5779: The Most Important Lesson I Learned

The most important lesson I had over the course of the (Jewish) year was the following one:

After giving both of my presentations in Bratislava, I was genuinely dissatisfied with them. I thought that I was too nervous, didn’t speak well enough, spoke with grammatical errors and that my accent wasn’t good.

I was so upset after they happened that I was on the verge of communicating with my family members in tears, thinking that I was a disgrace to my polyglot legacy and professional career.

I was genuinely scared for the talks to be posted online this week, but I was pleasantly surprised to recieve many messages saying how inspiring I was as a presenter, bringing my heritage languages and knowledge of places, languages and cultures threatened by climate change to one of the biggest conferences of its kind in the world.

There was genuinely nothing to be afraid of and I was judging myself way, way, way, way too harshly. And all the signs pointed to me having done a better job than my abysmal rating of myself.

I will have to cultivate self-mercy over the course of the coming year. Too often I have looked at my creative work sketches for “Nuuk Adventures” and thought “there is no way that this will sell at all”.

But the lessons of this year shows that we all have more strength than we estimate and that people are more forgiving than you think.

May Divine Mercy and self-love be with us all and a sweet 5780 to my Jewish friends!

 

Here are the presentations:

 

Polyglot Report Card: May 1st, 2019

Thirty Days. Two Presentations. One fantastic conference. Lots of crises in my recent life in the past year but hoping I’m going to manage well.

So for this one I’m going to only rate languages that (1) I will almost certain encounter speakers of during the conference and (2) are not ones that I regularly encounter at language exchange events by different people (so no Spanish, German or English).

And exactly what I need to do for each.

Let’s go:

Yiddish: above all good in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation is very good, flow is mostly good, I just wish I had more vocabulary, that’s all. But I know plenty of people who would be happy with the vocabulary I currently have in Yiddish. After all, I have more than a decade of experience.

Yiddish plan: my 7,000+ word Anki deck. Use during commutes.

My Yiddish plan is also identical to my Scandinavian plan, but my knowledge of Norwegian is slightly weaker than Yiddish or of Swedish or Danish.

Finnish: Overall quite strong, I think I just need to solidify knowledge of some idiomatic expressions.

Finnish Plan: Cloze Deletions during my commute. Which I’m already doing.

Hebrew: Understanding is EXCELLENT. My vocabulary needs more depth but I don’t know if I’ll have the time to do it, especially with my presentations.

Hebrew plan: use Lingq or Clozemaster more often.

Hungarian: I can manage conversations about some topics well, others not so well. I need consistent practice.

Hungarian plan: watch YouTube / Hungarian TV during workouts or chores.

My Hungarian plan is also valid for Slovak but my flow is a lot better. For obvious reasons I’m more likely to focus on Slovak until after the conference.

Tok Pisin: Haven’t maintained it in a while but when asked to speak it I manage very well. My Bislama and Pijin have somewhat fallen down the wayside but I think I could manage them with a native speaker if I had to. I probably won’t encounter Ni-Vanuatu, etc. at that conference. I know because the guest list is mostly open.

Tok Pisin Plan: Listen to audio in the subway. I can literally understand everything said to almost everything said.

Hawaiian: Probably the dark horse rising star of my group, I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to use it but I won’t be surprised if I do. My accent is good, my basic vocabulary is good, my cultural knowledge is a bit on the weak side, I don’t know Hawaiian songs too well.

Hawaiian Plan: Oiwi TV needs myself a-watching.

Lao: Ha. Probably the one language I’m gonna be the most disappointed in (as was the case in the 2017 Polyglot Conference). I’m going to need to do more than just my Memrise course for this one (I only have Lao, Palauan and Hiva Oa / South Marquesan active on Memrise right now).

Lao Plan: multilingual posting in closed groups, uTalk speaking exercises, possibly customizing Lingq.

Fiji Hindi: I can understand a significant amount, but given that I’ll mostly be hearing Standard Hindi, this will need work. This is a language I retired for a while but then I decided to revive it this month because there will be many people who will have learned Esperanto and Hindi for the Gathering Challenge. (I did not, however).

Fiji Hindi Plan: Put an entire textbook into Lingq (I use the Gujarati slot) during one weekend when I feel very passionate. By “entire textbook” I mean “only the simple sentences”. Then go through the vocabulary during the week.

But as for what I will focus on during May, it will likely be Niuean and Fiji Hindi, actually. These are two languages I think that I’ll need the most for the gathering (with the exception of Slovak which I’ll likely soak up very well once I’m there). So I need to work on those. If I am very, VERY satisfied with Niuean, I’ll pivot to Slovak instead.

For what it’s worth, I’ll be focusing more on fewer languages once this conference is over. And I’ll write in more detail about my plan then.

My list remains the same for my post-Gathering language lineup, and I’ll redesign my website to suit it: Scandinavian, Yiddish, Hungarian, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Greenlandic and Finnish.

(If I add another language it will likely something required for a trip, business or a relationship but only if I deem it ABSOLUTELY necessary and fulfilling)

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What I Had to Give Up to Become a Hyperpolyglot

Well I’m going to make a number of announcements now.

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While my Slovak studies have been continuing due to the fact that I will be presenting at the Bratislava Polyglot Gathering in 2019 (one presentation in Yiddish on Kiribati and another presentation in Swedish about Niue), I am probably going to retire from my hyperpolyglot life once that spiel is over in June.

I need to be clear about something: I will NOT return to speaking just English, given that my livelihood depends on my knowledge of Nordic languages and Yiddish (as well as, to a lesser extent, languages of South Pacific).

I just feel as though I had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to become that imposter-syndrome-riddled legend. And now I want to live for myself rather than my reputation.

I am glad to have “dated” so many languages and cultures, but now I’d like to settle down and really get to intimately know my favorite languages. These would be, in no particular order, Yiddish, Scandinavian, Finnish, Hungarian, Greenlandic, and Polynesian in general but with a focus on Tahitian and Hawaiian.

My English is EXTREMELY good, even by native speaker standards (I tested in the 99th percentile for vocabulary). I know that there literally might not be enough time for me to get to that level in my “favorite languages”, but I’d like to get closer.

Also the pressure of trying to get me to speak better (Spanish / Modern Hebrew / French / etc.) has been bothering me. I somehow see it as friends who would encourage me to break up with a girlfriend I really love.

So as a result of that I may stop attending language exchange events as often as I used to come June. But maybe I’ll pop in occasionally.

Here’s what I felt I needed to give up as a result of becoming a hyperpolyglot:

 

  1. A Sense of Belonging

 

I became “that guy”, in a sense, the one whose reputation as a “language genius” always proceeded me. ALWAYS.

I never really could find myself connecting to my American culture on a deep level. I gave up American television and news. I found myself permanently apart from the country I spent the most time in.

Even though I felt significantly “at home” among foreigners of all types sometimes, I constantly felt as though I was American first, speaker of their language second.

I became the bridge. A true member of none of the cultures I partook of, but a genuinie member of none of them.

 

  1. Full-Time Fluency without Doubts

 

There were exceptions to this, but often with the languages that I had to spread myself thinly to maintain, I felt that my knowledge of idioms would be thinner than I would have liked, even then I worried about my grammar sometimes.

At first I figured that I didn’t really WANT native-like fluency, but with each year I feel that it is what I want in the languages I want most.

I saw it this way (and the book “Babel No More” manages to point to this): I put most of my chips on the languages I liked most and then spread many of them thinly across many others.

Now I’m going to put all of my chips on the eight languages I like the most. And the fact that Scandinavian languages and Yiddish are closely related, not also to mention the Polynesian family, gives me an advantage in that respect.

I don’t want to sound “learnerese” anymore in any of my languages. I want to sound completely natural. And I got there. But only with a few. But even with those view I want to get better.

I also knew seventeen languages to conversational fluency, but even with half of those I felt as though many of them had holes. Holes are okay. Even very good speakers of English as a second language have them. But I want to make the most of what I can get and that will involve optimizing my skills.

 

  1. Leisure Time

 

This is self-explanatory. I had to convert all of my free time to maintenance. Walking around? You better be listening to audio in one of your target languages. Playing a game? Same.

It took an unbelievable toll on my mental health. The idea that I had to maintain my reputation all of the time meant that everything that wasn’t explicitly related to my career had to go to language learning. The only fun I really had for fun’s sake was video games but even then it was usually to note “what is this game doing well? How about not so well?” concerning what I would incorporate into “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” and other projects.

 

  1. Security and Confidence

 

Language learning is highly vulnerable because there IS a point where you will sound like an idiom. I got told that my accent was terrible. Sometimes I even got told to stop speaking the language.

And that’s not even going into what was said about me online. Whenever I would read some things, entire days if not weeks would be plunged into despair.

Even with fluency, either professional or conversational, I interpreting things that native speakers said very seriously. “Pretty good” was code for “needs work” or “not passable”. I would interpret anything other than endless praise as “you better work on it!”

And even then I would sometimes interpret praise as the fact that I needed work on it too. (It had to do with a post I read saying that native speakers don’t praise each other’s language skills).

It was a neurosis that I was aware of from my days in religious school as a pre-teen. The endless “shoulder checking” and the idea that God would always punish you for every small thing…and only now while writing this do I realize that it ended up in other areas of my life without realizing it.

 

  1. Ability to Converse with Certain People

 

This is an odd one. Because my life became so internationalized, there were people to whom I could connect to VERY easily and others whom I could barely manage a conversation with at all.

Among most internationals, I didn’t need to explain the whole Macedonia naming controversy at all. Among many Americans, it was necessary. And many people throughout the world only imagine the South Pacific as “Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti and that’s it” (Kiribati required a lengthy explanation as did Tuvalu or the Federated States of Micronesia). And that’s not even mentioning the constituent countries of New Zealand (such as Niue).

I didn’t want to learn about American pop culture too deeply. It felt fake for me. Sometimes it cost me the ability to connect with people. Although with other internationals we could always talk about our cultural differences or about the things American locals were never asking us about.

 

  1. Time to Relax

 

My polyglot career became everything and it consumed every aspect of my life. I always wanted to get better, almost like an addiction in a sense. I wasn’t allowed to relax because I figured “someone else out there is doing a better job than you are and YOU have to keep working!”

Again, this was another transmuted neurosis from my high school and college days in which I was a “striver”.

 

Bonus: Pressured to learn popular languages and get good at those.

 

Do I need to say more about this? Some people barely believe languages outside of Western Europe exist. The idea that my heart was elsewhere some people found confusing.

If you love something, go ahead and choose what you love above all else. And that’s what I’m going to do.

People Who “Hate” Their Native Languages: My Perspective

Beware the Ides of March!

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

For many years I’ve heard comments like these:

 

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

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

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

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

“I think my native language is boring”

“I would trade my native language for…”

 

I should mention two things:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

The Mindsets of a Young Hyperpolyglot

A lot of people ask me how I managed to acquire working knowledge of 10+ languages despite my young age.

Even seasoned professors managed to wonder how I could present on many topics before college classes with such clarity…or, as I often get, “how does all of that information fit in your head?”

Well, I don’t believe in keeping secrets and so today I let forth everything that I did right and, more importantly, that I did DIFFERENTLY.

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  • I make efficient use of “dead time.”

This is probably the MOST important thing that will net you results with your time. Do this within a week, and you’ll notice significant results in any goals you have your heard on attaining.

If I’m on the subway and standing? I’m listening to audio in one of my target languages.

Am I working out? I’m doing very much the same.

Waiting for an appointment? Flashcards or books. Easy.

This is the difference between someone who struggles with their second language and someone who becomes a hyperpolyglot. This is, to some degree, the only difference. But there are other ones worth mentioning.

 

  • I focus on what I REALLY WANT.

How do I manage to learn many things succinctly? Easy. I find things that I like and I focus on them.

This results in a situation where I focus more on the languages I care about than those that most in society would deem “useful”. But so what? Better to have knowledge of something you care about DEEPLY than to have forced knowledge that someone else thinks or says is a good idea.

Obviously, if your “language love” is a global language, choose that. If it’s a small national language or minority language, choose that too. But remember this: the very thought of studying it should be like getting a treat to you. If that isn’t the language you’re learning right now (or ones you’re maintaining), pick ones that DO fit that bill.

 

  • I have an ego (and I’m not afraid to admit it. On here, at least).

 

I have a drive to be the best and be a legend. Admittedly not everyone has that drive. And that’s okay.

What really drives me to accomplish things is a sense that…I’m not ashamed to admit it, I like attention. And it’s not a bad thing, as long as you use it for HELPING others in your community and building yourself in a positive way. (Make yourself into a hero, not a villain who tramples on others for the sake of puffing themselves up.)

In line with that: while I am not a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I am a descendant of pogrom survivors and, to some degree, I see that I have to life a good life as much as I can for the sake of my distant family members (including other Ashkenazi Jews as a whole) who didn’t get that opportunity.

 

  • I’m fluid in my identity.

I post about Pacific Islands regularly, as I do with Greenland, Jewish culture, Scandinavia, video games, stupid puns and countless other topics besides. I see a gift of living in the contemporary world with infinite masks.

Making someone curious about the world is one of the SUREST ways to make the fluent in several languages. And the fact that I’ve found myself confused about who I am for most of my life (including as I write this) helped with that, even though it harmed me in many other respects.

And another important thing is…

 

  • I don’t ask myself “what do I use to learn a language?” Instead, I ask myself, “what DON’T I use to learn a language?”

 

I think of my life as in need to “mobilization strategies”, as what the United States did during the Second World War and also what I hope it (and all of human civilization) will do for the sake of saving the climate and the human future.

If I have a goal, I have to warp my life as much as possible to point towards the directed outcome. Make sacrifices. Build habits. Make the right friends. Join the right groups. Surround myself with material conducive towards fulfilling that goal.

There’s a difference between using one method to learn something (what many people do, especially with apps [and those apps are usually more invested in their profit than getting you to learn and this is no secret at all]) and those who use almost ANY method they can get their hands on to learn something.

And it doesn’t all have to be book-learning either!

If you want your life to change, you will have to change your life.

And the good news is that anyone can do that. At any time!

Onward!

What Made Learning Languages of Oceania Different from Learning Other Languages?

Thanks again to Teddy Nee for this idea! Check out his musings at: http://www.neeslanguageblog.com/

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The number of people I have met who have studied foreign languages from Oceania I number no more than twenty, MAYBE thirty at the absolute highest. And I meet dozens of language learners every week if not a couple hundred every month (!)

Even if you don’t intend on learning any (and that’s okay, obviously!), perhaps you are a bit curious about how the process is different from learning other languages.

I’ll lay out a number of differences between, let’s say, me having learned Fijian last year and my learning Slovak right now.

 

  • It is nigh impossible to avoid material from Christian missionaries in native-speaker immersion.

 

And given that SBS Radio Australia just discontinued its Fijian radio program (among other indigenous languages of Oceania) a year or two ago, budget cuts may make this even more of a reality than it already is.

 

Jewish as I am, I really have to admire the efforts of missionaries in how much effort they go in localizing their materials. I’ve said it many times on this blog, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses alone outdid all of WIKIPEDIA not only in terms of how many languages were represented but also the qualities of their translations as well. Wikipedia has no more than 300 languages or so, jw.org has over 700.

 

My studies of Tuvaluan and of Tongan would have been IMPOSSIBLE if not for the efforts of contemporary missionaries. Granted, I choose to learn languages from Oceania out of environmental and cultural exploratory reasons, not because I have any intention of converting to Christianity.

 

Here’s how I recommend you use the material:

 

Glosbe has translation memories (for those who don’t know what this is, this is when cross-translated texts are put into a database for other translators to reference). You’ll find cross-translated sentences (e.g. English to Fijian).

 

Get a Clozemaster Pro account, pick a language that has the Cloze-Collections feature, and add sentences (make sure to check the second check box so that the other answers you get are ALSO in your target language). Keep adding sentences and playing through them. The Cloze-Collections features is being beta-tested so there have been some issues with it (e.g. you’ll still get 100% mastered sentences showing up).

Also feel free to use sentences from language learning textbooks as well.

Lastly, use spoken and musical audio in order to hone aspects of your accent. Again, a lot of the material available, if it isn’t news broadcasts from Australia, New Zealand or even the countries themselves, will probably be audio Bibles or other materials aimed at Christians.

 

  • Lots of self-practice is needed if you don’t have access to native speakers.

 

You NEED to be recording yourself. If you’re brave enough, share the recordings on the Internet. If you’re braver still, try sharing it in forums or on Reddit.

 

The 30-Day Speaking Challenge is a FANTASTIC place to start, even if you have to even read from a script at the start and then transfer to improvisation (with or without vocabulary lists). More info here: http://hugginsinternational.com/

 

With this you need to actively imitate native speakers more attentively. Describe the texture of your target language to yourself. What are you noticing about the consonants and vowel sounds?

 

With some accents (although I have heard it used in particular about French and Slavic languages), feel free to imitate them over the top and then tone it down accordingly. The Fijian language’s consonants are very juicy. Languages of Micronesia have a guttural quality that will make foreigners’ eyes bulge the first time they hear it (I’m still amused by the missionary that once referred to Marshallese as “sounding like baby talk”).

 

I can go on the street in New York City and hear Dominican Spanish and Jamaican Patois. I can also hear many languages of China and India as well, not also to mention Hebrew, French, Brazilian Portuguese, and Yiddish. Unless you live in some metropolitan areas of Australia or New Zealand (which have large communities from all over the continent) or areas in Arkansas where Marshallese is commonly heard on the street, you probably don’t have that luxury. So make up for it with more voice training.

 

  • People of Oceania are fiercely proud of their languages in ways that many Westerners aren’t. Many of them will also jump on any opportunity to help you.

 

I’ve heard some people who are citizens of EU countries subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) wish that they had another native language.

 

There was NOT A HINT of this when I was in Fiji, not among the iTaukei, not among the Indo-Fijians, and not among the members of other nationalities I encountered in Suva or Los Angeles or online.

 

When I started posting videos of me trying to learn Gilbertese online, within less than a month I found I-Kiribati online willing to help me(and if it weren’t for my stress levels I’d take them up on it).

 

Palauans. Samoans. Fijians. Hawaiians. Many of these nationalities (and more) will gladly use your interest in their language to cement friendships with you.

 

With speakers of English Creoles, there may be “situation-appropriateness” to be accounted for (e.g. some Solomon Islanders may not consider Pijin suitable for some written needs, such as in business letters or exchanges). Aside from that, you’re in for a world of love.

 

  • Music is readily available in any national language of Oceania.

 

And entire YouTube channels are devoted to it.

 

KiriMusik:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCG4tYNU1mJ1U5D4qTqrc39w

MusicTuvalu:

https://www.youtube.com/user/MusicTuvalu

MusicofSamoa (WITH KARAOKE TRACKS):

https://www.youtube.com/user/musicofsamoa

 

You get the idea.

 

Use it.

 

  • Films may NOT be readily available in many of these languages.

 

Unless, of course, you account for the Jesus Film.

 

Kiribati and Samoa have a good deal of online movies available for free on YouTube. The Melanesian English Creoles also have some. But many of the others may be lacking.

 

  • Sometimes you’ll only have access to one book to learn the language. But if you have material for native speakers, one book is enough.

Check this post: https://worldwithlittleworlds.com/2019/01/24/learning-languages-from-oceania-a-guide-on-how-to-start/

 

  • You’ll get a lot of discouragement from some people (who know NOTHING about Oceania) that claim that learning such languages is “useless” or can’t even locate the countries on a map.

I tell them exactly how, while these countries may be small, knowing the language can give you instant insider privileges and friendships, precisely because so few people take that path.

If you show up to a Kiribati village with knowledge of Gilbertese, they’ll ask you to make a speech at the Maneaba (something akin to a town hall or a meeting place).

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People will be curious to hear your story and wonder how someone could POSSIBLY be so smart so as to be able to learn the language as well as you do (even if you’re not that good).

I’m certain that if the people discouraging you were to just taste a LITTLE bit of the “red carpet treatment” I got in Fiji as a result of me using the local language, they would reconsider.

 

  • Learning Languages of Oceania can be heartbreaking

Some nations, Kiribati and Tuvalu most famously, have made rising sea levels one of the cornerstones of their national identity. And they have every right to.

I remember one time I heard a story about someone who showed up to a Yiddish class the first day in a university setting. S/he was sobbing so much thinking about all of the culture that was lost to the Shoah and how we will never know anything about the millions of people murdered just because they were Jewish, 80% of whom were native Yiddish speakers.

I’ve had to deal with that pain myself in learning and teaching Yiddish. Looking into a vanished world, but still admiring what remains of it, whether it be in the heartlands of Yiddish culture themselves or with Yiddishists all over the world.

With each word of Kiribati, Tuvaluan or Marshallese that I pick up, I am cognizant of the fact that I may actually outlive the very earth on which these cultures were formed and created for over a millennium. Unless we care a whole awful lot and manage to turn things around and defeat greed, that is.

Having to deal with that, I understand another level why many people not only don’t learn languages of these places but don’t learn about them almost at all to begin with. That reality is terrifying. The “words of the last generation” contain a pain that is unprecedented in human history – literally watching your country vanish.

But it is precisely because I want to heal that pain that I devote myself to this area of the world. And I hope I may inspire you to do so as well.

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

Happy February everyone!

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

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

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

Fotka Jareda Gimbela.

WHAT MY COSTUME SHOULD BE:

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

WHERE I GET INSPIRATION:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy costuming!

 

When Do You Know You’re Good Enough in a Language to List in On Your (CV / Profile / Etc.?)

Perhaps one of the more straightforward ways is “testing procedures”. But what if your target language doesn’t have that? What then?

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Let’s say you’re learning a language from the developing world for which there is no test. When do you know that you can list (Fijian / Dzongkha / Tuvaluan / Tok Pisin) on the list of languages you speak?

There are a number of milestones you must pass on the way to conversational fluency (being able to have bar conversations in your target language) and then, should you so desire, to professional fluency (being able to perform your job[s] in your target language).

  • Learning the most essential verbs (to want, to have, to be)
  • Learning how verbs work (this is going to be harder to learn in some languages than others. Spanish verbs may take you a month, Lao verbs will take you five minutes at most.)
  • Learning how gender works, if any.
  • Learning how politeness tiers work, if any.
  • Learning how adjectives work (do they go before or after the noun they modify?)
  • Learning the “pronoun zoo” (This can be very straightforward in some languages. In some languages like Tok Pisin and Fijian, you’ll have to deal with ungodly large amounts of pronouns [the two of us but not you, me and you, the large group of us but not you, etc. In other languages, especially in East Asia, this is noted via pronouns you’d use with your partner but not with your boss. Sometimes as a foreigner in Asian countries you will be expected to use only a narrow set of pronouns. Still, recognizing many of them can be useful).
  • How prepositions / postpositions work.
  • The case system, if any (in Finno-Ugric languages, for example, this overlaps with the previous point).
  • Any miscellaneous grammatical features that enhance understanding significantly (such as Finnish or English having “multiple infinitives”. To give an example in English “I want to eat dinner” vs. “I don’t feel like eating dinner”.)

 

Once you pass all of these “checkpoints”, your primary goal, then, is to fill in the vocabulary that is missing. It will mostly be nouns, adjectives and verbs, but sometimes more complicated prepositions can also be involved.

 

There is no singular way to acquire vocabulary but there are some very FUN ways I can recommend:

 

  • Television and videos (subtitles can be used if you’re disciplined enough, otherwise many YouTube videos can explain words through “context”, not also to mention in the comments and description).
  • Joke pages (remember that our friends at uTalk said that the best way to learn is to make things funny!)
  • Writing exercises
  • Apps (e.g. Memrise, Clozemaster, uTalk, Mango Languages, ‘n friends.)

 

Okay, now back to the question at hand, WHEN do you know you are good enough?

The same way that I described milestones above, you’ll have to pass a number of milestones that genuinely “prove” your worth. Think of these as “boss fights”, in a sense.

Some boss fights would include things like:

 

  • Understanding a 15-minute video or audio in your target language and understanding anywhere from 90%-100%.
  • Having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker in which you get genuinely complimented or EVEN if you get mistaken for a native speaker.
  • Conducting your job entirely in your language for a substantial period of time (15+ minutes, again, is a good benchmark).

 

So when do I put a language on my list? If I can do tasks like these CONSISTENTLY. Usually if I have done any of these tasks ten or more times than I can put the language on my “fluent” list.

And the reverse is true: if I fail to accomplish doing that in a row several times, it is no longer on my fluent list.

You can also modify this list to include writing and reading as well.

 

  • Having a chat conversation for 5+ minutes in the language. (You tend to do more quickly with writing so I modified the time from 15 minutes to 5.)
  • Reading several articles in a row in which you don’t need to reference a dictionary (or barely need to).

 

A final note: there are those who will glorify testing procedures above all and say that fluency is binary (either that it exists or that it doesn’t exist). It is very possible to pass a fluency test and then forget absolutely EVERYTHING (I’ve met several people who have done so, actually). They are worth something and they are an accomplishment, but if you definitely show signs of fluency and belonging the likes of which I’ve shown above, and ESPECIALLY if you’ve been getting extremely positive signs from native speakers of your target language, don’t worry about having a test result or not having a test result.

Strictly speaking in terms of paper qualifications, I speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Danish and Swedish (to the exclusion of my other fluent languages). Sure, I know these well (although my contemporary Hebrew showed signs of decay at the tail end of 2018 but I’ll get it back in order soon), but that doesn’t show the whole picture of how I live my life. And neither should you be discouraged by narrow slips of paper. The world has been poisoned enough because of that.

Feel free to let me know what you think!

 

2018, or Every Great Story Has a Low Chapter

Last year I was so full of hope and energy that I drew up a HUGE list of languages that I wanted to at least touch in 2018.

This year, I look back and I see that I significantly underperformed. Yes, I finally managed to have Hungarian conversations on a weekly basis. Yes, I finally got conversationally fluent in Fijian (and even Tuvaluan for some time). But concerning my videos? Made a LOT fewer of them. Writing blog posts? The same.

That said, I really should look back and celebrate my success (and I’ll reveal my goals for 2019 tomorrow that are going to be VERY small. Perhaps too manageable, in a sense). I was watching Hungarian videos every day during my workout and understanding the general points of almost all of them. I practically didn’t need any more learner audio anymore. My grammar has a few rough edges but aside from that, very good.

Given that Hungarian is one of my heritage languages that I want to speak for the rest of my life, I am glad to know that I finally made significant progress in it.

As for Fijian, it was okay when I was in Fiji and just continued to get better as a result of listening to audio books (read: the Bible, because I sort of don’t have anything else…yet. Aside from songs) as well as my birthday present of Clozemaster Pro (which enabled me to add custom sentences).

But I digress.

The fact is that if you are reading this, you are some variety of achiever. Someone who sets very high standards for yourself. You should expect that one point in your life will be…underwhelming.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Perhaps one thing I also did this year that I’m “ashamed of” is the fact that I would announce a change of plans every month or so in the second half of 2018.

But you know what? That’s okay too. Because sometimes you need to experiment around with your grand visions.

As for my goals that I’ll be revealing tomorrow, well…I’ll be bound to them by oath, in a sense…to ensure that I get results.

A LOT MORE than what I got this year.

Here’s hoping all of your dreams come true!

Jared

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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.