I’m Presenting for the First Time at a Conference in a Language Other Than English. How Do I Feel?

Happy Birthday Mom! This post is for you.

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I may or may have not been writing about it here but I’m presenting at the Polyglot Gathering twice next month (actually in a month from this week!) One talk on the Kiribati language in Yiddish, and the other talk on Niuean in Swedish, and both of these talks are aimed at absolute beginners. (I don’t even think I remember anyone other than myself having learned any indigenous language of Oceania at the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik. To his credit, Richard Simcott did learn some words of Tongan, from me, and speaks with a great accent.)

This piece is going to be on the short side and a bit of a stream-of-consciousness sort of thing.

For one, I feel relieved. English is one of the languages of my ancestors, but Yiddish and Swedish are “closer to home”, so-to-speak (my great-grandparents on opposite sides of my family spoke those, I should also mention Hungarian and Russian as well).

I also feel as though it is a bit of a “polyglot prize”, in a sense, something that non-native English speakers can be handed for free but for native English speakers having opportunities to present in other languages may be scarce. (Yiddish? How many times to I get to present in that? And so close to the historical Jewish quarter of Bratislava no less? I’m so glad they went along with my suggestion!)

And then of course cruel YouTube commenters will have no choice but to be quiet and my legitimacy will be further cemented online, but that’s just a minor treat.

On the other hand, I’m worried about grammatical mistakes or otherwise being unable to find the right words. Also due to influence from Swedish youth culture, injecting in English phrases is something I do naturally when speaking Swedish and I may have to turn it off completely for this one (except if I’m reading something in English from the slides, given that Niue is, after all, not only English speaking but a former British colony. A book I cite in the presentation is from 1907, which is TWO YEARS after Niue was colonized).

Also another thing: the fact that I’m presenting on languages that I don’t know as well as my fluent languages. I haven’t been told how my accent sounds in either of them, but certainly a lot better than my first attempts at Kiribati which are enshrined in posterity in my YouTube channel. That said, I would imagine that given that people have told me that people appreciate all attempts to speak a language like Hawaiian or Maori (not also to mention my overwhelmingly positive reception as a foreign Fijian speaker in Fiji), the Niueans and I-Kiribati will be no different. (As a Jew I’m a minority myself and so I am tuned into issues of sensitivity and I LOVE it when gentiles learn about my culture/s, and the more the better).

I teach non-English classes all the time (and I’m about to do so again in twenty minutes). That’s not what I’m worried about at all. Perhaps the idea of being judged in an audience is something heavier. But I also imagine that most audiences will be forgiving, the same way that I am forgiving of English mistakes even on the university level, as long as people can express ideas (and often non-native speakers are a lot clearer than native speakers, even with limited vocabulary).

This is going to be fun. Any experiences you’ve had presenting in your non-native language/s? How did they go?

Why the Jerry Cans (the Musical Band from Nunavut) is Everything Music Should Be

Happy 20th birthday, Nunavut! Well, technically speaking, it was yesterday (given that Nunavut became a Canadian province on April 1st, 1999), but who would take an article seriously if I were to publish it then?

I first discovered Inuktitut (which I have paused for several years ever since my bout with Lyme Disease in 2015, during which I wasn’t actively writing on this or any other blog) due to KNR (the Greenlandic National Broadcasting service).

They showed this music video (turn on CC for English subtitles):

My first thought was to imagine how many Americans would react to seeing the video (use your imagination). My second thought was the fact that the music was not only extraordinarily catchy and familiar but it also showed a genuine desire to showcase everything that daily life in the Arctic is for the community.

Also what’s amazing about the Jerry Cans is the fact that it showcases both Inuktitut and English at regular intervals in many of its songs, as well as the fact that their songs serve as a culture guidebook to the region.

In case you’re curious about the name, it was, if I recall correctly, named after the fact that during their first jam session they used Jerry Cans as makeshift percussion. (I believe they’re used to power snowmobiles) Obviously the jerry cans themselves were substituted for real drums, but the name stuck.

While this song isn’t one of my personal favorites from the band, the fact that it mentions the struggles that Arctic shoppers have has always made it memorable for me in another sense:

And also different cultural perspectives are in order as well, including this song that, in my opinion, no one truly ever forgets:

“This one goes out to environmental propaganda / Dear PETA, you know we can’t stand ya!” (This song will be thought-provoking no matter who you are).

Also note the presence of Inuit throat singing in the song as well, which is, I should note, conspicuously absent from most Greenlandic music (because Danish missionaries banned it in). That said, Rasmus Lyberth from Greenland does also feature something like it in some of his songs.

More controversial issues aside however (or…what people in my area would consider them), the Jerry Cans’ music is positively sublime and captures perfectly the feeling of strolling around the Arctic and admiring all that humanity cannot create.

Check the video description for the lyrics and their English translation.

(I should also remember that I saw many of the hides that you see in the video also present throughout the National Museum of Greenland during my visit there).

In a world of growing cultural divides, I think the world needs a lot more music like this that genuinely causes worlds to open up to people and ignites the curiosity that we all innately have as humans.

Feel free to check and purchase their music on iTunes should you feel so inspired.

Their website is also bilingual in Inuktitut and English as well: https://www.thejerrycans.com/home

Happy 20th birthday, Nunavut!

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Introducing My World, My Everything: WwLW’s Relationship Advice Column for Multilinguals and Language Learners

April is here and with it, as with the beginning of every month,  comes an opportunity for introspection.

So as some of you know I have two primary spheres of my life filled with multilingualism.

One of these is my freelancing business which involves both translating and teaching. Another one of them involves the various language social events I attend on a weekly basis.

There is one aspect of crossover that is had in both of these spheres and that is the fact that often I encounter people who learn languages for the sake of love – either love they’ve found already, or love they seek to find.

It is one of the primary reasons, according to some, that people undertake language learning to begin with. Over half of my students have sited a partner as the primary motivation to learn their target language.

There have only been a handful of articles and podcasts I’ve seen address this topic, among them pieces by Benny Lewis and Olly Richards, and here I am ready to announce “My World, My Everything”, which is going to be a spinoff blog launching on Tu B’av (the Jewish “Valentine’s Day”) later on this year (some time in the summer, I’m too lazy to check a calendar).

The primary focus on the blog is going to be relationship advice, primarily for established couples given that this is one of my primary sources of clientele. But there will also be advice for single multilinguals as well.

Here are some topics I’ll be addressing, feel free to suggest some of your own:

  1. Is there a sexiest language? (Hint: not really, the ones you are passionate about the most will make your personality radiate when you speak them).
  2. How to use your significant other as a human instant fluency pill.
  3. How to use your languages or your national / ethnic background to bolster your attractiveness (most of these principles are not gender-specific).
  4. The do’s and don’t’s of learning a language because you fancy a particular native speaker / a nationality in general.
  5. How to convince your beloved to use his or her native language with you (even if s/he wants to use another language instead).
  6. How to be the best language teacher your boy/girlfriend could ask for.
  7. How to find heart-melting ultra-sappy love songs (and the like) in your partner’s target language. Oh, and how to use it properly.
  8. How to learn a language together.
  9. How to make cultural gaps and differences a source of love rather than a source of tension.
  10. How to use languages to repair your relationship, to recover from fights or to get your ex back together with you.

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AND LASTLY…

Some of you may know books that deal with culture differences in general. Some of these books I highly recommend checking out include “When Cultures Collide” as well as the “Xenophobes’ Guides” (these are humorous) as well as the “Culture Smart!” books.

A number of relationship guides for various cultures are also in the world, ones that will seek to foster mutual understanding and a spirit of undying love with people across cultures from all over the world.

What are some of the nationalities you’d like to see covered in this series? Let me know!

Anything else you’d like to see covered? Write things in the comments!

Hope April 1st is treating you well!

People Who “Hate” Their Native Languages: My Perspective

Beware the Ides of March!

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Today’s topic is an interesting one that I’m surprised hasn’t been touched on in almost any language-learning blog I’ve encountered.

For many years I’ve heard comments like these:

 

“(Speaker’s native language) is the most useless language in existence”

“(Speaker’s native language) is only useful 0.1% of the time.”

“I suppose there are a lot better things to do with your time (rather than study my native language)”

“Why the fuck do you want to learn (speaker’s native language)?”

“I think my native language is boring”

“I would trade my native language for…”

 

I should mention two things:

  • I’ve been guilty of this myself. Part of me wishes that English wasn’t my native language. That was literally the second blog post I ever wrote about on this blog, actually!
  • Almost all of the people who made comments like these were westerners (although I’ve heard some people from Asia or the Americas do the same, too—but not as frequently. From Africa and the Pacific, not to date).

 

Before I continue I’m going to say that I do NOT include people who actively dislike their language due to trauma. (e.g. “my grandmother was a native German speaker from Nazi Germany and after she left she refused to speak German ever again”. Disclaimer: this describes neither of my grandmothers). That’s beyond the scope of what I feel qualified to talk about, and in the event you DO encounter someone like that, avoid that language altogether without questions. End of story.

 

But as far as ordinary people who somehow feel that they could trade their native language (or one of their native languages) for another one, there are some things that I’ve noticed.

 

  • Sometimes they just say that in order to get you to validate their native language.

 

YES. This has happened to me. Enough for me to write about it.

 

Only yesterday was I in a Talmud class and we had a discussion about the fact that, according to Jewish law, prospective converts have to be refused three times (in order to show that they are genuinely serious about becoming Jewish, regardless of what liabilities it may bring them in the future).

 

Sometimes someone who says “why bother learning (my language) if so few people speak it / everyone in my country speaks English anyhow / it’s ‘useless’” may actually want you to justify your decision passionately. Or they may actually want to hear your story in detail but don’t want to ask directly.

 

The more fluent you are in a language, the LESS this will happen, especially if your accent is good.

 

There’s a reason for that, actually. Because if you speak it well enough, it shows that you’ve had a good enough reason to invest a lot of time into it, so your reason will almost CERTAINLY not be within the realm of questioning (e.g. having done business there, married to or dating a native speaker, etc.)

 

  • If they use ANY amount of the language with you at all beyond basic greetings, they really DON’T hate their native language. Especially if they show telltale signs of enchantment.

 

If they did (and yes, I have encountered a handful of cases in which they did), they wouldn’t smile if you speak their language, they would instead appear disgusted and a tad confused. They wouldn’t be continuing the conversation in the “useless language” and playing along with you with smiles as they do it.

 

This is the case with me and English. I may have extremely conflicted opinions about American English, but if someone wants to learn it from me, I’ll usually play along rather than act frustrated (especially if someone really needs help with his or her English). Because whether I like it or not, American-ness is a part of who I am (in addition to my other identities).

 

  • Sometimes this attitude can reflect a certain sense of jealousy (that we ALL have) about speakers of certain languages.

 

I’m hugely jealous of Greenlandic native speakers. I make no secret of that fact. (It still remains the hardest language I’ve ever attempted to learn, bar none, to the degree that if someone lists a major language as the hardest to learn, I’m secretly scoffing on the inside.)

 

Throughout Europe I’ve met many people who view American English native speakers as lottery winners and view them with a certain sort of jealousy that they can’t hide. And yes, you will make friends JUST by virtue of that fact alone, especially with people who feel that they need the conversational practice or even knowledge about American culture (this is true no matter WHAT your native language is, actually! Someone out there is looking for you! This can also be the case if you’re a fluent speaker of a language, even non-natively).

 

My knowledge of whatever native languages I can’t have and I can’t catch up with will almost certainly never be on the level of a native speaker. But I can try and keep learning. And if it is of any comfort to you, my knowledge of other English-speaking cultures and their idioms are also going to be out of reach in terms of “perfection” as well.

 

But you don’t need to be a native speaker to be good. Far from it, in fact.

 

  • Unless someone brings up a traumatic incident or shows signs of vexation, do NOT take “I hate my native language / I think it’s useless” comments seriously.

 

And there also is a chance that you just MIGHT need to get better at their language in order to get them to warm up to you!

 

One last thing: you can actually use this to your advantage to keep conversations in your target language (which I’ve noticed is becoming less and less of an issue the more experienced I get. It was a noteworthy issue back in 2014 and is almost NOTHING now, but we’ll see how Austria and Slovakia fare later this year on that front). Benny Lewis famously would bring up his English-language Catholic school experiences in order to guilt people away from using English with him in places like Spain. I’ve never had to go to that length but I’m certainly willing to describe the darker sides of my American experience (which I won’t go into right now).

 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

How to Decide on a Costume (for Purim, Halloween, etc.)

Happy February everyone!

This is an off-topic post that has nothing to do with language learning at all. Sorry! But perhaps I should actually write more of these.

So a holiday or theme party is coming up and you know that you want to dress up as SOMETHING, but you can’t exactly decide what.

This serves to document my personal process of how to come up with WHAT costume I should pick, not necessarily how I should assemble it (luckily, as of the time of writing, one of my best friends is about to get an advanced degree in Fashion and so he will be helping me put my Purim costume together this year!)

Fotka Jareda Gimbela.

WHAT MY COSTUME SHOULD BE:

  • I usually want it to be a particular character rather than just “a class” (e.g. J.P. Morgan rather than just “a robber baron”). I can make an exception for this if the class is considerably distinctive.
  • No cultural appropriating (my personal heritage is okay, so in high school I’ve done Viking costumes).
  • Props are good
  • Colors are good
  • Lots of attention to detail.
  • Having the “homemade look” is not only acceptable but encouraged (especially for Purim which is wacky enough as is).
  • The primary goal should not be to have other people recognize your costume. It’s great if they do, but don’t have it be the primary focus. Playing towards your own tastes works wonders.
  • Comfortable, or at the VERY LEAST can be comfortable with removable pieces (e.g. I can take headwear off and I’d be okay).

WHERE I GET INSPIRATION:

At the times in which I need to get thinking about what sort of costume to wear (or even when it is NOWHERE NEAR Purim or Halloween or Lord-Knows-What at all), I pay attention to character designs in films / video games / art in museums .

I pay particular attention to how such a character would fit my body type – male, dark hair, average height and weight, broad shoulders, quite muscular.

That said, some of these can be “flexible” but I really can’t pull off the look of a pale-skinned blond man or a dark-skinned character native to equatorial climates.

I understand that there are definitely certain types of people over-represented in popular culture than others (e.g. over-representation of white people in Hollywood films), but there always IS something, no matter who you are.

Another thing I keep in mind is that I see experiencing media (such as looking at paintings or movies) as “trying on clothing”, in a sense—imagining how I would behave in the suit of such characters. If there is any character that you feel particularly “clicks” with your personality, then you really may be onto something.

Lastly you don’t need to get EVERY SINGLE detail in your “target costume”. The most important colors, hair-styles and props are all that are necessary. If you can do that, great! But if you can’t, don’t disqualify a very good idea.

Happy costuming!

 

The State of Being Able to Learn the Nauruan Language in 2019

Happy 51st Birthday Nauru!

Today I’m going to speak about my experience with (trying to) learn Nauruan, which collapsed several times due to no fault of my own.

First off, the Nauruan language does have significant boons that some smaller languages don’t have.

There’s Nauruan Wikipedia you can visit at https://na.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bwiema_peij

There’s a predictive Nauruan-language keyboard available with SwiftKey (I can’t say how good the predictions are, but it seems to be better than the Greenlandic one).

Music is readily available on YouTube and it seems that even the most translated website in existence (I am speaking about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Organizational Page, translated into 700+ languages) has a good deal of text and even audio. While a lot of material from JW does end up in Glosbe’s translation database, this hasn’t been the case with Nauruan as of the time of writing.

There isn’t a single book for learning the Nauruan language that is user-friendly. There is a German-Language Grammar that I wrote about earlier this month. It’s about as user-friendly as it gets: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

It is from before World War I and it seems that the orthography is quite different from what you can find on the aforementioned Nauruan Wikipedia. (Reminder to those unaware: Nauruan was once a German colony).

The advantages to this book: the grammar is clearly laid out, there are even texts for learning and a helpful dictionary. The one disadvantage is that it is probably not going to prepare you to have your first conversation. Take phrasebooks from Lonely Planet, Berlitz or Reise Know How / Kauderwelsch. Those TRAIN you to learn things that are instantly useful within a matter of minutes. This book isn’t like that.

Then we get to Stephen Trussel’s website. His work with Kiribati / Gilbertese has not only been fantastic but actually made my studies of that enchanting language POSSIBLE (I can’t thank him enough for what he has done). Concerning Nauruan, he did put a dictionary online that I in turn converted into a Memrise course (along with some other sources).

I decided to put it online and you can access it here. It probably won’t make you fluent or make you even conversational but it may be useful: https://www.memrise.com/course/1794555/nauruan/

There are some other grammars and courses that I’ve seen referenced in scholarship, but I cannot acquire copies of any of them. Part of me was hoping to get an accessible Nauruan language learning textbook when I visited the University of the South Pacific. They didn’t have anything in the way of Nauruan language materials when I went in August 2018 (as far as I could see), but they did have Cook Islands Maori / Rarotongan and Tuvaluan stuff (again, that trip made my TUVALUAN studies possible!).

Here’s what I think needs to be done in order to make the Nauruan Language accessible. I think that there are a lot of people who will appreciate being able to learn “the language of the world’s smallest independent republic”.

  • I would like to translate that Nauruan Grammar book and hopefully publish it but I don’t know how to go about doing it and / or updating the orthography.
  • A “Hacking Nauruan Course” should be made accessible. A native speaker could throw it together in an afternoon. It should have pronouns, “to have”, “to want”, conjunctions, question words, a pronunciation guide and a sentence structure guide. It could be on Memrise, Anki, or even on a free blog. A YouTube tutorial would also be fantastic.
  • Some variety of phrasebook, even a free one, should be made available. I think the Lonely Planet Fijian guide was very well put together and I think something in a similar structure would make Nauruan less intimidating. In it should be phrases related to lodging, restaurants and other everyday topics.

 

Perhaps some may think, “well, why bother with a language with so few native speakers?”

Well, I think that in the age of great language death, a lot of people are caring a lot more than they used to. And perhaps it may inspire someone to visit the country or otherwise spread knowledge about this tiny island that others in the world deserve to know about.

Naoero eko dogin! (Nauru Forever!)

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