The Treasures of Bislama

 

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the Overture.

I first heard about Bislama when I was bidding farewell to one of my friends in Germany. She was a German-American and also a polyglot (who focused primarily on Middle Eastern Languages, I remember she knew Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic very well with knowledge of Egyptian Arabic and Turkish. Probably many others I forgot to mention).

We were in an American-themed diner in Heidelberg that was housed in a caboose. We were talking about what sort of languages we planned to learn in the future, and I mentioned Greenlandic and Faroese as being on my “hit list”.

She mentioned a language called Bislama, that I had never heard of before. She told me that it was a Creole English that was the primary language of Vanuatu, and proceeded to tell me some vocabulary that she learned.

Here’s a small taste of what people on the internet know about Bislama (if they know anything at all): http://imgur.com/GiiTKf8

Vanuatu also has the distinction of being the only country in the world that has its national anthem in an English Creole Language (Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, while they have very similar Creoles spoken there, have their national anthems in Standard English).

“Yumi, Yumi, Yumi” (Yumi = you and me = we [inclusive]) is a melody you don’t forget easily! Have yourself a listen to the instrumental track with the words on the screen! (The vowels should be pronounced as in Spanish, and the consonants like in phonetic English, and you’ll be good. Bislama, like other Creole Languages, is hyper-mathematical in its spelling system, although no doubt speakers will talk very quickly and abbreviate stuff that way):

To translate the first two lines:

 

Yumi, yumi, yumi i glat long talem se

Yumi, yumi, yumi i man blong Vanuatu

 

(We, we, we are happy to say that

We, we, we are people of Vanuatu)

 

In English you don’t say something like “Vanuatuan”, instead you refer to the people and culture of Vanuatu as “Ni-Vanuatu” or “Ni-Van” for short. This comes from usages of local languages.

Unlike Pijin or Tok Pisin (its releatives in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea respectively), Bislama has a significant amount of French words (bonane = new year, kabine = toilet) as well as those with both English-loaned and French-loaned equivalents (accident can be “aksiden” or “aksidong”, the first from English and the second from French).

The fact that there was the struggle between British and French colonialists in Vanuatu actually caused its people to cling strongly to the usage of Bislama as a national languages (although English and French are also used in official contexts as well). It’s a bit like two giants are asking you “what team are you on?” and you confidently assert “I am on team me”.

Bislama is not only a cultural treasure of what is actually a noteworthy tourist destination in the Pacific, it’s also surprisingly accessible to learn (because of that fact).

YouTube tutorials and the LiveLingua Project will help you on your way to fluency, as well as the Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook which is literally the most useful phrasebook I’ve encountered in any language (as far as English-language phrasebooks are concerned!) And, of course, there is also bislama.org which is VERY helpful!

2015-03-17 20.17.12

They redid the cover shortly after I acquired this version with the cool masks.

The word “Bislama” actually comes from the French word “Bêche-de-mer”, the sea cucumber, because Bislama was the language used to communicate with Ni-Vanuatu traders that were dealt with to acquire said sea cucumbers. In more old-timey books, the language will be referred to as “Bêche-de-mer”.

Jack London even uses Bislama (WAY before the days of the orthography used to write the language nowadays) in ones of his stories, “Yah, Yah, Yah!”.

The portions in Bislama were a bit of a headache for me to sight-read but I read them out loud and, sure enough, it sounds like completely legitimate Bislama that Ni-Vanuatu from contemporary times can understand without any issues at all:

http://www.online-literature.com/london/48/

Note how he actually uses Standard English spelling to write Bislama. Contemporary Bislama doesn’t do that, instead opting for a hyper-phonetic system (the National Anthem Video above actually uses the contemporary orthography).

Bislama is extraordinarily rich in interjections. Some of them come from French (“alala!”) and some from English (“areno!” = I don’t know) and many more come from the many local languages that came together to form Bislama.

If you speak English and want to learn Bislama, expect a significant head start in your vocabulary, especially once you begin picking up patterns on how English words are transferred into Bislama’s pronunciation system.

The patterns are fairly easy to pick up not only in that regard but also concerning its idiomatic structure (remember, these were designed by the genius of the human mind so as to create an efficient tongue that can be readily used in communication and even more readily learned in advance! The same is true for ALL Creole Languages!)

Often there is the duplication of syllables, “bigbigman” (dignitary, someone with a lot of status) can also be “bigman”, to follow is “folfolem” (all transitive verbs in Bislama end in –m and it employs a system of vowel harmony not unlike languages like Hungarian that adjust suffixes depending on vowel content of the word. Folfol + em – folfolem, but put + em [to put] = putum, the –em shifts to a –um).

I’ve noticed similar patterns of duplication used in Burmese, Chinese and even Hebrew and English variants (good, good!). Surprisingly this makes words easier for you to remember.

Some words are also very easy to attach “stories” to. A lot of these words are not appropriate for writing in a blog post like this but one such word is “fiftififti”, which actually means…bisexual! Fancy that! Another word refers to an effeminate man, “geligeli”, and shouldn’t be too easy for you to forget.

I really wanted to look at the comprehensive dictionary at bislama.org in more detail and list some of the words that jumped out at me, but aside from risking repetitive-strain-injury the comprehensive dictionary (of around 7000 words, mind you, making it one of the smallest comprehensive dictionaries of a language I’ve encountered [remember: comprehensive dictionary = ALL KNOWN WORDS IN THE LANGUAGE]), there are also a lot of place names not only relevant to Melanesia and beyond but also the Bible and sometimes it can be painful to browse the list because of that.

Another extraordinary damaging myth about Bislama is that it “isn’t a real language”, “is just a dialect of English” or is just “broken English”. All of these ideas are unequivocally false. If Bislama isn’t a real language, that Afrikaans and Yiddish should also be disqualifies as well. And Haitian Creole is also deemed as 100% legitimate while many creoles in the world are not.

Bislama can not only be helpful for you in navigating rural areas of Vanuatu (as well as giving you a leg-up on related languages spoken throughout Melanesia and Australia), but is also a marketable skill, especially in the Pacific.

Thanks largely to climate change, the world’s eyes are on the Pacific because it is, sadly, the front line in this battle against our damaged environment. Somehow, somewhere I feel that there is hope, oddly enough, and I think that a very good first step would be to experience the culture of places like Vanuatu in which people are not only suffering because of climate change but also singing and lamenting and talking about it endlessly to a degree that we should be doing in more industrialized nations.

Looking back, Bislama made me a better human being, and the more I learn about Melanesia in general and Vanuatu in particular, I glimpse a side of humanity, poised between 2017 and our ancient roots as humans, that many people should be looking at with more seriousness.

I also have a Bislama Anki deck (although it isn’t without its problems) of the Bislama.org list. If you want it from me, message me from the “Have Jared Teach You!” link at the top of this page!

yumi yumi yumi

The Wonderful World of Music in the Faroe Islands

Today is Ólavsøka (well, it’s actually a multi-day holiday, and by that, I mean it’s 1.5 days, and July 29th is the 1.0 of the 1.5), which is the Faroe Islands’ National Day.

foroyar

In the simplest way possible, this day celebrates the Saint that converted Norway to Christianity (and keep in mind that the Faroe Islands and the history of Denmark-Norway, now two separate countries, are very much linked. To this day, the largest Faroese communities outside of the Faroe Islands themselves are located in Denmark and in Norway respectively).

But you probably didn’t come for a history lesson, you came here for music, so that’s what I’m going to give you:

 

  1. Frændur

 

One of the Faroe Islands’ classical mainstays, Frændur (from an Old Norse word meaning friends, the source of the English word as well) has a well-established nostalgic feel to it, and the lyrics are not only eloquent but also helpful for beginner and intermediate learners.

 

This song is probably the closest thing that the Faroe Islands have to an unofficial national anthem (The title just means “The Faroe Islands”). If performed at a concert, expect literally everyone in the audience to start singing along, sometimes so strongly that the people on stage will go silent completely:

 

 

And while we’re on “I Love my Country” themed songs, I’ll throw you another one (“My Country”):

 

 

And a cover of that song done by many well-known Faroese singers:

 

 

 

  1. Terji og Føstufressar

 

I could try to translate this name cleanly but all I can come up with at the moment would be something like “Terji and the Fasting Munchers”. (Guess who neglected his study for Faroese for years? Shockingly I can still understand a lot of the lyrics and I can read even better than I ever remember being able to!)

Their first album won the title of Album of the Millennium in the Faroe Islands and they even came out with a sequel, just titled “Tvey” (“Two”).

That first album, just titled “Terji og Føstufressar”, concludes with the following harrowing song, with a chorus I’ve  never forgotten: Snjóhvíta dúgvan er skotin til jarðar, sorlaðir liggja nú menniskjans sjálvgjørdu verjugarðar.  “The snow-white dove is shot to the ground, it lies now, broken, mankind’s self-imposed line of defense”

And just listen to those sound effects at the end:

 

 

(That entire album is available on YouTube in Karaoke form if you want to sing along ,by the way).

 

And their second album contains this gem at the end. This song pretty much goes like “I really like spending time with you and I feel something… [mood whiplash in the course] … pity you and I aren’t getting together because you’re married and have kids!”

 

 

  1. Children’s Music Available from VIT

http://kvf.fo/vit/sending/sv/sangir

I bet you didn’t know you could play flash games in Faroese either! Click “spøl” on the link above. You can also get the highest possible score on the marshmallow game if you literally do nothing after angling the vehicle on an upward tilt after collecting one marshmallow (interestingly you get a game over when it gets so big that you have no choice but to hit yourself. Oh, it’s a snake clone, sorry if it wasn’t clear from the outset).

 

  1. Rasmus Rasmussen

 

One of the most sublime musicians I’ve ever heard in my life, Rasmus Rasmussen’s instrumental guitar music is a divine experience that you just simply have to partake of.

 

His life story sadly involved being bullied as a result of having come out of the closet and ultimately resulted in his suicide, and it could be argued that his death and significant suffering beforehand actually spurred a change in the Faroe Islands, in which homosexuality wasn’t always viewed kindly.

 

Within the past few years, I think the Faroe Islands have really changed in this regard (although definitely let me know more about this if you know more).

 

Let’s treat you to some of Rasmus’s music in his memory:

 

 

 

 

His digital albums are available at this bandcamp website, accessible here:

https://rasmusrasmussen.bandcamp.com/

 

  1. Eivør

 

Probably one of the most recognizable voices in the Faroe Islands, Eivør Pálsdóttir combines primeval influences that echo not only the magnificent landscape of the Faroese but also of pre-Christian times.

 

 

Interestingly, some of the growling noises that you hear in many of her songs have an uncanny resemblance to Inuit throat-singing (which is heard more often in places like Canada and the USA given that Danish missionaries banned it in Greenland).

 

 

  1. Kári P.

A folk singer that always seems to carry tunes that you know you’ve heard before, but can never recognize exactly where from:

  1. Tyr

 

I learned from my Greenlandic music to save my heavy metal for the end. In honor of Ólavsøka, I figured I had to include the national anthem in here somewhere. Here it is. *smirk* (And yes, it is instrumental)

 

 

  1. Hamferð

 

It means “Phantom” or “Vision” in Faroese, and they acquired a lot of attention back in March 2015 when they became the first-ever humans to film a music video during a solar eclipse.

 

Now, while they are a heavy metal band, keep in mind that this version is actually comparatively tame:

 

 

And last and certainly not least, let’s introduce you to the way they actually sound in their albums:

 

 

I remember one time I successfully got someone to think that the screaming voice you hear in the first song was actually how Faroese was spoken on a day-to-day basis.

Just kidding.

I was told “Ha. I’m not that gullible”.

 

 

Appendix: Song Lyrics

 

The Faroe Islands may be a small country, but there’s a HUGE collection of song lyrics (in Faroese only) that you can use with learning as well as your Karaoke evenings or cover songs:

http://sangtekstir.com/sangir/

 

Did I leave your favorite Faroese musician out?

Are you a Faroese musician and did I leave YOU out?

Let me know in the comments!

Góða Ólavsøku!

How to Use the Pokémon Animated Cartoon Series to Learn Languages!

pokemon piste fee

Screenshot from the Finnish-Language Pokémon Website.

Few cartoon series have been localized as widely as the journeys of Ash Ketchum and his many friends. In addition to the usual advantages of using TV series to learn languages (patterns and repetition are essential in creating a space for your target language in your brain), the Pokémon Anime also endows a number of unique quirks that are definitely worth mentioning.

If you came here to find a listicle, you’re absolutely right!

 

  • The Cartoons are Available for Free Online 

On The Pokémon Company’s official website, as of the time of writing, you can access the site in the following languages: English, Spanish (EU), French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese (Brazil), Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish. (There is also the Japanese site as well but I can’t really access the site map aside from a Pokémon Go download link as of the time of writing).

You can use the versions of the site in order to access (from anywhere in the world, mind you) not only various episodes of the anime but also various flash games that are completely localized in all of these languages. There are other features on the site as well, and obviously in the bigger languages the site is more complete (with a Pokédex available in some of these languages).

Furthermore, the content and layout of the anime episodes will vary depending on language and sometimes they “rotate”, so when you access the site on different days or weeks you’ll get different episodes.

To access the website in these languages, just type in “pokemon.com/XX”, where XX is one of the letter codes: ES (Spanish), BR (Portuguese), DE (German), FR (French), IT (Italian), RU (Russian), NL (Dutch), SE (Swedish), NO (Norwegian), DK (Danish) and FI (Finnish). Pokemon.com takes you to the English version of the site.

Once you’re on the site, click on the TV icon and have fun! (Or you can fiddle around and browse all the while).

If you are not learning one of those languages, you can also access, via YouTube or other sites, the anime in the following languages (and probably many more, depending on where in the world you are): Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Latin Spanish, Portuguese (EU), Czech and Romanian. (If I missed any, let me know in the comments. I know that the anime is sometimes localized into languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese, but I can’t find any depositories of them online, although sometimes the Pokémon movies are available in all of the languages listed on this page with more ease. Sometimes these movies will be available on the websites).

 

  • The Speed of the Dialogue is Perfect for a Beginner-to-Intermediate Learner

 

This was oddly consistent throughout a lot of the localizations of the anime, as well as the English Dub.

What’s also very odd about the speed is that speaking at the speed that many of the characters do in the Pokémon anime is actually completely natural for a native speaker.

While learning Hebrew, Russian and Spanish in high school and college, one extraordinary hurdle I had was that I was addressed in low-speed “Learnerese” a lot of the time. Then thrown into the real world of these languages, I really didn’t know how to speak like anything natural. The same was true with most of the teachers that addressed me as well (although there were noteworthy exceptions).

One thing I really liked about the Pokémon TV show in various languages was that it presented the perfect speed for a learner that was anywhere between beginner and intermediate. It wasn’t too slow, but it also was just the right speed that was suitable for a conversation.

Granted, there are some more challenging parts, primarily the Team Rocket Motto (which is probably the most difficult portion for learners to understand), but above all most of the dialogue should be at a manageable speed for you.

And even if you don’t understand it, the Pokémon anime can still be helpful for a learner because…

 

  • The Pokémon Anime is Rich is Visual Context Clues

 

When Team Rocket talks about their plans to capture Pikachu, often you’ll notice that a significant amount of illustrations and animated visuals accompany their plan. You can actually use this in order to make out what is happening even if you really don’t have a clue what’s being said.

Keep in mind, kids learn their first languages with the aids of cartoons like these, and these visual cues help them…and that means they can also help you!

Another example in which visual cues are also used is when Ash and his friends encounter a landscape or a cityscape or a colony of Pokemon (among many other things). You’ll also notice that every member of Ash’s party often remarks on what is being said. Pay attention to these short phrases. They’ll be extremely useful throughout your language learning journey.

Also, during battles, note that some key words are also repeated at key actions, as well as various words and styles used depending on what emotions the characters are feeling. Anime is very rich in expressing people’s emotions across many different lines, so that should also help.

Speaking of battles…

 

  • In Some Localizations and Seasons, the names of Pokémon and their Techniques will be in English. Use this for accent training.

 

In Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and German, the Pokémon’s names will be localized. In all other languages they will use the English versions of the Pokémon names, and in the Nordic dubs in the later seasons the techniques will also be recited in English (although the names of the Pokémon types are NEVER localized).

You can use this to your advantage if you really want to train your accent in these languages if you pay attention to the quirks in how these English names and words are pronounced by the voice actors.

If you’re a native English speaker, pay attention to pronunciations that may sound strange to you. Even in the Nordic dubs I’ve caught a handful of complicated Latinate technique names being butchered, although examples escape me.

Interestingly, in comparison to casual speech in many of these languages, the dubs are significantly low on English loan words (the way that German or Dutch in particular tend to use them very often). You may be able to snag one once in a while, even in languages like Portuguese and Russian in which Anglicisms are rarer than in languages like Norwegian.

 

  • The Pokemon Anime Provides a Plethora of Stimuli that Can Serve as Memory Techniques

 

If you hear a phrase or a word you need to remember, you’re going to forget it easily unless you find something to “connect” it with. It could be a funny incident involving the word, it could be a story involving the word, or you could associate it with your environment or feelings at the time.

(This is why learning the language in an immersive environment is so helpful.)

The Anime provides memorable characters in the Pokémon themselves, as well as a host of settings and music tracks that you can connect to the phrases you’re taking in.

And we haven’t even touched on the possibility that you can also connect various words and phrases to plot points in the story. Not also to mention you can do what kids do: re-watch your favorite episodes endlessly (again, this is how kids learn their first language!)

 

  • Various Portions have No Dialogue at all (or Dialogue in Pokémon Speech). Use This Time to Reflect on What Words You’ve Heard and How to Internalize Them.

 

One thing that can be frustrating about watching Pokémon in a language you’re learning is that sometimes the action shifts to having the cute monsters hop around the screen or just looking at landscapes or, true to anime fashion, just having characters look at each other with menacing stares (in addition to many other down-time situations that I haven’t touched on!)

Use this time in order to develop memory techniques to fully internalize any words you’ve learned earlier on in the episode.

Also, if you’re having trouble picking up words, feel free to type something that sounds like it into Google Translate or another dictionary thing. It will usually correct you, especially if it is a phonetic language. Otherwise, if you don’t have a translator, you can use context clues. This is especially helpful if you’ve seen the episode before in a language you understand better.

 

Conclusion

 

One of the most successful animated cartoon shows in history can be used as a learning tool with surprising efficiency, given its ability to weave words with storylines and illustrations. The episodes themselves are perfect for a learner seeking to make his or her way out of the “language learner material ghetto” (as All Japanese All the Time refers to it as).

I should mention that I don’t have a lot of experience using this show with East Asian Languages given that my East Asian Languages that I’m working on ever-so-slightly (Burmese and Lao) don’t have localizations (as far as I know).

So if you’ve had experience doing that, let me know what I missed out on! Part of me thinks it may not all be that different!

 

Happy Watching!

 

 

I Want to Learn ALL THE LANGUAGES. What Do I Do?

No, the answer is not “settle for less”. Perish the thought!

Yes, I am aware that there are some polyglots out there that think about “how many languages it is possible to know” and while I admire the work of all of them in helping other people fulfill their dreams, I think that posturing out that topic is pointless.

There are just too many variables at hand and often I’ve noticed a lot of them address the topic in very defensive terms (e.g. if my friends say it takes X amount of time to reach level Y, that’s what it is. Done. Don’t argue with it).

I’m amazed by the human mind and I think that we haven’t even harnessed 1/10th of its true power. Given how much of my career I’ve spent flying in the face of the word “can’t”, I’m going to continue to do so and give no regard as to how many “can’t”’s or “won’t”’s I hear about.

Personally, I may want to learn 100 languages of the course of my life. Who knows? Maybe new technology would make it possible. You can never be too sure!

IMG_4523

Right now, however, I’d like to address a topic that WAY too many people have asked me about: namely, “I want to learn (lists twelve languages)”, and I really want all of them but I can’t choose! Help!

I’d like to thank Jon “Iron Jon” Richardson and Luke Truman for providing the inspiration for this post. You guys are an inspiration for me! Keep it up!

The one thing you should definitely know is that it is possible to sate your curiosity.

If you want to get on the road to being a polyglot, I would recommend the following course of action that I heard about from the one-and-only Olly Richards (someone who I have to thank for my success!):

30-minutes a day -> your dream language.

Engage with it in some fashion.

Right now, I’m focusing on Hungarian during my time that is not spent in front of a camera. This means that while I’m in the subway, I’ll be listening to Hungarian language learning materials and soon I’ll be able to graduate to music and podcasts before I know it.

If I’m sick of listening to things or looking at screens, I have book as well. If I need a break from work, I have the fantastic world of television and cartoons to explore in Hungarian. My Facebook and Pinterest accounts are currently translated in it.

So feel free to pick the one that pulls at your heartstrings the most (ask yourself!) and set aside a routine. Set up decorations in your room or on your desktop wallpaper to remind yourself. Set up “reward loops” (e.g. 15 days in a row of my 30-minute routine and I get a new book / video game / phone / fancy dinner)

However, during this time, you probably have the eleven-odd other languages that I want to learn at least a little about, and so I’ll write some techniques to keep you “sated” during that time.

  • Use the Memrise Mobile App

 

As of 2017, Memrise’s Mobile App can be significantly less stressful than the Desktop App (even though the Desktop version is higher reward, I should say).

 

As a result, use it to explore various languages that are “on your hit list” while you’re focusing on the one you want most.

 

It will give you an extraordinary head start when you actually decide you know your other languages well enough to start focusing on a new one.

 

  • Travel Literature

 

This will help you learn about the various places attached to your dream languages (although there are a handful of languages with which you can’t really do this, Esperanto comes to mind immediately because it was deliberately designed to be a language rooted in no specific place).

If you can go to the library, go to the travel section and read about these places there. The place-names will definitely help you learn the local language to a small degree of manageable bites. There may also be phrasebooks incorporated not only in the appendices but also throughout the text sometimes!

 

  • Learning the Pronunciation

 

Yes, some languages have more difficult pronunciation than others, but this is definitely the easiest part of learning a language (in my opinion) and virtually impossible to forget (according to my experience).

You may not be able to learn 11 languages at the same time very effectively (although maybe you can! If you have a routine, let me know!) but you would definitely be able to master their pronunciations, especially if they are phonetic (which the majority of languages in the world are. For those you don’t know what phonetic is, this means that words are always spelled the way they are written. English is not Phonetic. Every Creole Language I’ve ever encountered is…well, those that have standardized written forms, that is).

  • Learn Grammatical Tidbits.

Learning the new words of a new language takes significantly more work than actually paying attention to the grammatical quirks of a language.

I’m not really actively learning Khmer at this point, but I’ve been paying attention to the sentence structure and what sort of grammar I can expect when I actually dive into the language.

This is especially helpful if the grammar has a notorious reputation for being impenetrable (such as those of the Finno-Ugric Languages).

“Oh, this suffix means ‘in’, this suffix means ‘into’, this suffix means ‘from’…what fun!”

Oh, and those “suffixes” that I actually spoke of are the cases. That’s really all that those 15+ cases in those languages actually are. Most of them are straight-up prepositions. I bet you entire worldview has changed now, hasn’t it?

  • Make a List

Right now on my desktop I have a huge document of all the languages I’d like to learn in my lifetime. It is way too large, and who knows if it is actually realistic or not (most of my friends would probably say it isn’t, although I don’t intend to learn all of those languages to fluency…)

But one thing that would help you “sate your thirst” is making a list, given that it will make you more attentive to your long-term goals, as well as pay more attention when the language or culture comes up in conversation with your friends or at a meeting.

But what if I want to actually learn eleven languages at the same time?

 

Granted, nothing is stopping you, although perhaps you are likely to get burned out easily. I’ve certainly tried that once and felt it.

However, one thing I’ve noticed even during that not-particularly productive time is that I tended to focus on a handful of languages within the eleven that I was learning. This may come to happen by default, because equally loving eleven things is going to come by with difficulty.

You’re welcome to try it, but unless you have extraordinary mental discipline it would be like walking into a tornado, and while you’d make progress with all of the languages you’re studying at once you’d feel as though it is just a bit slow.

So I would definitely recommend studying one or two at once and sating your curiosity with the rest of them using the methods above and with tiny pieces here and there.

That said, I’ll conclude with one thought: that it is possible to get your brain to do almost anything if you can somehow trick your brain into thinking that the skill you want to learn is essential to your survival (think about how often you may have forgotten a VERY important address, for example…)

Keep in mind that none of the theory that I present in this article is absolute, and I’m very much open for debate in all of this.

What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you? Let me know!

Happy learning!

 

 

3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)

10,000 Hits! You’ve Earned: A New YouTube Series!

Back when I started this blog in 2014, I was living in Heidelberg surrounded by foreigners that spoke far better German than I did. What’s more, a lot of locals had very good knowledge of English (although there were also those that had absolutely no English conversational skills whatsoever) as well as a smattering of other languages including Western European tongues and knowledge of languages of all countries that border Germany.

come back when you can put up a fight

And this is I several years later.

At first, I thought it would be a disaster. But I thought that maybe, just maybe, I would have something to offer, and that it would be better to just … TRY … and that maybe I would go down in flames, but it would be better if I were to just write something about my experiences learning languages and see what would happen.

  1. After a one-year hiatus that was due to my Lyme Disease and general “not feeling like it”, I decided to bring this blog back as part of a New Year’s Resolution. That was one of the best decisions of my life, bar none.

I’m keeping “World with Little Worlds” around, but I also have to realize that if I want to share more of my stories, then I’ll need something more.

After all, I’m one of very few polyglots that really focuses on endangered and rarer languages, even though most of my strongest languages (with the exception of Yiddish and English Creoles) don’t fit that bill. Suffice it to say that, unlike many other online polyglots, my strongest languages do not include the most powerful ones on the globe (German and Spanish I’m very good at, but I’m better at Swedish and Yiddish because, plainly put, I like them more and I like putting more time into them. I also have a sentimental connection towards Swedish, Hungarian and Yiddish in particular, given that these were languages heard within my family before I was born).

Here’s something you might not fully comprehend unless you’ve ventured down this path before:

Putting Videos of Yourself Online Speaking Languages Requires Extraordinary Bravery.

There will be people calling you fake.

No matter how good you are or what you do, people will accuse you of using machine translation, consulting with native speakers, reading from the screen or, if all else fails, insult you for your choice of languages or dislike your video because you didn’t learn a language from their country or, in some cases, their continent.

And here’s another shocking fact:

Most of the people saying bad things about your video are actually NOT people who speak only one language!

Odd but true. The majority of polyglot-skepticism I’ve encounter have overwhelmingly been from people who speak two to three languages very well and are, in some cases, bilingual from birth. More often than not a lot of these people comes from places that have had history (or a present) of linguistic persecution of minorities (I will not name these countries, you know what they are).

Suffice it to say that, despite the hatred I have been getting (as well as the praise and thank-you-notes), I have decided that I’m going to continue with more videos.

And to that end, I’ve decided to undertake a number of YouTube projects in honor of 10,000 hits.

Let me tell you about some of them:

 

Language Learning Documentation 

 

Right now there’s an ongoing series on my page in which I’m learning Palauan. But here’s the thing: I’m literally documenting all the time that I’m spending with the language, so that you can see how the process of becoming A1 (or possibly even higher) in a language is actually carried out!

I pronounce a lot of the words in interesting ways. I laugh at myself. I realize that mistakes are a part of this journey. Nevertheless, I persist.

Palauan is a lovely language and the website I’m using (tekinged.com) says that Palauans are very fun to talk to.

For those unaware, Palau is a Pacific Island nation, located somewhere between the Philippines and the Island of Papua, located perpendicular to them both and not too far from Indonesia either.

I highly recommend you carry through with this experience, it will not only motivate you but also show you exactly what goes into this process.

 

 

A handful of other languages have been lined up as “you’re next” in this series, not also to mention other plans for languages that I’ve studied but that I’m not fluent in yet.

What’s more, given that I live in New York City, something like Moses McCormick’s “Level Up” series is in order.

(For those unaware, this means that you walk around stores and streets and other public places and you engage with people in their native language, note reactions and learn how to improve!)

But another post on that will definitely come in its own time. Right now I’m very worried about overstepping the boundaries with using published materials and it costing me a copyright strike AND my place in the YouTube Partner Program.

And that’s without even getting into the idea of possibly filming people without their consent. But hey, I should at least try it for the sake of linguistic diversity, now, shouldn’t I? And anyone who doesn’t want to be filmed can easily be cut out, right?

More on that next time!

Because right now I have to teach!

Thanks for 10,000 views, folks! Just wait till ya see what happens when this reaches 100,000!

Oh, and…here’s your map!

10008 views

 

Could I get everywhere else?

I Want to Learn Icelandic. Where Do I Start? What Do I Do?

Presenting, yet again, the language that I’ve seen people quit the most…but one reason that a lot of Icelandic learners struggle is because they don’t know of (1) avenues to practice and (2) avenues to actually use Icelandic on the Internet.

I remember back when I was fluent in only a handful of languages (English and Yiddish were fluent, and Hebrew, Norwegian and Swedish were getting there, not to mention the various pieces of Russian, Spanish and Ancient Languages I had learned in college and my Polish from my time living in Krakow) that I wanted to try my hand at Icelandic and the only thing I ever managed to retain from that time was a few sentences:

 

Hvað er að frétta? – Sup? (Note to learners: Hv is actually pronounced with the H closer to a “K” sound in English”, so this would be “kvath er ath fryetta?” Keep in mind that ð, normally pronounced like a soft “th” sound, will fall out in quickly spoken speech)

And

Allt í lagi – Everything’s in order, OK, all good, and a dozen other meanings besides. You want to get in the habit of not pronouncing that g. That tends to fall out in quick speech too.

 

And, of course, basic greetings, like “bless!” (bye!) and “bless bless!” (bye to you too!)

Then I gave up and didn’t return until 2014, when I was in JTS. I remember it was at a Hanukkah event that I proudly told my friends that I had my first exchange in Icelandic. What a good day that. I have a vague memory of people throwing dreidels across the table, and speaking in German to my then-RA.

But one thing I’ve noticed since that time: the possibilities to practice Icelandic have just mushroomed, even if you have no access to native or fluent speakers of Icelandic where you are. This trend shows no sign of stopping, and that’s excellent for you!

So I’ll open up my toolbox and I’ll give you some websites and resources I heartily recommend.

  1. Anki

 

Anki, a flash-card program based on spaced repetition, is something I find helpful, and literally the best Anki deck I’ve ever encountered is this one:

https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/257529691

Native audio, very good pronunciation pointers, as well as a selection of sentences that actually not only highlight grammar points in a way you’ll enjoy them but also are very useful! Make sure to listen to the audio with each sentence.

I would recommend this if you’re having a lot of passive understanding of the grammar but don’t really have a good grasp of your irregular verbs or cases when you speak.

 

  1. The Transparent Language Blog

Right when I began learning Icelandic for the first time in 2012 / 2013 (and in February 2013 I actually taught a mini-Icelandic class…IN HEBREW), this blog was just coming into existence. A lot of very important cultural pointers are provided (and this is essential, given that Iceland is a place where details about the local culture are shared frequently at home and abroad).

You’ll feel like you’re genuinely coming to know the culture and the Icelandic way of thinking better with each post.

What’s more, here’s a huge collection of listening materials for Icelandic learners of all ages. Have a listen!

http://blogs.transparent.com/icelandic/2017/06/26/listening-exercises-abound/

If you have a Transparent Language account via your library (for free) or a personal account thereof (in which you pay for one language), you can also use it to have a significantly large collection of Icelandic flashcards. With the library account, you can get many other languages besides! What’s more, the Desktop version of the app is really good at gamifying the learning process and you’ll have so many ways to study it!

  1. Icelandic Disney Princess

 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf-_ldtTW1kqSF9FRwSEDIw

 

One thing that will make you a hit at any karaoke bar and get everyone talking to you is if you sing a Disney Song in Icelandic.

Even if the words on the screen show the English words, just have your phone with the Icelandic text and sing along! Almost all Karaoke organizers I’ve met have enabled this and I’ve gotten standing ovations out of this practice in Icelandic and in many other languages!

Yes, Disney’s animated canon is FULLY LOCALIZED in Icelandic with all of the songs RHYMED.

Icelandic Disney Princess creates videos of the songs with Icelandic lyrics AND English translations on the screen. You’ll really learn about how the language works in a poetic fashion this way, as well as the whole “learn while having fun” thing.

As to finding the full-length films, that’s another thing but it’s REALLY hard to do unless you live in Iceland (or maybe places like Gimli, Manitoba…where Icelandic-speaking populations reside).

 

  1. Colloquial Icelandic

 

Fun fact: this book was actually written by a native speaker of…Dutch? But, in my opinion, it’s really well put together, has very handy (although intimidating) grammar in the back, and as per all of the Routledge Colloquial series the audio is available for free online whether or not you own the book!

(My understanding is that they did this because they couldn’t keep up with YouTube language tutorials. But hey, for some languages like Breton and Tibetan it’s probably the best audio guide out there!)

 

  1. Rökkurró

 

Here’s an archived version of their website with all of their lyrics (together with their English translations) to date:

https://web.archive.org/web/20160710213851/http://rokkurro.com:80/

Rökkurró’s music is a profoundly soulful experience and also conveys many an emotion present in a wandering throughout the Icelandic countryside. Probably among the most poetic lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life, these texts are not something you forget easily.

Despite that (or perhaps because of it), these texts are fairly accessible and even for the beginning student there is a lot to be “juiced” out of these lyrics in terms of sentence structure and common verbs.

And (with a mischievous smile) see if you can guess what this song is about, just by listening to the melody:

 

  1. Clozemaster

 

The one language learning tool that I was addicted to the most, unlike I went to Myanmar and then my 150+ day streak in Icelandic turned into a goose egg.

Clozemaster.com has 9,000+ Icelandic sentences that you can sort for frequency and this will not only help you learn grammatical structures (SUPER important in Icelandic!) but also train you to read with ease.

I know how tempting it is to just simply see an Icelandic text, see long words and easily run away from it. You have to build up to having it not be scary and Clozemaster is here for you.

 

  1. Ásgeir Trausti

 

One time I was teaching a Hebrew/Swedish double feature in a chain restaurant (out of convenience because that’s where my student wanted me to meet).

I had heard Ásgeir Trausti’s music in Icelandic many times before, but little did I know that English translations of his songs became very popular in the English-speaking world.

Upon an English lyrical version of this song on the restaurant radio, I was so shocked that I almost dropped all my books on the floor:

 

 

“This is originally an Icelandic song!” I said in an incredulous high-pitched voice, “I had no idea I would hear an Icelandic song in an American chain store!”

And then apparently, upon doing some research, the song in question is “King and Cross”, which is one you’ve heard before, no doubt.

 

  1. RUV

 

“Ríkisútvarpið”, may look scary to you at first, but as an English speaker you actually recognize all three components.

This is why Icelandic is easier for you as an English speaker than you think.

It means “national broadcasting corporation” but if I translate it as “Reich out warp”, you can see exactly how that transfers into the long Latinate words you would recognize (although “broadcast” is not Latin in origin).

Lotsa stuff to watch. Give it a watch.

 

  1. The Fantastic World of Icelandic Gangsta Rap

 

WARNING: Not for beginners. At all.

This is more like “Icelandic learners with a vaguely masochistic side”.

Aside from using a lot of English loanwords, the Rap scene in Icelandic is littered with references that you would just barely understand as an outsider.

To that end, some lyrics are posted on genius.com with annotations (in Icelandic) explaining many of the finer aspects that may not come to you when rappers are speed-reciting their texts). And you may have to translate a lot of the texts yourself, but hey, that’ll be fun, right?

However, I did try to find something significantly tame for learners and here’s one song I’d definitely like to share (and probably the most straightforward for intermediate or even beginning learners), an ode to Reykjavik, the city that is ours and that never sleeps:

 

And I look forward to seeing Reykjavik again in October!

2015-08-20 14.50.06