing and natural. It’s possible to be fluent in a language and now have that flow (as COUNTLESS English L2 speakers throughout the world have demonstrated with me throughout my life).

+ I’m learning words on a daily basis without fail because I’m engaging my multiple senses in taking in knowledge of the language.

  • December Challenges: Greenlandic

 Mother of the Sea and Me

I’m not fluent in Greenlandic, despite the victories I had with the language when I was in Nuuk last month.

 

I’m honestly burned out in studying the language and so I think one thing that would help would be if I were to do this 30-Day Challenge in Greenlandic.

 

Obviously I’m expecting ZERO feedback from other participants, but this I a self-imposed challenge. And who knows? I may find myself surprise.

 

  • December Challenges: Burmese

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There’s another 30-Day challenge I’ll be doing in December, the EuroLinguiste One, and I’ll be doing it with Burmese. The culmination of the project will be me filming a 2-5 minute video speaking Burmese (I could even use a script if necessary).

Given that I really need to find myself reading the language at a quick pace if I want to make any genuine progress with it, I think this challenge would be helpful (part of it involves doing Facebook posts in the language as well as setting your device to that language. I have multiple Burmese-speaking Facebook friends so they can help me and/or laugh at me as they so choose. But they’ve been extremely supportive, so thank you.)

 

  • Looking Forward: 30-Day Challenges Every Month for 2018 and beyond. Mostly with Languages I’ve studied previously I need to climb “Mount Fluency” with .

 

After the polyglot conference it seems that I’ll have to focus a lot more on maintenance and a lot less on acquisition of New Languages. That said, I may take on one or two new ones in 2018, and it seems that Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese going to be on my short-term plans for reasons I quite can’t explain yet (no, travel plans are not involved).

Already with Duolingo Mandarin I’ve been noticing a significant amount of words that resemble Burmese (given that they are both Sino-Tibetan Languages). Mandarin Speakers can’t understand spoken Burmese, but there are words in common with similar meanings and so it’s good to have that advantage.

 

  • New YouTube Series for My Birthday Tomorrow!

Can’t reveal anything about it yet!

The only thing I do know, however, is that I will continue to acquire more and more experiences as I go through life!

Onwards!

jared gimbel virginia

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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.

 

 

ga

The 2017 Polyglot Conference: Self-Assessment and Roadmap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with that last one.

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

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

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

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

I also flubbed Cornish a little bit as well

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

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

Now for my “I did pretty well!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where do I go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

I wish every day were a Polyglot Conference, actually!

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From my first Polyglot conference two years ago!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A1 – Gilbertese, Tongan

A2 – Lao, Burmese, Hungarian, Polish

B1 – French, Irish, Greenlandic, Cornish

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

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

C2 – Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin

Native – English (US)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals right now:

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

 

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

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

Whatever happens, I have to stay optimistic and determined.

Hope to see you there!

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October 2017 Immersion Mission: Greenland / Iceland!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m quite worried about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a nice note to end on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep in mind two things:

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

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

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

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

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How Long Does It Take You to Learn a New Language?

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Yes! The question that I hear on a daily basis finally gets to be addressed!

For one, let me begin by saying this: often I get asked this question point-blank, as if most people do not realize that languages that differ from those you already know actually take more time to learn.

What I usually say in one sentence is: “it depends. I learned Solomon Islands Pijin to a conversational level in nearly two weeks. There are those languages, like Greenlandic and Cornish, that I’ve been struggling with for YEARS and while I can speak them to various degrees, I wouldn’t really call myself consistently fluent.”

The short answer is that there are just too many factors to list in how much time goes into a new project, and further complicated by the fact that people measure timelines for skill acquisition in years rather than hours (Benny Lewis wrote on this topic, so I should definitely give him credit).

You’ve probably all heard it before from people with self-defeating excuses. “I’ve studied language X for Y years, and I still can’t speak any of it”. I can guarantee you that if you were quantifying your studies in hours rather than in vaguely defined “years”, you would see where the issue lies.

I have NEVER heard: “I’ve put Y hours into language X, and I’m still struggling with it”

Interestingly, in my case that statement has somewhat been true with Greenlandic, but obviously I think that it has to do with my study methods (as well as the handicaps that come in place by speaking an extremely rare language that is related by family ties to no other language that I know well).

If I were to look at the YEARS I’ve put into it, some assorted timelines would be like this:

 

Hebrew (Modern): January 2009 – Present

Yiddish: August 2008 – Present

Spanish: August 2003 – November 2015 (when I got Lyme Disease) revived July 2016 – Present

Finnish: April 2013 – Present

Cornish: December 2014 – Present

Lao: August 2017 – Present

Solomon Islands Pijin: April 2016 – Present

Faroese: July 2014 – November 2015 + March 2017 – August 2017 (currently paused)

 

If the sheer amount of time I “put” into the language in terms of YEARS would indicate how well I spoke the language, Spanish would be my second-best language and Lao my weakest. But it actually isn’t the case (I have neglected Faroese to the degree that my very meager Lao is now better than it…)

Does more time help? Most definitely, but also the quality of time put into it is more helpful. My three weeks in the Yiddish Farm program did more for my Yiddish abilities than anything I did in high school did for Spanish.

I’m not saying anything new when I’m saying the following: (1) measure your progress in hours, not years and (2) measure the quality of those hours (the more ACTIVELY engaged you are, the more results you’ll see). Benny Lewis has said very much of the same thing.

But you’re probably come for something else, namely “how long will it take me to get fluent?”

And, in a pure sense, I can’t answer that question, despite the fact that I get it asked so often (or perhaps because of it).

The more time you put into it, the sooner you’ll expect results. So one thing I would recommend is set aside about 30 minutes every day for 1-2 languages you’d like to get better at and you’ll start to see results build up. This is not something I learned just from Olly Richards but also from my parents who wanted me to practice piano every day for 30 minutes as a kid (except on Shabbat).

It also depends on more factors, such as what sort of other jobs you have or whether you have a family to attend to in any capacity (not also to mention other languages you may need to maintain on the side).

And, of course, those related to languages you already know will come more easily to you.

Solomon Islands Pijin is very close to English but Cornish is not, so I was capable of “breezing” through one of them and not the other. Could I have learned Cornish to conversational fluency in two weeks? Maybe if I did absolutely nothing else aside from what was required of me to keep living or if I was on an extremely relaxing vacation and had more than an hour to spare to the task every day…the idea of Daniel Tammet learning Icelandic in a week isn’t far-fetched to me in the slightest (and if I knew the in-depth methods of his study, it would probably be even less surprising).

Another thing I haven’t really touched on is the fact that people learn differently. 30 hours of total study may bring various different personalities to different levels.

 

So Jared, HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME?

 

(Because I know how much people really, REALLY hate overcomplicated answers…)

For a language closely related to one you know, if you devote 30 minutes to an hour every day for three months, you’ll be able to have small talk conversational about your life. For a different one, if you do the same, probably expect about four-to-five months. If the language you are learning uses a new alphabet, it make take you another two weeks to fully master it in all of its forms, or a month if it is hellishly complicated (although there are some people who may be okay with being “illiterate” on the short-term or even the long-term. After all, even nowadays I’ve met people who can’t write in their native language but can write in other languages!)

Then there is the issue for a language being EXTREMELY closely related to one you already know, in which case two weeks or even ONE WEEK would suffix. (English and Spanish aren’t as closely related as Danish and Norwegian are, to give you an idea).

And then of course there is another issue (as what happened with Cornish during…well, almost all of the time I’ve been “studying” it) in which you can’t make the full time commitments or big pauses cause you to forget things. Remember: the more you falter in your commitments, the more “days” you’ll need to catch up.

But can you really commit yourself to thirty minutes every day? I’ve encountered so many acquaintances that usually get stuck in the beginner or the intermediate plateau for a very long time. Often this happens because of being stuck to a set of materials without diversifying fully into the great spectrum of usages that a native speaker would have. (Imagine: if there was one person learning a language from three learning-books and another one learning it from those same books and also TV shows, music, and conversational opportunities, which one would have the advantage?)

I have a feeling that people who read my musings are determined people indeed. You’ll be fluent in your dream language before you know it!

Go! Go! Go!