My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

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Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.

 

Jared Gimbel: The Story You Never Knew

Tomorrow is my birthday (when I’ll be writing something else).

As my 20’s come to a close tomorrow, I will forever remember this decade of my life as the one that transformed me to a confused follower into an internationally-minded, confident explorer.

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Around age 24 I started to invest seriously in my studies of Jewish and Nordic Languages, thereby setting up the primary basis of my income (until my video games start coming out!)

Around age 25, weeks before my 26th birthday, I discovered Tok Pisin for the first time, one of the most transformative experiences of my life that left me with a soft spot towards the developing world and I am in awe of how efficient and poetic Tok Pisin is on every level. It serves as a testament to human endurance, that even when being enslaved and bereft of dignity, humans will hold onto culture, humor and the resilience that defines us all. Other Creole languages I studied since then from the Atlantic and the Pacific had very much the same features.

At age 29, I was told that my parents were floating the idea of travelling to Fiji. Within the following days, I went to Barnes and Noble and got myself the Lonely Planet Fijian textbook and began memorizing phrases IMMEDIATELY.

There is a lot of victory that I had over the course of the language journeys of my 20’s, but there are also the stories and sides that had deep defeat as well.

Sometimes I made silly mistakes in classes on the most basic level, sometimes even concerning things I said about the English language.

Within every one of my language successes I had dozens of times in which I encountered discouragement from native speakers or “beat myself up” because of my high standards.

While my videos were gaining traction in Palau and Kiribati I also had to deal with an angry Subreddit and woke up one morning to an entire webpage dedicated to insulting me. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened.

When abroad I worried that I would never “get good” at the target language and sometimes called up my family on the verge of tears. I also sometimes was made to feel like a stupid American or, even worse, that my religious upbringing in my teenage years left me with a permanent handicap in how I understood the world. (As a girl I dated once told me, “you know a lot about books, but you do not know life”.)

I also had to realize in my later 20’s that there would be a lot of dreams I needed to let go of. I couldn’t seriously become native-like fluent in a language I didn’t really care about (and unlike most people, the “languages that I didn’t really love” were actually the global giants of Western Europe. My heart has been with “the little guys” for quite a while now. )

In all likelihood, barring romance with a Spanish-speaker or business or tourism, my Danish will always be better than my Spanish, no matter what. But I’m okay with that because hearing Danish spoken on the streets of New York City (or anywhere else) always makes me happy. I remember one time when I was returning from a Bar Mitzvah in Washington D.C. I get off the bus and Penn Station and I hear a teenage boy on the street saying, “ja, det er jeg meget sikker på” (Yup, I’m really sure of that”) into a  smartphone. I smiled and knew I was in New York again.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to be someone else and I still remember a teacher in the Paideia Institute telling me that “life is too short and too precious to be wasted on something that you don’t care about” (that was Barbara Spectre, in case anyone who was also in the program is reading this).

In college and in high school I was deeply religious and looking back I think it was largely not because I myself wanted it but because I myself was afraid of divine punishment. In 2013 I made the decision to walk away from religion, bit by bit, and there were a lot of woodland walks where I was worried that some force was going to punish me if I made the decision to turn on the computer on Saturday. Shortly I realize that my fear was preventing me from having the life that I wanted and that I had actually thrown away many years and opportunities on account of being someone I didn’t really want to be.

I became ultra-competitive deep down inside. Hardened by my experiences in higher education, I had learned to become ruthlessly perfectionist to the degree that several friends told me that “no human being can [feasibly] live like that”.

I figured that in any field, whether that is in business, romance, success in getting clicks on your blog posts, etc…that you had to be as GOOD as you possibly can in a world of infinite choice, otherwise you would be thoughtlessly tossed aside in favor of someone better. Perhaps the first time I really experienced something like this was with the college application process, but it was deeply toxic because only years later did I realize that we live in a culture of fear in which our deepest insecurities are made omnipresent so that we can be sold stuff more easily.

Throughout my entire life, even as a toddler, I had known that I was very different. At age 3, I was perusing atlases and wondering about what life was like in areas far away from the DC area. At age 29, here I am in a room in Brooklyn and to my left is a bookcase with language learning books from every continent (except Antarctica). Then as well as now, I somehow felt as though my interest in places and things far away from me would be a cause for stigma.

One time I even had someone at Mundo Lingo tell me that learning Kiribati was not a wise investment because “they’re going to be underwater soon”. I was calm with him but deep down inside you can imagine how furious I really was at this display of heartlessness.

With each growing year I see that there is an ongoing struggle for control of the world, between ordinary people who want to save it and those who treasure short-term profit above humanity and don’t care if the world goes to pieces because of it. Too many people have told me that my work with languages of Oceania / the Arctic is essential to the assist in the struggle of the former.

With each language of the developing world I learn, I see man’s inhumanity to man even more pronounced with each page. But despite that, I also see that the human tapestry is something to admire in all of its glory, despite the fact that I’ll never get to experience the whole thing no matter HOW hard I study.

To some degree it shook me to my core. I saw exactly how rigged the system seems to be in favor of the world-destroyers and doubted my ability to change anything.

But I’ll end on this note.

April 2013. I’m in Woodbridge, Connecticut, my parents’ hometown (for Passover). I go to the library one day and I go to the travel section and I find a book on “Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands” in the language section. I discover the Greenlandic Language for the first time and I fall in love. I obsess about it and the very thought of me seeing another Greenlandic word makes me giddy.

I go to the library the day afterwards and I take a digital camera with me. I photograph all of the language section (it was about five pages or so) and then I go home and I make flashcards out of it on Memrise (it was the first-ever Greenlandic course on Memrise. Now there seem to be about a hundred more from all languages!)

Despite the fact that I was not good and it (and still don’t think I am) I wrote blogposts about my experience, consumed Greenlandic TV and music and told many of my friends about it.

In 2018 I’ve noticed that, at least online, there is a lot more recognition of all things Greenland. Especially in the language-learning communities. Back when Memrise had hundreds of course categories available on the app version (before relegating them only to the Desktop version), they had a Greenlandic category…one that was added because of something that I myself did. Thousands of learners have at least sampled the language from the looks of it. And it seems that Greenland-o-mania will grow even more with my release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” later next year (despite the fact that it got delayed MULTIPLE years on account of difficult circumstances in my life).

Perhaps I had a part in bringing about this “revolution”. I will not know for certain, but back when I made the Palauan video series I actually encountered several commenters saying that they were inspired to teach Palauan to their significant others because of my videos.

That’s. Not. Nothing.

Tomorrow is my birthday and I’m going to go get some gifts. I’ll say this: Clozemaster Pro in its custom sentence packs is going to be HARD to beat!

See you at age 30!

First Day of Tumbuka (Using uTalk Only) … How Did it Go?

I’ll make this easy reading.

For those who didn’t read my post yesterday, I decided to set myself a more dare-devilish goal (in line with a greater self-improvement related goal that I am likely to unveil tomorrow).

For one year (from this year’s one-week-before-Rosh-Hashanah until that of the next year), I would use ONLY one app to learn Tumbuka (a regional language of Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania). The only other resource I am allowed to use is CHANCE conversations with speakers (because this opportunity, if it presents itself, will be essential for the project).

I completed the first skill and unlocked another one – said first skill was filled with basic phrases like “how much does this cost?” “yes”, “no”, “I don’t understand” etc. (Omniglot.com fare, mostly, but less extensive).

I’ll see if I can go through a whole skill every day, if not that then a half-skill. I may also need to go to some other courses to “get more coins” to unlock stuff – something that would not be difficult as long as I want to endure fit-for-children voices in languages I’ve been studying for years now.

Some thoughts:

  • I quite like it! I’m already quite equipped to…pretty much say everything that I learned, with maybe one or two exceptions.
  • The temptation to use a notebook, Wikipedia or Memrise is a great one. But I have to resist it for the sake of science.
  • The pronunciation is straightforward and the app presents MANDATORY recording of your voice in order to complete some activities (in the 1990’s this would be an issue but not so in the smartphone era).
  • So far, absolutely no grammar coverage at all in the curriculum. But I guess this will make this “mission” very interesting, it being the first language in adulthood in which I am not learning grammar for in a “scholarly” manner.
  • In misremembering words in the recording phases, I defaulted to patterns I recognized from…languages of Oceania or Greenlandic. Given that I was also using THOSE languages in uTalk, perhaps not altogether surprising.
  • I like the hippo. I still quite like the hippo. Perhaps I will meet the hippo one day. Or not.

 

Some rules I’m laying out for this challenge:

  • The PRIMARY GOAL is to complete the course (every single skill marked with a check and every activity done) a year from yesterday.
  • My goal should be to COMPLETE a skill every day.
  • If necessary, I can review a skill to fulfill this requirement.
  • I MAY NOT USE ANYTHING ELSE TO LEARN TUMBUKA DURING THE YEAR. No Memrise, no books, no writing exercises, no Glosbe – nothing but uTalk and CHANCE conversations with fluent speakers. Granted given that I didn’t even know what it was two weeks ago, I don’t think this should be much of an issue. (I have met people from Zambia before in real life, however…speaking of which, I should update that list on my blog…)
  • During vacations or periods of holiday or illness, I am exempt from using the app on a daily basis.
  • When the challenge is complete after one year, I may choose to either write a blogpost about the experience or film myself speaking Tumbuka.

 

(I’ll also write another “diary entry” one week out and another one a month out or so, and possibly one every month after that.)

 

Well this is going to be an interesting year. If only I can keep myself consistently motivated. Let’s see if I can do it!

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Jared’s Return! September 2018 Plan and Announcing uTalk Tumbuka Challenge!

After having reflected a lot on my journey and having fully settled into New York City again, here I am reflecting on the paths I will take, with languages and otherwise.

For one, it seems that with each coming year that I will likely focus more on quality up until the time in which I raise a family (which is a LONG while away), in which case I will probably have to downsize my language list to whatever I can reasonably manage in both time AND profit (e.g. given how much the languages of Scandinavia are essential to me surviving, I have to keep them on my list…probably for the rest of my life. And I’m happy about it. Because that has been a childhood dream).

Since I got back from Fiji in mid-August my primary focus was Tahitian for two weeks. It went by…not as well as I would have hoped, but I do realize that two weeks are barely enough to form much of any variety of skill without INTENSE study (and I can’t sideline freelancing for intensive Tahitian study at this point).

That said, I was capable of having some online exchanges in the language during August 2018. I am going to be redefining my focus with that language, however: I will be using Memrise with the daily-streak function for quite a while and then when I feel that Tahitian isn’t so “strange” for me, then I’ll devote myself to studying it again. I’ve been inputting vocabulary from my books into my personalized course.

For now, Tahitian is only kept alive in my Memrise course and little else.

And then there is my commitment of thirty minutes of Hungarian. Some things I should mention about how it is going so far. Three positive, and then three negative:

  • Passive vocabulary is WAY up.
  • A lot of the grammar makes sense.
  • My accent is good.

As for what’s lacking:

  • I have trouble understanding a lot of television.
  • I sometimes am nervous to converse with native speakers.
  • My ability to speak has been inconsistent (sometimes I have to go slowly, other times I feel that I’m “really feeling it”. I had very much the same issue with Fijian four month ago as well).

I’m going to need to do active immersion more often – as I think that’s the key ingredient I’ve been missing in my studies. Watch television and piece together sentences and “what’s going on” to the best of my ability. It worked with many other languages before (most noteworthily the Nordic family) and I should expect it to work again, even though it means that I’ll have to put a LOT more effort into it than I did with languages closer to English.

For various online challenges I’m revisiting some of my “old favorites”, especially from Oceania. I’ll be making one video in Fijian every weekend for the Langfest challenge and a recording in Gilbertese every day for the Huggins International Challenge (not a long one, and unlike my normal routine I’ve been preparing elements of a script in the Gilbertese recordings because I REALLY NEED THE WRITING PRACTICE).

So that’s where I’m at in September. Creative stuff and freelancing are keeping me busy and I realize that I don’t have to put a lot of effort into “maintenance” as much as I used to because of the fact that I attend multiple language events every week.

Now here’s something fun…

Thanks to Kevin Fei Sun having won several free uTalk courses at Langfest (that I could not attend, yada yada yada Fiji)., I got intrigued by the app as well. Despite doing the freemium version in which I need to unlock individual skills, I’ve been making progress with Fijian and Greenlandic while on the train or as something to “warm up my voice” (given that there is a self-recording component).

But I’m so intrigued by it that I’m curious how well it would teach me a language by itself.

So here’s a YEAR-LONG CHALLENGE I’ll set for myself.

In the app, there’s a regional language of Zambia called “Tumbuka” (with a nice picture of a hippo which is almost the only reason it got my attention). Today is one week from Rosh Hashanah. So this challenge will last for one Jewish year – until one week from Rosh Hashanah next year.

How much Tumbuka could I learn while using the app ONLY? I may not use anything else.

Granted, because I’ll need to unlock the skills at a slow pace, and I have no routine, it seems that my progress will not be linear. Then again, I could also just get the subscription for 10 USD a month and be done with it. But I’m curious how I could manage with uTalk ALONE.

It will probably not work, but it will be a curious experience, and something I could manage with a minority language from sub-Saharan Africa.

I’ll log my progress after the first day tomorrow and I’ll give you a “first impression”. More details and a “ruleset” will be featured therein.

I’m off to try this Tumbuka course for the first time.

Wish me luck!

Jared

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8 Lessons I Learned from My Fijian / Fiji Hindi On-Location Immersion for Two Weeks

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It has been a while!

Here I am, back in the United States after my venture in Fiji was completed about a week or two ago!

Above all, my experience with Fijian was a great success. More often than not I was capable of forming sentences as necessary and expressing my thoughts in Fijian. Sometimes I had trouble understanding things, as well as the fact that I almost had no opportunities to use Fiji Hindi at all (ah well).

That said, I will continue to maintain my Fijian in the future and look forward to the fostering my connection to this wonderful place and the continent of Oceania.

I learned some very important things during my visit. Let me share them with you.

 

  • You have to forgive yourself OFTEN and realize that you’re not supposed to be perfect all the time.

 

Steve Kaufmann’s fantastic mantra of “fluency, not perfection” is very helpful in language immersion of all sorts.

 

Online you can feel as though any usage of any language will be under EXTREME scrutiny, but real life is very different and you should realize that most people in real life are going to (1) want to help you and (2) will not think of you any less for making mistakes (if anything, many would actually think MORE of you).

 

  • Don’t judge yourself too harshly.

 

Sometimes I felt tempted to “beat myself up” because I messed up a word or if I flubbed Fijian’s legendarily mean pronoun system (Fijian has singular, dual, paucal and plural forms, as well as inclusive and exclusive forms for all forms of “we”).

 

I’ve been learning Fijian since January so it makes no sense that I should compare it to languages that I’ve had years of practice for.

 

As long as you use any variety of slip-up as a ladder with which to climb harder, you are doing the right thing.

 

  • Not looking like a “typical native speaker “(e.g. in Asia, Africa or Oceania) may be a disadvantage but it is mostly surmountable.

 

There were some Fijians that were tempted to use only English with me given the fact that I’m white. In some areas of the world there may be widespread beliefs that westerners “cannot learn” the local language.

However, if I put sentences together with consistency and showed a depth of vocabulary that showed commitment, then any variety of reservation that may have been there previously evaporated.

After all, missionaries of all races go to Fiji and learn Fijian, not also to mention the fact that Fiji is the most racially diverse country in Melanesia.

I understand that in Japan there may be some issues involving saving face and honor that may actually hinder possibilities for you to use Japanese while in the country, but I think scenarios like that are not typical on a global scale. If you have had an experience like that, PLEASE share it!

 

  • Your preparation beforehand should be balanced across the skills you’ll be needing.

 

I over-prepared writing and I under-prepared listening comprehension. I somehow thought that more writing would enable me to use more vocabulary more easily. And it did. But sometimes I had trouble understanding sentences of deep complexity. It wasn’t a consistent problem, however.

 

Perhaps what I should have done would be to listen to the Bible in Fijian with a text following along in English or another language I understand. That way I could fully soak in the possibility of me understanding the language very quickly, even if my being Jewish meant that I would hear nothing about Jesus during my whole trip.

 

  • Those who are secure in their English abilities won’t shove their English-as-a-Second-Language on you or make you feel that learning their language is a waste.

 

Unlike in many areas of Europe, in Fiji almost all signs are not in people’s mother tongue. English dominates on signage but Fijian dominates spoken conversations. As a result of English being  an official language of Fiji, many Fijians had very good command of English.

 

But unlike some European nations that had similar English proficiency, Fijians never “imposed” English on me. And if they were to use English, then they would say everything in Fijian as well. Not ONCE did I feel unappreciated or snubbed the way that I had in some other countries, mostly in Europe, for having used their language.

 

The Fijians know English very well and they didn’t need to prove it to themselves or anyone else. As a result, they didn’t take usage of their mother tongue(s) as demeaning or condescending and went OUT OF THEIR WAY to show that every effort to speak their mother tongue was very deeply appreciated (e.g. with compliments or with thoughtfully worded questions).

 

In Suva, which has a feeling of a “capital of the Pacific” present throughout, English dominated even in some conversations between the locals. This was not a dynamic present in the countryside (e.g. in Taveuni or Rakiraki).

 

This goes to my next point…

  • If you’re getting consistently responded to in English in certain situations, there may be a historical backstory you’re missing.

 

I remember one time when I was reading Fluent in 3 Months there was a guest poster who wondered why she was in Brittany (the region in France) and wondering why people would only answer her in English rather than French.

 

Not a SINGLE mention was made of the fact that French government policy saw fit to weaken the Breton language to a shocking degree—a campaign that sadly was largely successful.

 

Given that in the 19th century 90% of Bretons spoke Breton as their mother tongue and the reality that now I have still yet to meet a younger Breton with deep knowledge of it—well, no wonder they won’t use French with you if you have an accent.

 

In some taxis in Suva, I somehow felt as though my knowledge of Fijian was not acknowledged. But then it occurred to me that many of these drivers were likely Indo-Fijians (I was proven right on several occasions in this respect) who may have had significantly better command of English than Fijian and really didn’t see Fijian as “their” language.

 

In Greenland once or twice my choice to use Greenlandic or Danish got met with English in response. This was likely for a similar reason (e.g. a bartender with scant knowledge of Greenlandic).

 

  • Resist the need to destructively over-analyze your word choice, progress or anything else.

 

Do NOT dwell on your errors. Just because you make a mistake doesn’t make you any less of a polyglot. In fact, you’re probably MORE of a polyglot because of your errors, to be honest.

 

  • Native speakers will be forgiving of your mistakes, especially if their language is barely ever learned by visitors or foreigners.

I made some really silly mistakes (e.g. complicated family terms involving siblings had frequent mix-ups. You use a term to refer to siblings that are the same gender as you are, and other terms to refer to your opposite-gendered siblings).

That said, either my native speaker friends or taxi drivers or tour guides would politely correct me and tell me to keep up the good work, or I was understood regardless.

 

I should also say this: the Fijians I met during my travel showed a deep pride in their culture and a desire to share it with other people. They made sure that every effort to know about them and their language was appreciated. Discounting Suva, this was the case virtually without exception.

I think that in Europe there is a growing trend in which people “hate” their native languages and see them as “useless” (in some areas of the Americas as well this is also present).

We need to learn to love who we are and to hold onto the traditions of our ancestors whenever possible. There might be those who use a lot of American words so as to somewhat convey “I wish I were American instead of my actual nationality”, and this is a deep shame in my opinion because we cannot lose our human diversity. It is one thing that makes greed and conformity a lot less possible.

I’ve said it to many people: Fiji left me changed on every level of my being. I look forward to an eventual return.

What I Learned from Not Writing Two Consecutive Facebook Posts in the Same Language for a Whole Month (June 2018)

The last post of the month!

Because of work that I’ve been doing on “Nuuk Adventures” as well as other commitments, I haven’t been making videos or writing blog posts as often as I used to. I do love what languages give me, but the biggest dream in my life right now is to get my first video game published and popular and while there have been difficulties with that, I will need to make sacrifices in other areas of my life. And that’s okay.

Anyhow, for June 2018 I imposed a challenge on myself to not write two consecutive posts in the same language for a whole month.

Here are some things that I realized as a result of the experience:

  • I most often defaulted to languages that I felt “needed work”.

 

Hungarian and Fijian were my primary focuses in June and will continue to be so in July (when I revive my Fiji Hindi as well). Devoting a serious amount of time to three languages every day will be difficult, but I’m not one to be afraid.

 

I don’t have a single Facebook friend who speaks Fijian (even though I do know some who can read Fijian words out loud and pronounce them correctly). That said, I often wrote posts in Fijian with English translations in the comments.

 

I have a substantial amount of Hungarian friends and Hungarian-speaking friends from other places (the U.S. and Israel, mostly). Between that and machine translations for Hungarian (despite the fact that they translated the word “Fijian” as “fiancé” in a recent post of mine), I didn’t need to translate them into English.

 

I struggle with Hungarian sentence structure (although I’m getting used to the cases better every day).

 

In line with that thought…

 

  • It enabled me to “refresh” languages that I couldn’t engage with online as readily (such as Irish and Gilbertese)

Learning Hungarian for me has proven to be MUCH, MUCH easier than learning any language from Oceania. Hungarian is all over the internet in comparison to languages like Fijian or Gilbertese.

As a result, my motivation for Fijian somewhat slumped because sometimes I felt that I couldn’t find interesting content as much (although maybe I’m…not looking hard enough! Yo, I’m always open for suggestions…)

Gilbertese was also an issue because “comprehensive input” (describing something that Olly Richards is currently using with his Italian project) has been…non-existent…except for my YouTube series on Gilbertese which is helpful but it’s clear that I’m a non-native and that my pronunciation in the earlier entries needed improvement. (the ‘ in the b’a combination is pronounced as “bwa”, and in some Gilbertese orthographies is written as such).

Actively translating things into rarer languages was helpful.

That said, sometimes I worried that I was “doing it wrong” and sometimes I realized that my vocabulary retention wasn’t too high.

But the key is to do something that helps, even a little bit, and to keep doing it.

  • My English-Language Posts Got Significantly More Likes (Not Surprised at All)

Machine Translation or not, most people would see something in Finnish and scroll past it if they don’t have a solid ability to read it.

I saved my longer, eloquent posts for being written in English and then had quaint observations and jokes in other languages. This doesn’t reflect my skills, but rather my audience.

  • My Facebook Friend Requests Quadrupled as a Result

My posts are open and so when people saw what I was doing they were immediately intrigued. With growing skepticism of polyglot culture for a number of reasons, the fact that I was writing posts in many languages, some of which haven’t been touched by machine translation at all, was a clear marker that I was genuine (which I know that I am).

A lot of people in the online Facebook groups added me as a result. Yes, I have following enabled, but I’m always glad to help others in any way I can. Granted, I get hundreds of messages a day and it has been hard for me to keep up. But I do try.

  • It seems likely that this may become a permanent habit in July and Beyond

I’m not going to lie, I genuinely enjoyed this, it made me project a more interesting version of myself and it cemented my vocabulary in many languages significantly.

I also got two corrections over the course of the month (one from a Hungarian speaker and another about word choice from a Swedish speaker). I’m grateful for your input and I don’t take it personally.

 

JULY 2018 Challenge:

July 2018’s challenge (I’m probably going to make the weekly challenges a habit, inspired by the legendary Ari in Beijing):

 

– I must translate ALL Facebook posts I write into either Fijian or Fiji Hindi. This is true regardless of source language. (Posts in Hungarian, Hebrew, Danish, English, etc. are affected)

 

– Exceptions include emergencies and life-changing announcements (including “Kaverini” announcements)

 

– I can write the translation in a comment instead (for example, if I want to write a very powerfully worded political piece, I may opt for doing this).

 

– I may use any orthography for Fiji Hindi.

 

– I may use as many English loan words in Fiji Hindi as necessary for it to feel genuine (e.g. the way an Indo-Fijian would speak). The same is true for English loan words in Fijian.

 

– For the sake of balancing translating into the two languages, I have to alternate between Fijian and Fiji Hindi with each post. If I translate into both, it serves as a wild card and I can choose which of the two to do for the next post.

 

– Instagram is unaffected, but if I share any Instagram photos or videos to Facebook, I must translate the caption into one of the two languages in a comment (or both).

 

– The challenge will be suspended in the event of me going abroad. (Foreshadowing?)

 

CAN I DO IT? We’ll see!

jippi-mundolingo

From years ago. My language list is a bit different now. 

The Darker Sides of Hyperglotism

2018 has had its share of victories for me so far, but sadly it also resulted it a huge series of rude awakenings.

For one, especially after the Polyglot Conference and my growing presence online, I’ve felt my inbox flooded with people asking for learning advice and resources and many other things. I am very grateful for that, in a sense, but to some degree I feel overwhelmed because the day is not far off when I will get WAY too many messages for me to deal with.

I started this blog and became a teacher because I know that the contemporary world is full of pain (as has, most likely, all of human history to date). Contemporary marketing thrives on insecurity, building up limiting beliefs and convincing people that their dreams are out of reach.

I know how it feels to be confused and without hope, and I hope that my writings have brought at least a little bit of healing to the world.

On the other hand, since this year started, there have been a number of difficult happenings. I woke up on morning to find an entire thread on Reddit devoted to hating me with every imaginable awful thing said about me (they linked to my blog and that’s how I found out about it). Thankfully the moderators got involved (perhaps a bit too late) and doled out warnings and deleted the thread (sort of) but the damage still lingers in my heart, despite some apology messages I got.

Anti-Semitism has also entered as well in ways I don’t want to describe. Suffice it to say that, while being Jewish has largely been a source of advantage and comfort for me nowadays rather than either a social liability / point of discrimination / source of guilt, it has been used against me….especially in private messages from complete strangers who don’t hold back.

Unlike in previous years, I find myself in a permanent spotlight. I can’t live a private life anymore, even if I wanted to. But this is what I wanted for years and it is surprisingly stressful when I got it.

I have to be aware that every interaction I have with anyone ANYWHERE has the potential to be used for me or against me. I have to keep my fluent languages in even better shape.

This ties into another thing: I’ve been focusing a lot more on my fluent languages than I have on ones I’d like to know. Part of me wishes it were otherwise, but I also fear that I am suffering from burnout as well.

Thankfully earlier this year I also became a video game tester as well so that has been something new, exciting and quite fulfilling. But if you’re expecting that a job like that is “play games and get paid”, you’re not exactly right. (A lot of the games can be extremely frustrating and you have to take detailed notes on what does or doesn’t work).

Earlier this month I said I was working on Kiribati and Rotuman, but I gave up on improving Kiribati after the first day (for now, at least). I’ll come back to it another day, perhaps one in which I haven’t suffered from so much “Oceania fatigue” (Rotuma is different given that it will likely come of use in Fiji, however slim the chances, and if it blossoms into something to write about I can’t lose that chance).

I constantly feel as though I need to maintain ALL of my projects PERFECTLY AT ALL TIMES, in a twisted perfectionism that has left me confused. I find myself wondering if the good fortune I’ve had so far is something I even deserve, and doubting my successes is another thing I do with unfortunate consistency.

One day I think I will no longer be vexed by this “new state of things”. But much like adjusting to a new reality, as I had too many times throughout my life (going to an Orthodox Jewish Day school for the first time, entering an inner-city high school from there and then Wesleyan University and then four other countries FOLLOWED BY a confused return to my homeland which didn’t seem as though it was mine anymore) will take a lot of difficulty at the beginning, followed by (what I hope can be) some variety of solace.

The Fijian and Fiji Hindi recordings are almost ready, I just need to compile and upload them!

Do YOU relate to anything that I’ve described here? Go ahead and let us all know!

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