An Enlightening Conversation with Richard Howeson, Founder of Britain’s Biggest Language Learning Company

In October 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Richard Howeson, the founder of uTalk. Since I discovered it over the summer (and became a subscriber less than a month later), uTalk has been a godsend for every area of my language life.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 17

For one, it has enhanced my pronunciation greatly, as well as teaching phrases that are useful in conversation and focusing on getting you to SPEAK above all else. The various professionalized skills are also extremely useful, such as ones related to the Olympics, Golf and even rescue missions (!)

Before I present the conversation to you (well…what I edited down to something easy to read), I should also add that Richard, in addition to having brought uTalk into existence and won royal awards several times (as to be discussed below), also keeps himself both physically agile with an impressive variety of sports and mentally agile with uTalk. I’ve heard that he is someone who enjoys cycling, bike polo, sailing and windsurfing.

The languages I am learning with uTalk right now are primarily Greenlandic (on Monday and Thursday) as well as Hungarian (on Tuesday and Friday) and Vietnamese (on Sunday and Wednesday). That said, I’ve also hopped around with various other languages in uTalk, most notably in Southeast Asia (Lao, Khmer and Burmese) and in Oceania (Samoan, but also reviewing Fijian and Tok Pisin to see how the app approaches those topics). Then, of course, there is Tumbuka, which I have a year-long-challenge to complete every skill starting in September. (I should also add that the Basque and Galician courses look MIGHTY tempting for me, but I seem to be spreading myself too thin as is. Luckily my work keeps me focused with a good amount of languages that I HAVE to keep fluent!)


Already I’ve noticed a before / after effect when it came to uTalk in places like Mundo Lingo. The recording games not only improve my accent and make me a LOT less self-conscious but also serve to fasten all phrases into my memory. If you have ten minutes to use an app to prepare you with a conversation with a native speaker as an ABSOLUTE beginner, uTalk is your best choice. If you need to rehearse your tones, uTalk is your best choice as well. Also unlike many other apps there is a certain focus on subtle dialectical differences (as is present with how the male and female voices have subtle differences in both the Fijian and in the Burmese courses). Each voice actor is positively unforgettable. (And if I had to pick favorites of what I’ve savored so far, I would pick the Greenlandic male voice, the Burmese female voice, the Fijian male voice and the Tumbuka female voice, with my probably overall favorite being the Samoan male voice.[I have an ultra-weakness to Samoan voices in general]).

Anyhow, let’s show you some very interesting conversational pieces. Be prepared: there are recipes for having your memory be almost perfect in the exchanges below. Your life will never be the same!



Conversation Between Richard Howeson and Jared Gimbel

 October 23, 2018


Jared Gimbel: All right, so I think this should be working very, very well! I hope things are going fantastic with you. I was literally doing uTalk a matter of seconds ago. I can even tell you what language and what skill! And I am very pleased to be here with you! Okay, so, yeah, I had my morning regimen of uTalk with the Greenlandic illness skill in the recording game, so in any case…a pleasure to meet the legend and long last! I really have to say that there have been so many gaps in my language learning that uTalk has covered up extremely effectively. I recommend it to all of my students, bar none, ever since I have discovered it. And I’d really like to thank you and the rest of your team for really having made this a reality for so many dreamers!

Richard Howeson: Jared that’s fantastic to hear that.  So yeah. It’s amazing. I’ve been hearing that you’ve quite a few languages under your belt!

J: Keyn ayn hore, as you say in Yiddish. Without the power of the evil eye, in a sense. It can be quite fun in bars sometimes, as we shall say. In any case, he did tell me that you were investigating some new projects concerning using language learning as a means to really help with health and memory going into old age. Is that correct and do you want to provide any information or insight on what you’ve experienced?

R: First off all, we’ve heard from people how it has helped them. We’ve been working also with a charity that helps people with dementia. Basically helping by providing them language learning materials and carries them to do it. I think that there is a huge amount of research that says that if you keep your brain active then, it’s just like your body. If you do a lot of exercises, it can work beautifully. But if you sit there, it stops working. And you brain is very, very similar.

J: Yes.


R: So the key thing is to keep it active. And learning a language seems to be one thing that really, really does help. And that is the interesting thing, because you are fluent in several languages, which I am not. I want to get by in languages if I have to, and I come from a background where I find that my skill is that I’ve…I know what it is like for people who find it really difficult to learn languages.

J: Hmmm…

R: Because I am initially…concerned as one of those. I struggled in school.

J: I did too, actually!

R: Oh good! (Laughs) Glad to hear that! I’m a convert. I was talking to a guy who taught me at school, he is quite old now but…and he said that of all the people he taught, and he had a very long list, it is quite a lot of students, and he said that if there was someone at the top who was the least likely person to have anything to do with languages, it would have been me.

J: Indeed.

R: But here we are. I have actually learned a lot about languages, I have learned a lot OF language, but fluency is a different story. That comes from, and think you’d probably say this too, a lot of your fluency comes by living in places.

J: That is correct as well, but on the other hand, I think in some respects it has something to do with friendship and circles as well. Also hobbyists, especially online. And I think that especially concerning Yiddish and Tok Pisin, I think that really being surrounded by other people who are very curious, in these cases about Yiddishland (that is to say, the literature and the songs) or Papua New Guinea and the rainbow, the bird of paradise as it were, there is a reason it is their national symbol, that really makes up the most linguistically diverse country on earth…that fact is that I really encourage a lot of my friends to realize that you can pretty much gain any skill if you actually surround yourself with an environment which is conducive to that or friends who also have it as well. And in New York City, it is very easy to be surrounded by hyperpolyglots or literally by anything else! And so as a result, I’ve encountered several people who said, “oh yes, I have encountered five-language conversations between multiple people on an almost weekly basis!” And so I actually know very much, given the various negative programming that really exists in language learning, the fact that in many countries some people believe that it is not possible for certain varieties of people or impossible beyond a certain age…I really know how it feels to actually feel hopeless and then to gain hope again. And so one thing that I do with my students is that I turn the hope back on. And that is something that I believe is extremely essential and I believe that uTalk is very much doing that. I did prepare a number of questions. And so I think the first question is how did you get involved with making uTalk and what makes uTalk stand out? How does your personal story echo in the uTalk story? You did provide some details as to your somewhat “back from the brink” story, but I’m curious to hear… how does your personal story interweave with your award-winning creation?

R: Yeah. If I go back to when I first started, as I told you before, languages were difficult in school. I was having anything to do with languages. But it started with a charged conversation with a then co-director at another company, where he was discussing how annoying it was that the French spoke French when we had meetings with them in France, and we thought that it was rude of them, and then we realized, actually WE were really rude with not learning THEIR language. And then we thought, “well, that’s our teacher’s fault. We weren’t really taught very well” And then we thought “that’s the really lazy learners”. And then we thought “actually, we are in the right area in technology to make something that could really work!” And the fact that language learning IS difficult without the right resources, there’s no doubt about it…

J: Yes.

R: And when I say it is difficult…the right resource is the easiest resource…the resource is to go live there. But if you haven’t got something like the ability to do that, then what else do you do? I should say that “books don’t work very well because they don’t make any noise”

J: Yes.

R: And the language comes from…

J: Fantastically put!

R: This is the bit that has got to do the job at most times. So we came up with the plan for making a language-learning product. We looked at everybody else’s methods, we did a lot of research on it. And one of the things that became clear is that all of them disagreed with each other on the right ways to learn a language. That means that it was up to us to come up with something else. And certainly over the years, there is no one product I would say that can teach anybody a language.

J: Agreed.

R: And if you’re trying to do that, you’re in very deep doubt. That’s where we came to. uTalk came from…we had a product that wanted to make people to be able to get by, to start off with, and we were doing lots of in fact to learn how to make a business disk. And I was on a trip to Hungary to see a new client, we already made some language learning products by then. I was waiting to be met there at the airport, and our plane got in early. There was no one in the airport, it was pre mobile-phones and all that sort of thing. I wanted to go to the loo. And there were two doors there and they had ladies and gents written on them.

J: “Női” and “férfi”?

R: I didn’t know which was which. And I waited for twenty minutes before someone went and. And to my worries I couldn’t quite work out the sex of the person who had gone in. So it was a bit strange. So then I realized if I were on a business trip, I wanted a business disk with “invoice” and “fax”. I wanted something that would get me by in any country. So the idea came that what we need to do is teach people the language they need to get started. And the second thing we realized is that actually, there are, you know, when you go to school you tend to learn one language, but what you should be learning is the skill to learn any language.

J: Very true.


R: The reality is, you could end up anywhere in the world. So that was the idea that we came up with, to make a disk without too much in it, not to frighten people away, but to get going.

J: Indeed.

R: That disk ended up with fifty words, then we came up with 1500, and we slimmed it down to about 250 and we decided to do it in all the languages of the European Union. So we’ve got to do Russian as well, you’ve got to Japanese, you’ve got to do Chinese. So we ended up with 20-30 languages, and we made this disk, and this is sort of how it started. This was with a small corpus, not as much as uTalk, but that gave us the … with that disk, we ended up adding on these languages. People loved it, it went really, really well. And as a result of it, we were asked to apply for a Queen’s Award for Innovation. And after that, we had to fill in quite a complicated form, and this will answer your second question, actually “what makes uTalk stand out?” And one of the things on the form it said, “who’s your competition?” and you’re not allowed to put “none”…and I put “none”! And we were very honored by Her Majesty, the Queen of England to get an award for a grant towards innovation, because basically what we were doing, nobody else had done before! And this thing, I think you’ve learned Danish before, along with Greenlandic?

J: (In a Danish voice) Ja!

R: Well, at that time, there was no such thing as a Danish-Greek dictionary.

J: Yup!

R: It didn’t exist. So if you wanted to learn Danish from Greek, you had to go buy English or another language. And so we were actually the first people to do this crossover of languages! Because as you know, you can learn every language from your own language. We are now up to 20,000 combinations.

J: (Gasps) Very well done.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 25

R: So what sets us aside is that fact, it’s that… we love languages. We can’t resist if someone asks for one. Hence, Pidgin or that Yiddish will be coming along in a new uTalk course! I should say one other thing. TalkNow, it was brilliant, but people came back and said “we want more!” So we spent ten years making TalkNow, adding languages all the time, we got up to 150 languages, we put it out as an app on the IOS App store and it was going great guns. And then the complaint we got, this was the first time we really got good feedback for something on the app store, people were saying, “we need more! We love it, but we want more languages!” So we went back to the drawing board, spent a year and a half going through what the corpus should be. And as you’ve seen…you quite like uTalk! What we wanted to do is that people would have the vocabulary. Because that … in order to speak a language, you need more, than anything else, to have the words.

J: Yes

R: If you HAVE to get the grammar wrong, that is not the end of the world. I have looked at four year old bilingual children. They speak beautifully. And all of their grammar is perfect. And they’ve never had a grammar lesson.

J: Also I think some kids manage to say some things like “I goed to the store” as well. Even in that respect, they would no doubt be considered fluent. But in any case, I think it was Steve Kaufmann that really said “fluency, not perfection”. That said, I think very essential verbs should obviously be perfected as a matter of course. But the fact is that if you’re really expecting to know every single idiom all of the time…Lord knows, Australians, British people, people from all the British Commonwealth countries, and certainly India have showed me my native language in ways that I didn’t think it was possible to misunderstand.

R: Good! That’s the thing! It works! Someone once asked me “what do you do?” and I said “we help people make friends all over the world.”

J: That’s fantastically put!

R: Yeah! We sold 30 million CD-ROMS, but we’re gonna go way above that!

J: Indeed. Very well.

R: From friends like yourself as well!

J: Indeed. And I’m always really glad to put you into contact with any speakers of rare languages that I may know in New York. Or elsewhere, for that matter!

R: On uTalk, we haven’t got Yiddish yet. So we’ve been catching up!

J: Good!

R: So TalkNow is up at 160 I think, and uTalk is now 142, but there are some in uTalk that aren’t in TalkNow, and so we’ve got about 20 we want to catch up with. Yiddish is in TalkNow but it is not in uTalk.

J: I think the same with Tibetan as well if I recall correctly?

R: Tibetan…Tibetan is seconds away! It is ready for someone to press the button. There is always some last-minute reason! But Tibetan is out any second! Although we do…we are worried that we have had nasty comments from China before about it.

J: Indeed. But on the other hand, throughout the world over, I think most people are willing to be bridge-builders. This is really one thing I’ve really seen all throughout the world between…I’ve seen very deep friendships between cultures that are “supposed to be enemies” and surprisingly I think most people really want to make friends, want to live happy lives, and are actually quite glad to actually explore things. And certainly, there might be the occasional nasty comment, but I think most people in China and in the rest of the world are explorers and kind people at heart. And this is true anywhere. Okay, so another question! How have you found the language learning process change for you throughout the various stages of your lives? How about learning processes in general, such as learning how to play sports, learning new skills or I think…I saw one of your pictures that was in India. It looked like the Hungarian flag at first but then I saw the Devanagari script on the sign!

R: Was I on a bicycle?

J: Yes, it was a bicycle. Yes.

R: One of the things in terms of people able to learn a language. Your brain is a muscle like the other parts of your body. You’ve got to allow it to be relaxed in order to learn. The other thing that is really, really important in learning a language is that…I did some research, I read about how the brain learns before I started the company. What you need is dopamine coming up through the middle of your brain.

J: Aha!

R: And If you want to suppress dopamine, then take any of the anti-depressant type, valium and things like that, that will stop you from learning anything, and that surpresses dopamine. On the other hand, all the scientists were looking and asked “how can you make people have more dopamine?” And the answer is a very, very simple one, and there’s not much any drug company or scientist can do about it. It is to make you laugh. When you laugh, you produce tons of it. It is how human beings functions really well. You remember the good times! Your synapses are growing when you laugh!

J: That’s fantastic! I think I should be recommending all of my students to check out joke pages in their target languages. And come to think of it, I think that that’s probably…the reading exercises through which I’ve had the most vocabulary retention. And the fact that stupid jokes exist in every single culture. My personal favorites are the Yiddish Hershel Ostropoler stories, he is a trickster-character in many respects who really outwits very rich people who are used to getting their way all of the time, despite the fact that he himself has nothing. And, of course, within Scandinavia, we have the Swedes telling stupid jokes about the Norwegians, and in the other direction as well. And that I also found extremely amusing in many respects. Because they take them from one another and use the jokes in both directions!

R: Oh yeah! Like the Irish! We do it with the Irish!

J: Oh, like with the English, Scots, and Irish jokes?

R: Yeah, that! Anyway, the ejective of how we design a product is to make it fun.

J: Yes. And you’ve done that.

R: And you probably know, it is about scoring points. Scoring the points means you learn the language. It is not saying “you’ve got to learn this NOW!”, that just doesn’t work.

J: Yup.

R: So the whole thing is based on fun. Right from the beginning, you learn that. And you’ve probably noticed, some people complain about it, but the most challenging game is the hard memory game?


R: Do you utilize that or not?

J: I really have to confess to doing this but…on the Desktop version, I use the snipping tool to capture the…

R: My daughter does that as well! But that doesn’t matter! What will happen is that you’ve feel pleased with yourself when you got them all right! And THAT is actually what makes you remember it!

J: Indeed. And then what happens sometimes on the train, sometimes the train is significantly loud and I lose valuable seconds on account of that because I don’t hear something. But that’s MTA’s problem, not uTalk’s!

R: It is worth saying that the background to that is when we first did that game. We did it in Russian and we didn’t know any Russian…as beginners. What we found was that it was very difficult. We were going to scrap it. And then we thought “just try it, we’ll record it in English quickly, play it in English just to see! It is obviously impossible, this game!” And we find that in English it was very easy. We decided to keep the game. It is perfect! Here’s what it does…the target is to think in the language you’re learning. If you can think in the language you’re learning, you can get full marks! That is what it does!

J: You’re very right about that, actually!

R: That’s what you want! You don’t want to be half-learning words, you want them as if they come off the tip of the tongue, as though they are in your own language! That’s the goal! And that’s why uTalk works so well. There are a lot of language learning products where you half-learn things, and half-learn a lot! Then you can get a dictionary and say “I’ll read the dictionary” and then you won’t remember anything.

J: Yes.

R: And if you do any of our exercises, you’ll learn a number of words. If you go through the games and score top marks, including in the recording and recall sessions, then you’ll know that you won’t forget them!

J: Indeed. It is interesting because I find that even within a handful of days, my accent goes VERY VERY HIGH and already I think I have vocabulary that is actually at the forefront that I associate with the picture. And with the perfect voices that I really think are really suitable for every single one of the exercises!

R: All the actors come to London. It is special. The whole idea is that the company has a lot of fun.

J: A lot of the voice acting is snarky at times. I found that with the Fijian course and with the Lao one as well. And sometimes it can show residue of an almost fake anger to the degree that it can actually be humorous.

R: That’s exactly what it is meant to be!

J: Fantastic points! Another thing. One of the biggest battles I’ve seen from my students is challenging limiting beliefs. How does that struggle morph with age and how does it become easier or harder?

R: Right. That’s an interesting one. When you talk to people, and they’ll try to do a language learning product and they buy one and say “it didn’t work”, what you’ll find is “I’ve never used it” (for the most part). The most important thing is getting them to use it. I challenge ANYONE using ANY of our games not to learn the words. They should try and get full marks. At any age! You’re absolutely right! To a certain extent it can be self-imposed as well. There is loads of research that shows that children up to the age of five accumulate language at an incredibly fast rate. They remember words SO AMAZINGLY! And at the age of five, what happens? It suddenly stops and goes off a cliff. The reasons, I think, is what happens at the age of five…they go to school. Suddenly, language becomes regimented. It no longer becomes fun. And the key thing is to keep it being fun. What happens when we get older is that sadly people tend to treat things more seriously. If you do that, it isn’t going to work. And I look at you! You love learning! All you need to do is change your attitude! At uTalk, we say “do this, have fun” and away you go! That’s the key! The next thing is to say “when do you do it?” This is another one of the things that uTalk is strong on, I think. People say “I haven’t got time”. But if you look at your day, for old people, that’s one reason they actually do very well. Because they have time after they retire! No rush! Nothing more to do! They can spend time learning a language! But when you’re young, and this is particular to your age group after you’ve left school in your 20’s and 30’s, and then you ask them what they’re doing, “I spent an hour in a commute in one direction, in the other direction, nine hours in a plane going to New York…” With this app, you can get on with it anywhere!

J: Yes

R: Five minutes, ten minutes a half hour, an hour and…it works! A key feature of uTalk is that it carries on working even if you don’t have the Internet! It will sync up again later! It doesn’t mind! If you like doing it on your computer at home, or …

J: In the Subway, where the lack of Internet counts for a lot!

R: No Internet down there!

J: I remember during my last trip I was in Milwaukee leading High Holiday services at my grandmother’s synagogue. I am currently in my Brooklyn apartment. I think I got three skills of Greenlandic done in just simply one hour alone. And also I think the speaking game can be done in well under a minute. Either that or my memory is crazy good.


R: The speaking game has a little purpose to it by the way! Most people are terrified of speaking! What they find is that they can score all of the points without speaking or it one of those with voice recognition which…doesn’t recognize your voice or gets upset with background noise and you can’t use it anywhere. So we came up with the recall games we have. But we wanted to do is get people comfortable with recording your own voice. So 50 really easy point to get there. The easiest points you’ve got! We want to get people to do it! They are pleased with themselves afterwards and they think, “I CAN speak the language! It works! I am happy with it!”. When they come to the recall game, they know they can do it.

J: Also for tonal languages, it is a godsend. I noticed that Lao doesn’t actually have the tones in the transliteration and I think one possible reason for that is that in Vientiane and in Luang Prabang they actually have different tone sets? Slight differences! I haven’t looked at the Thai one. Or the Burmese. Or Mandarin. Or Vietnamese for that matter. (No longer true as of the time of transcription. I have done the Burmese and Vietnamese courses since). Gee. I’m way too obsessed, am I not? But I have seen in the Mandarin snapshots that they did include the tones. Through sheer imitation, I got over my fear of getting tones wrong, especially since I think that some perfectionists may be a little bit afraid to say a single tone wrong. Especially how …I think a friend of mine said that, in Thai, there is a tone difference between “I like to ride horses” and “I like dog shit”.

R: This is something that happened to me at school. Probably what put me off language.

J: Tell me.

R: The first thing I was taught was the danger of getting it wrong.

J: Oh! I tell my students to embrace their mistakes. This is one thing I have to deprogram my students from.

R: If you make mistakes, this will make people laugh, which is great. When someone says something wrong in a language, we have an automatic sense which corrects it. Half of the time we don’t hear it.


uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson on easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 2

R: Don’t worry, no one is going to mind. Obviously a sense of humor helps. I was made to feel frightened of getting my accent wrong in French or saying the wrong thing. Just have a go! British people staying in the US for a few weeks take on an American accent.

J: Even when I was in Fiji I noticed that there was English spoken in the business sphere and Fijian between a lot of the locals. Most of the signs in Fiji are in English throughout the country, but the conversations on the street are in Fijian, with the exception of Indo-Fijians or the students of the University of the South Pacific from which all of the countries of Oceania are represented. As soon as you enter the university, you see a promenade of all of the flags of the Pacific. Very interestingly I noticed that over the course of my time in Fiji my s got very, very thick. Because, as is also demonstrated greatly by your voice actors, the Fijian s is pronounced thickly. Hence “sssssssega” (Fijian g = ng in English) is “not”. I actually….uTalk was helpful as well because I learned to imitate the voice actors. It was like having a private tutor, in a sense.

R: That is what it should be. By the way, one of my friends works an airplane as well. We have a number of interesting projects. We got asked by Emirates if we wanted to do something for language learning. What we’ve added to their in-flight entertainment is uTalk. They can learn about 15-20 words, the most important ones, but by watching videos. Now we are up to fifteen languages and you can learn them from five.

J: Wow.

R: Including from Mandarin and Arabic.

J: I love the representation of Colloquial Arabic varieties and local languages of India. I think that in that respect, you’re without competition!

R: We’re up to five Arabics, I think. We are working with some of the short-call carriers that don’t put anything on the back of the seat. On EasyJet, we’re putting language learning as a part of the wireless system.

J: I saw your photo ops.

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson boards easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 1

R: You can log onto the inflight system and learn any language from any language. We have the range. We are the go-to app for any airline system. No one else can match us! We want to get people to realize what you can do in one flight, and it is a lovely resource…because we all know what happens. You have the intention to learn a language and then you think “I wish I got around to it!” And now you can! Then another motivation can be “I wish I did learn the language” on the return journey. And uTalk is useful for that, too!

J: It seems as though you covered literally all of the main points. One final thought before I have to prepare for an English class: what essential ideas or techniques should the world know about language learning in general? Or words of encouragement?

R: Believe in yourself. Anyone can do it. And don’t believe anyone who told you you can’t. Because you can. Get uTalk. Do the easy game. That’s all. Do the easy game. And then do the next one up, the hard game. And you’ll release how much you’ve learned in a FEW MINUTES. It is not difficult. Start off easy. And don’t worry about grammar or reading or writing! This is about being able to speak to people and making friends! My final comment: even one word in their language can make a HUGE Difference!

J: I remember one time when I was making signs for a protest in the US and there was an American woman who showed up and she lived in Cambodia. She was fluent in Cambodian and I just say “sour sdey” (= hello) and her mouth dropped out of sheer excitement!

R: It feels so special to be able to do that! And tell people not to worry about being fluent!  Just have fun and do it! Presenting people with being fluent is like putting everything on the table at once! Just have one small taste! And then a bit more! Then away it goes! And learn what you want to learn! That’s featured in the app…you choose what you’re interested in!

J: I found that in the Fijian golf Course (no pun intended…sorry, I just had to). The five…the only reason I know the names of the clubs is because of the Wii sports games and I’m not ashamed to admit it. They used the exact same word to refer to all five of the clubs (=nai tavi ni golf)!  Like driver or…

R: They just called it a club, didn’t they?

J: Yes. I think so. On the other hand, I come from a very sports-illiterate family. I sometimes got invited by some of my friends to see the world cup matches and sing the Danish national anthem in the Denmark-Croatia final game and then I watched them get slaughtered in the penalty kicks. Both of my friends were rooting for Croatia, but whatever. And very interestingly, yes, other finer aspects of Judaism I can’t really discuss in any other languages other than Hebrew. Even in English, I have to default to Hebrew to discuss that. In many respects, one thing to note is that “di gantze velt iz a velt mit veltelekh”. The whole world is a world with little worlds, it is true about the world and also with individual languages in general. have been letting other people know how fantastic uTalk is and it has made a huge difference with Greenlandic which I say is the hardest language I’ve ever learned. I fell in love with it back in 2013. I was in Greenland last year and I struggled to put sentences together, but even when I did that I got free drinks galore.

Mother of the Sea and Me

I do not say this lightly: this is one of the most enlightening conversations I have had this year, if not in fact in my entire life, on this topic!


You can begin learning one (or more) of over 140 languages RIGHT NOW at Dowload the uTalk app at


Venturing into Languages Highly Dissimilar to Your Own: Helpful Tips

Many of you will have the feeling of beginning to learn a new language in which you recognize almost nothing. Vocabulary you know is scant, the grammatical patterns are different and you feel that the path of least resistance is to give up.

I highly recommend you don’t give up…because learning a language highly dissimilar to your own (whether it be your own native language[s] or ones you’ve already learned as an adult) IS possible. You will need to adjust your ways of thinking ever-so-slightly.

The good news is that you can harness various skills you have used to acquire your native language (or other languages you know) to learning your new language that seems as though it belongs on another planet.

Given that my native language is English, let’s look some of my languages in terms of “how different they are” from English on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 is very similar to English, 5 is very different. Keep in mind that this is NOT the same thing as difficulty per se.


1: English Creole Languages, Languages of Mainland Scandinavia, Spanish, German, Yiddish

2: Icelandic, Fiji Hindi

3: Hungarian, Finnish, Fijian, Hebrew, Irish

4: Kiribati / Gilbertese, Palauan, Tuvaluan, Burmese

5: Greenlandic, Lao, Khmer, Guarani


The further you get away from the West, the more likely you are to encounter languages that go up the scale. The languages in (1) are very tied to the west on multiple fronts (e.g. Atlantic Creoles, German, Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish all influencing American culture to profound degrees) the languages in (3) have all been profoundly impacted by Germanic-speaking cultures but still maintain a lot of distinctness. With that said, the English influence (add German in the case of Hungarian and Swedish in the case of Finnish) is undeniable in a language like Fijian or Hebrew (given that both were under British rule).

A friend of mine was diving into Korean and he found himself struggling to remember words. And that’s NORMAL. I had that experience with all the languages 2 and higher with the higher numbers requiring more of it.

That said, there ARE ways to remember words in languages highly different from your native tongue EVEN if it seems impossible now.


  • Make Connections Between Words in the Language


Instead of looking OUTSIDE the language for connections to words you already know (as would be the standard practice in Romance or Germanic Languages if you’re a native English speaker, or even Indo-European Languages further afield), look INSIDE the language.


In Hebrew I encourage my students to look out for “shorashim” (or root words). These are sets of letters that will encapsulate similar meanings when seen in a sequence. Like in Arabic, the letters will dance around various prefixes, suffixes and vowel combinations that will change the meaning ever-so-slightly.


A more concrete example is with Fijian. The prefix “vaka-“ indicates “possessing the characteristics of, possessing …”. As such, you can collect additional words by looking at words with this prefix and then learning the form of the word without “vaka-“ in the front. Let’s have a look:



Wati – husband, wife, spouse


Vakawati – married (vaka + wati -> possessing a spouse)



To find words that are similar in this respect, one method you could use is to have an Anki Deck of an extensive vocabulary (what is “extensive” would depend on your short- and long-term goals with the language). Look up a root in the deck and you’ll see all words that have it:


palopuhuja lol


The folks at Transparent Language have said that, minus memory techniques, you would need to see a word anywhere between five to sixteen times in order to remember it permanently. A huge advantage is that you can get exposed to one root and its derivatives very quickly in this regard.


Even with a language like English, you can do the same with a verb like “to take” which is idiomatically rich when combined with prefixes (to overtake), suffixes (to take over) or direct objects (to take a break).


Out of all of the languages I have learned, the same principle holds and can be taken advantage of.


  • Do the Words and Expressions You Want to Learn Tell Any Stories?


Let’s take the Lao phrase  ຂໍ ໂທດ (khɔ̌ɔ thòot). It would mean “I’m sorry” but it literally means “request punishment”.


Various languages don’t have a very “to have”, instead they would say something like “there is upon me” (Finnish) “there is by me” (Russian), “there is to me” (Hebrew, although Hungarian also does something similar sometimes) or “there is my X” (where X is a noun – Fijian, Kiribati / Gilbertese and Hungarian do this)


Arcane sentence structure can actually be an ADVANTAGE in some respects. Greenlandic’s mega-long words can be a great conversation starter AND something for you to remember.


Words, phrases and idioms tell stories in your native language too, but chances are you probably won’t be aware of them and if you do eventually, it may be after a decade or two of speaking it, if not more.


  • Associate Various Words with Entertainment or Things that Have Happened in Your Life

Scene: a synagogue event.

I got “Colloquial Hungarian” earlier that day. I met a Hungarian girl and the only thing I know is a basic greeting. I ask how to say “pleased to meet you” and she says “örülök hogy megismertelek”. You can imagine how much I struggled with this simple sentence on day one, much to her laughter and those looking on.

The fact is, I never forgot the phrase since. Because I associated it with that incident.

You can also do the same with individual words and phrases that you may have heard through songs, song titles, particularly emphatic scenes in movies, books or anything else you consume for entertainment in your target language.

The over-dramatic style of anime actually helped me learn a significant amount of Finnish phrases as a result of “attaching” them to various mental pictures. Lao cinema also did something similar. Pay attention ever-so-slightly to the texture of the voice and any other details—these will serve as “memory anchors”. It’s a bit like saving a GIF to your brain, almost.

  • Hidden Loan Words from Colonial Languages.

The Fijian word for a sketch / painting is “droini”. Do you see the English cognate?

It’s the word “drawing” –Fijianized.

Do be aware, though: some English loan words can mutate beyond their English equivalents in terms of meaning. Japanese is probably infamous for this (in which a lot of English loan words developed lives and meanings of their own, much like Hebrew loan words in Yiddish sometimes found themselves detached from their original meanings in Hebrew).

Another example: Sanskrit and Pali words in languages of Southeast Asia in which Theravada Buddhism is practiced. Back to Lao. The word ປະເທດ (pa-thèet) may be foreign to you as the word “country”, but you’ve probably heard the word “Pradesh” before in various areas of India, even if you know nothing about India too deeply (yes, it is the same word modified for Lao pronunciation). The second syllable in particular may be familiar to you as the “-desh” from “Bangladesh”.

Which brings me into another point…

  • Do You Recognize any Words through Proper Nouns?


Tuvalu is a country in the South Pacific. It means “there are eight”. The Fijian word for to stand permanently or to be built is “tu” and the word for eight is “walu”. Fijian and Tuvaluan are not the same language but they are family members. You can recognize various other words by determining what place names mean or even names of people you know (whether well-known historical characters or your personal friends).


Another example: Vanuatu. Vanua in Fijian is a country or a place. Tu is the SAME root that we have in “Tuvalu” (yes, the “tu” in “Tuvalu” and “Vanuatu” mean THE EXACT SAME THING!) Vanuatu roughly means “here is our country” (or “country here”)


Again, this is something you can do for many languages. I remember doing in in Germany as well.




  • Embrace the Differences in the Grammar

I was amused by the fact that the Tuvaluan word for “to understand” is “malamalama”. I posted it in a small polyglot group. A friend of mine who studies mostly languages from Western Europe and the Middle East asked me to conjugate it.

Tuvaluan doesn’t have verb conjugation. It instead puts particles before a verb to indicate tense. “Au e malamalama” -> I understand -> I present-marker understand.

Surprisingly this system (not entirely foreign to me because of having studied other languages in that family) was not foreign to me. But I learned to like it. A lot.

Feel free to tell interested friends about what makes your different language very different in terms of grammar. Some may even be intrigued about the fact that many languages don’t have an equivalent of “to have”.

There are some things that are a bit difficult to embrace, such as Greenland’s verb conjugation that has transitive forms for each pair (in normal English, this would me an I X you form, an I X him / her / it form, an I X all of you form, an I X them form, a you X me form, a you X him / her / it form … FOR EVERY PAIR).

That said, your love of your new language will find a way.

I’m sure of it!


An Afternoon with Jared Gimbel: Your Questions Answered!

Happy 4th birthday, World With Little Worlds!

To honor all of my readers and those who have provided me praise and constructive feedback throughout the years, these are your questions, answered with love and consideration by yours truly.


What do you look for in a mentor?

Five things:

  • Someone who opens doors rather than closes them.
  • Someone who doesn’t pull emotional hot-buttons or regularly cause me to feel distressed, downtrodden, or discouraged.
  • Someone who, when I am done meeting with him or her, makes me feel elevated and ready to enter my life with renewed motivation.
  • Someone who acknowledges the progress I have made in addition to that I have yet to make.
  • Someone who isn’t over jealous or guarded of me.

How learn any language from scratch in my own?

The first thing to ask yourself is how much you can PRONOUNCE, how much you can READ (and understand what you’re reading), and how much you can UNDERSTAND. Depending on which combination of the three you have, your approach will have to be different. However, the more prior knowledge you have in a related language, the easier it is to get “lazy”.

Generally, I would start with “hello, how are you? What is your name? My name is… Where are you from? I am from…” and then go onto “I have, you have…” “Do you have…?” and then the same with “to want”, “to go”.

I’ve spoken about this in the interview I did with Luke Truman of Full Time Fluency a few months back:

This should help.

What was the catalyst for your interest in languages of the Pacific in general and Palauan in particular?

Climate change in the case of Oceania in general, a childhood fascination with that area of the world, and, in the case of Palau, the sound of the language as well as how it looked on paper. Oh, and the flag. Who could forget the flag? As a kid I could look at it for hours. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.

How much Japanese do you understand with your Palauan knowledge?

Same as how much Latin you would understand from English.

Apart from Yiddish and Hebrew what other Jewish languages have you studied?

A tiny bit of Ladino in college and a handful of words from Jewish Languages of Azerbaijan in the early 2010’s, but aside from that, pretty much nothing seriously.

Have you ever looked into Krymchak or the Udmurt-influenced dialect of Yiddish?

Now I may have to!

When studying Breton, do you prefer the artificial French-influenced “standard” or one of the dialects?

The KLT (Kerne-Leon-Treger ) variety used in the Colloquial Breton book and in the Kauderwelsch book is my go-to. It seems fairly consistent with what is used on Wikipedia although there are some songs that have “curveball” elements for those overly accustomed to KLT.

Apart from Northern Sami, Finnish, and Hungarian, do you plan on learning any other Uralic languages?

I never say I won’t plan on it. Right now I do feel “overloaded”, however.

When you were in Israel, did you encounter any Circassians or Hungarian Jews? If yes, did they speak their ethnic languages?

Possibly and yes respectively. My Hungarian was limited to a few words in 2009 but my efforts were appreciated. What’s more, do keep in mind that I had heavy limiting beliefs about language learning back in those times. Odd, because my experience in the Ulpan should have actively proved those beliefs wrong.

How often do you encounter peoples of the Pacific in real life apart from the times you actually go there?

Hawaiians about once every three months or so, same with people who have been expatriates in places like Fiji and Samoa. Aside from Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, I haven’t met anyone in person from Oceania yet. That will change this year, I hope.

Will your RPG “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” be playable in Greenlandic?\

I’m going on record: YES.

Have you ever written poetry in the languages you learn?

I believe I did once or twice in Yiddish at the National Yiddish Book Center. I also have done improvisational singing in Tok Pisin. I may have also written a piece or two in Hebrew while at Wesleyan University but I have no recollection of it. I did write an absurdist play about talking jellyfish in that same Hebrew class that makes most internet memes look tame by comparison.

How do you deal with the blurry boundary between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is, in my view, taking one element of a culture (let’s say, clothing) and claiming it as your own without having a basic understanding of where, why and how that culture or cultural element exists.

If I were to wear a national costume in public with holy significance, that would possibly be breaching a boundary in that culture that I may be unaware of. But obviously me wearing a shirt with a Greenlandic flag on it despite not being Greenlandic or Inuit (or any Native American at all) does not make me a cultural appropriator. It is a mark of solidarity and appreciation.

On this note, I would like to say for the first time that I am fully aware of the fact that there are people who are prepared to call “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” cultural appropriation despite the deep involvement of actual Greenlanders at every stage of its production. I look at the Greenlandic story as a whole in a way that contemporary American pop culture and its sad legacy of cartoonish national caricatures will probably never do otherwise.

If you would prefer Greenlandic culture would remain a virtually unknown mystery in much of the rest of the world instead of appreciated for the wonderful slice of the human story that it is, then I have nothing to say to you.

What was, to you, the most easily graspable non-Latin orthographic system in any non-L1 language you’ve studied? What was the least?

From Easiest to Hardest:

  1. Greek
  2. Cyrillic
  3. Hebrew
  4. Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary
  5. Arabic
  6. Lao
  7. Burmese

Have you ever SAVED SOMEONES LIFE with language?

The answer is: yes. And surprisingly, my own. Several times.

For one, my decision to become a tutor of several languages actually ended up saving my life. Shortly after graduating from JTS, I fell ill for a while. My own parents, who hold medical degrees, misdiagnosed me several times.

What ended up saving my life was one of my students of Swedish, who casually recommended based on my symptoms that I had Lyme Disease. Thanks to his suggestion, the disease was caught in time and my life was saved.

There is also the story about how Greenlandic saved my life, but I will relate that in future interviews when “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” is released. There is a specific reason I chose Greenland as the setting for my first video game (well, one of several specific reasons) and one of them in particular may come as a shocker to many of you.

Speaking of which, I’m going to continue doing character sketches for Nuuk Adventures right now!


Happy Birthday, O Beloved Blog of Mine!

Surprising Multilingual Song Covers from Around the World

I’m totally not adopting any of Buzzfeed’s style with this. Nu huh.

A special thank you to the many members of Polyglot Polls who contributed to this list (I asked in a poll for exactly what I wrote in the title here and they provided this fantastic list! I also made contributions, as you could have probably guessed). Thank you so much!


“Bring Him Home” in Welsh


“Zombie” in Urdu


“Blackbird” in Scottish Gaelic



Gangham Style in Bashkir


“Somebody That I Used to Know” in Hebrew


“My Heart Will Go On” in Burmese


“Hallelujah” in Welsh


“Hallelujah” in Greenlandic


“Let it Go” in Nauruan (Christian-ized version)


“Despacito” in Mandarin Chinese


“Despacito” Parody in Greek


“You Raise Me Up” in Greenlandic


What multilingual song covers would YOU like to share? Feel free to share them in the comments!

How to Build Mental Discipline

One of my big goals for 2017 was to become more focused in my goals. Granted, in a sense, for all of us living in the developed world in the 21st century, it is getting both easier and harder. Easier because the maturity we have makes us focus more on what we really want as time goes by, and harder because the petite distractions seem to be multiplying.

A friend of mine, Naoki Watanabe, wanted me to write this post. He is a hero in many online language communities, having truly brought polyglots together from all throughout the world in online for on Facebook, not also to mention his admiration of many minority languages throughout the world. Also a fellow Hungarian enthusiast! (Congratulations on getting B1 in Hungarian, by the way!)

Let’s begin with rule 0 about building mental discipline.

Even if you don’t take steps to give yourself mental discipline now, you will grow into it eventually. Your mental discipline will get stronger with each new “milestone”. This could be getting degrees, passing a semester, completing projects, getting a new job or a raise, or any variety of transition.

However, 2017 was a good year for me in the respect that I am realizing that I have, more than ever, realized how mental discipline can be “hacked”.

Let’s hear some of my newfound revelations, shall we?

  • Use REALISTIC promises to bind you to your commitments. Post them in public places (such as your Facebook Status) or, if you come from a culture in which giving your word is binding (this could or could not be religious), say “If I don’t do X, then I will do Y” (where Y is a negative consequence).


In June 2017 I took it upon myself to learn Krio. Too much time spent with my family who lived in Sierra Leone, and it was important for me to connect to a culture that my parents were a part of. What’s more, given as it is almost certain that my parents will never return there, I will also get to see the face of the modern Sierra Leone (even if I don’t visit there, given the whole Internet thing).

I met my goal in being able to have conversations! I still have a long ways to go (it is currently my weakest Creole Language, with the Melanesian Creoles of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama being my strongest).

I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t do this:

“30 minutes of Krio, in some way, every day. If you don’t, you have to delete your Facebook account” (!!!)

There was one time I sadly needed to walk away from a party that I really enjoyed so that I could go home and meet my quota. Cruel? Yes. But hey, I speak Krio.

Maybe not as well as I would like (my super-high standards get the best of me sometimes), but it’s not “a few words” or “a few sentences” it’s being able to speak it in a capacity that I would be able to navigate Sierra Leone without using Standard English much like I did in Greenland without using English.


  • Have an Ego


I have a bit of an “Ash Ketchum” complex when it comes to my life. I have this overwhelming desire to be the best and to let the world know. I had this understanding since I was seven years old that my life was going to be unique, that I was going to try everything, explore everything, and share everything with everybody.

In my 20’s I found out that there are a lot of people who will not put more effort into their life any more than they absolutely have to. Also there are a lot of people who will spend a lot of time talking about nothing, not exploring, nor on any great quest for self-improvement, much less wanting to “SHOW THE WORLD” anything.

I don’t understand people like these. But I think I may understand their vantage point.

I was raised with a strong idea, since early childhood, that I was the most brilliant person ever who HAD to use his gifts for something. A lot of people were raised with the idea that they were average, and that average was good, if not in fact preferable to being a “star”.

How does this tie to mental discipline?

You have to imagine yourself as the hero of your TV show, someone who people look up to and see as a role model.

Even if you’re not there, you will be. Try to tell yourself that!

Simply put, “if I don’t write this blog post about Bislama, I don’t see anyone else who will!”

I was fed this idea that I was and am a hero and that, if I am lazy, the world suffers. We all need that mindset.


  • IF you must take a break, do it in a way that will build value for other people.


Sometimes you have to watch TV, play a game or read something mindless.

In the mid-2010’s I discovered a way I could convert my “downtime” towards practicing my languages. Why use YouTube in English when I could do it in Norwegian? And even then, there are a lot of well-known YouTube channels that have fan-added subtitles in many other languages as well!

But if you need to play a game or watch some TV or what-have-you, feel free to transform it into something that other people can enjoy…what if you write about what you saw, like in a review, and then publish it on a blog? What if you record yourself playing the game with commentary instead? If you speak a language natively that isn’t English, could you contribute fan-made subtitles towards your favorite video?

You can’t be working all of the time, and I’m fully aware of that, but with some small tricks like these you can set yourself in a more productive headspace. And once you have these patterns locked into place, you’ll find the need to keep creating instead of spinning time away. And the world will be better off for it.


  • Be Aware of Emotional Traps Online


The corporate world wants to manipulate you and distract you from your goals. It also wants to toss your emotions into clicking and buying products.

Recognize when links are doing this to you, recognize when AUTHORS are doing this to you, and then tell yourself firmly. “I, (name), am above these forms of manipulation”. And don’t click on the video and/or link.

Sometimes I used to get worried about a lot of things (especially with last year’s US election). But interestingly now, I’ve learned to see patterns in which my emotions are being played with. If there’s clickbait of any variety, or any variety of manipulation any product pulls in order to get you invested, I imagine the announcer in the NYC subway system:

“If you drop something on the tracks, LEAVE IT”.

You’ll forget about whatever link you didn’t click on in a matter of hours. I can almost promise you that.


  • Imagine You are a World Champion or a World Champion To-Be


One time I significantly messed up leading a service at a synagogue when I was 13-14 years old. I was quite upset about it. But one of my friends told me afterwards that “you’re not Michael Jordan. The world expects the best from Michael Jordan. You’re just a kid”.

More than a decade later, I find myself that person who people expect the best of. And as a result, I can’t let them down. Even if I may have to at some times (such as the fact that I dashed away on the 30-Day Burmese Challenge yesterday on account of personal circumstances. I’ll still be doing the restaurant and the final video thing, though!), I realize that my overall behavior has to be that of a global role model.

Pretend you have that role, and then you’ll grow into it. Even if people doubt you have “what it takes” at first, you’ll sway (most of) them eventually with enough willpower.





I also realize that there is such a thing as bad days, illnesses, and personal setbacks. Keep in mind that mental discipline isn’t something you need to have ABSOLUTELY all of the time, just most of the time. I know I couldn’t have possibly had mental discipline when I got Lyme Disease in November 2015. But your primary goal is to ensure that you have it on the AVERAGE day (most people usually have it on their good days, only).

Did you find this advice helpful? Let me know!

Here’s hoping that you, the Champion, can show the world just what a fantastic beacon to humanity you really are! Onwards!

2015-07-04 10.36.26

Turtle Pond in Austin, Texas

Far From My Mom’s St. Petersburg – A Conversation about Tajikistan with Leora Eisenberg


Today is the Independence day of Tajikistan, a place that is fascinating to many people throughout the globe but nonetheless relatively unknown by many. For the future I’ll be partnering with curious souls like you in order to share stories. Today I brought Leora Eisenberg, who had the marvelous privilege of spending the past summer in Tajikistan. Here she is discussing the many sides of her Tajiki story and how it left her greatly changed for the better!

1.What sort of background do you come from and how did you get interested in Tajiki / Persian culture in general? How have your experiences been with either prior to visiting Tajikistan?

My mom and stepdad (and consequently, their whole family) are from St. Petersburg, although they refer to it as Leningrad; they grew up and were educated there. At home, I grew up in a very… Russian household. That is to say that I grew up watching Soviet children’s cartoons, eating Russian food, and speaking the language at home. There was also a very strong Russian-Jewish work ethic. (That is to say I had to be the best.) My awareness of the former USSR was part of my identity, but I still never knew that much; I had never taken a class or written a paper on the topic. That said, I was certainly more aware of the Soviet Union than most of my fellow Russian-Jewish birth cohort. I was always interested in Soviet history and culture… to such an extent that I’m now majoring in the field!

As for Tajiki/Persian culture… regardless of the fact that I was aware of the USSR, I didn’t think much about Tajikistan. I mean, sure, I knew that its capital was Dushanbe, but that was it. To be fair, I attribute a lot of this to my parents who are very proud of being Europeans from St. Petersburg, for better or for worse. Tajikistan wasn’t part of their consciousness, and consequently, it wasn’t part of mine.

I stumbled onto Tajiki and Persian culture completely accidentally. I thought I was going to major in Near (Middle) Eastern Studies, so I chose Persian as a foreign language. I ended up falling in love with it, and I applied for the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program in Tajikistan, which teaches primarily Farsi, at the encouragement of my professor.


2. What makes Tajikistan and its culture stand out? How about the Tajik language?

It’s important to note that I came to Tajikistan to learn Iranian Persian, i.e. Farsi. As a government program, CLS cannot send American students to Iran to learn the language, so it is, then, left with the two other Persian-speaking countries: Afghanistan (which speaks Dari) and Tajikistan (which speaks Tajiki). They certainly couldn’t send us to Afghanistan, so Tajikistan was the only option left.

We had almost all of our class in Farsi, but we had 2-4 hours of Tajiki class a week. That said, I spoke almost exclusively Tajiki at home with my host family, which I ended up learning, more or less, by osmosis.

Contrary to what people might say, it’s not the same as Farsi. The literary language is indeed close to it, but the everyday, conversational language is substantially different due to the heavy Russian influence, both in the standardization of the language itself and in pure vocabulary. There’s also a significant Turkic influence coming from Uzbek, since about 25% of Tajikistan’s population is ethnically Uzbek.

As for the culture… it’s unlike anything I’ve ever known. As a whole, what I noted about the culture was that people truly had an inclination to do good. If given a choice between a good and a bad action, Tajiks almost inevitably went for the good one. For example, if someone on a bus offered me their seat (which they almost always did, even if they didn’t know I was a foreigner) and I refused, they would almost always offer to hold my bags because “I looked tired.” I was no anomaly; I’ve seen Tajiks do the same to dozens of other people. It’s just the way they are.

I could write extensively on the topic. A few other things that I noticed were the importance of hospitality and the prominence of color and vivacity in everyday life.


3. How was your experience learning and using Tajik in Tajikistan? What sort of reactions did you get and what sort of struggles did you face?

In the beginning, it was very hard simply because I had had no exposure to the Tajiki language before. I only knew Farsi. For the first two weeks or so, I just didn’t understand anything.

A story to illustrate the point: one evening during my first week, we went to my host aunt and uncle’s house. Many family members, whom I didn’t yet know, were there. I didn’t know much Tajiki yet, and I didn’t understand what people were saying. They would ask me questions occasionally, and I would just freeze, unable to answer. I was so embarrassed. Sometimes, they would switch to Russian entirely for my benefit; other times, they continued with their conversations. Since they wouldn’t let me, a guest, clear the table (my activity of choice when under duress), I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for about ten minutes. I didn’t want to face them because I was so ashamed of my lack of knowledge. I only spoke Farsi at that point — not Tajiki.

That said, as time progressed, I understood more and more. If the “older generation” (40+ years) was talking, I could understand 40-70% of what they said by the end of the trip. (With young people, the number was much lower.) I learned primarily by osmosis; Tajiki class wasn’t very helpful at all since we primarily focused on learning the alphabet, which I already knew.

Whenever I spoke Tajiki, Tajiks were, naturally, proud. I was speaking their language. I remember that my host dad was particularly excited about this. He liked to read me poems sometimes and hope I would understand. Toward the end of the trip, Tajiks on the street used to sometimes think I was Tajik even after I had said something, which was a sign that my language skills had really improved.


4. What sort of tourist attractions throughout Tajikistan are not to be missed? How about local delicacies?

Tourist attractions:

Tajikistan is an absolutely beautiful country. I strongly, strongly recommend that any tourist go hiking. There is a great FB page called Hike Tajikistan which organizes for bimonthly (or so) hiking trips across the country. There are several good museums, like the National Museum in Dushanbe. The bazaar (there is one in every city and several in Dushanbe) is not to be missed; it’s a real glimpse into Tajik life, and it’s a micro-economy of its own. Also a great place to buy souvenirs.


Local delicacies:

Plov, also called osh, is rice, meat, chickpeas and carrots. It sounds bizarre, but is delicious. There are some tasty soups like ugro and lagman, but my favorite dish of all is called qurutob. There is no adequate way to describe it, but it, very crudely put, is a mix of hot oil, very thick puff pastry dough-type bread called fattir, tomato, cucumber and a type of sour cream-type liquid. You eat it — with your hands —  at a special restaurant designated for it.


5. What are some of your favorite words and/or idioms that you picked up during your time in Tajikistan?

Az pasha fil nasoz — lit. Don’t make an elephant out of a fly = don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill

Ba khoda = lit. “With God” = this could mean anything from “oh really?” To “yeah, right!”


6. What was your host family like and how were your interactions?

I cannot speak about my host family without smiling — and having a tear form in my eye. They became my family. My host mom always referred to me using the Russian word rodnaya, which means something like “biological” or “real.” I became her real daughter. My host dad always announced to everyone that I was his daughter. It was never a question.

My host family was very special because I didn’t just become close with my immediate family, but also with my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. I went over to my cousins’ house every evening; with the girls, I gossiped, danced, etc. With the boys, I played soccer, played practical jokes, etc. My host aunt texted me a few days ago. I still talk to my host cousins a few times a week.

To illustrate how close we became, let me tell a story. On my last day, my host parents, like all the other host parents, drove me to the pick-up site, where all of us were being met to be taken to the airport by bus. The other host parents hugged their students, took a picture, and left. In my case, my parents hovered around and weren’t leaving. My host mom would ask me a question; I would answer. At one point, my host dad surveyed the group and whispered to my host mom, “you know, out of all the kids, only our Leora looks like a Tajik.” Host parents kept coming and going, but mine stayed. They were the last ones to go. When they finally did, all three of us were crying. My host mom said that it was “as if they had known me all of their lives.” I’m getting teary-eyed just writing about it.

That's (in order from left to right) my cousin, me and my sister in traditional dress

That’s (in order from left to right) my cousin, me and my sister in traditional dress.


7. How did your time in Tajikistan leave you genuinely changed?

I noticed that when I came back to the United States, I laughed a lot more. I watched the same movies, heard the same jokes, etc — but I laughed at them this time. I was much freer with enjoyment of the world around me. Tajikistan taught me an appreciation of the beauty and joys of life. The experience also gave me, literally, a family whom I love and care about and can’t wait to see again next summer. Lastly, it gave me the confidence to experience the completely unknown and make it part of my soul.

On a more cosmetic note (pun intended), I pay a lot more attention to the way I look now. In Tajikistan, women pay much more attention to their physical appearance that women do in the United States, so dressing well/putting on makeup is a habit I certainly picked up there.


8. Any general concluding thoughts you’d like to share with the world, concerning anything at all?

I don’t think I can put into words how much I love Tajikistan and its people. After the program ended, I traveled straight from Tajikistan to Russia and had a very difficult time. I compared everything with Dushanbe. I cried a lot; I missed “home.” Distraught, I emailed my grandfather about this dilemma. He said that I had tried to make myself part of the country — and succeeded, and that separation from it was separation from a treasured part of my consciousness. It all sounds melodramatic, but I truly believe that I’ve taken a piece of the country in my heart.

On that note, if anyone knows of any good internships in the area, please feel free to let me know….



This is from when I taught them how to swim 🙂
This is only part of my family; it was in reality much larger but I wanted to illustrate how large it was.

Definitely! Thanks for telling your stories for all of us! I hope that you can continue to be an inspiration not only to me but everyone else you know! Keep going from strength to strength!

Leora Eisenberg
Speaks: English, Russian, French, German, Hebrew, Farsi, Tajiki — also speaks Egyptian Arabic, Japanese and Somali very poorly

Leora Eisenberg is a current sophomore at Princeton University, where she is majoring in Slavic Studies. Shockingly, is fascinated by Soviet Central Asia. When not reading on the topic, she can be found biking, studying Talmud, seeking out new experiences, and inviting her friends over for Persian desserts. Leora hopes to return to Central Asia next summer, and every summer over the course of her academic career.

Happy Birthday, Rasmus Lyberth!

No other musician over the course of my life has brought me to the verge of tears as often as Rasmus Lyberth, a Greenlandic-speaking legend whose songs touch on the many emotions of the mortal coil and also venture into spiritual realms in ways a lot of contemporary music has forgotten to do.

In this piano mashup that I arranged myself, I used pieces from the following songs (the English translations I use were taken from the Danish “translations” provided in the track listing–and they don’t always match what the Greenlandic titles mean):

1. Siimuup Nipaa (Simon’s Voice)

2. Sooruna Oqarnak (Wedding)

3. Asallunga Oqaravit (Annette’s Song)

4. Innuneq Asaguk (Love Life)

5. Kuussuup Sinaani (The River)

6. Hey Hey

Fun fact: I actually have musical perfect pitch and so I arranged all of these without any sheet music!

Happy birthday, Rasmus!