The Jigsaw Puzzle

Learning a language (or any other skill) is task that requires you to understand how pieces fit together.

Take a jigsaw puzzle, for example. You see the final product on the box cover (that is to say, what the completed puzzle will look like) and then choose to pick a puzzle based on which picture you like (I also know that there are three-dimensional puzzles as well so I won’t come to exclude those.)

You take it home, you open the box and all of the pieces come out.

That confusion is relatable in language learning.

I’ve experienced it many times. So much confusion in coming to grips with a new language (although obviously if it is closely related to one you already know, you already have a significant amount of the puzzle done for you).

I remember feeling similarly overwhelmed with a number of “frontier” languages that weren’t similar to those that I already knew. Hungarian felt like this (and I’m still studying it during my commutes), as did Greenlandic, Burmese, Finnish, Hebrew and Yiddish during the early stages. Even some languages that were closer to my native tongue—like Danish, Tok Pisin and Krio—also qualified.

In Hungarian, I was confused with how to use the cases (and I still haven’t mastered all of them despite the fact that they function very closely to the Finnish ones) as well as when to use “nem” and when to use “nincs” (the first is more like “not” with verbs and the second is more like “there isn’t”).

Burmese had me perplexed as it was a language in which a lot of sentences left out the pronoun. To say “we have it”, you would just say “is + present tense marker”. A lot of aspects that were not touched upon too readily in my previous language-learning projects came to the fore with Burmese (like classifier words or using different pronouns for yourself in various situations).

I could give more examples, but let’s delve into what this jigsaw puzzle means for you…

For one, especially in a two-dimensional puzzle, you want to separate the edge pieces first. In so doing, you will have the basis to fill in the rest of the puzzle.

The edge pieces in language learning are having mastered:

  • Pronouns (for some languages like Japanese with a lot of pronouns I would recommend focusing on the ones you are most likely to use or hear used given your environment)
  • Being able to conjugate verbs so that you can express the past, the present and the future in a significant capacity without struggling.
  • Being able to say things like “thank you”, “where are you from?” “do you speak (name of language)?” and basic question words, not also to mention speak about yourself in a small capacity.
  • Asking for directions
  • Being able to use adjectives and adverbs
  • Prepositions
  • A case system (if there is one. In the case [no pun intended] of the Finno-Ugric languages, the case system overlaps with prepositions).
  • Sentence structure (does the verb go first like in Irish? Or at the end like in Japanese and Turkish? Can I put sentences together with the same sentence structure found in my native language or in the other languages I know? If not, what’s different?
  • Articles and noun gender patterns (if any. Entire language families lack articles entirely, such as the Finno-Ugric Languages)
  • Conjunctions (although there are some languages like Rapa Nui that, according to wikitionary, “supplant the need for conjunctions”)

Your goal is to master all of these ten elements, and in so doing you will have assembled the edge of your dream puzzle. Some of these are going to be harder than others, depending on what your dream language is (and yes, sometimes entire items on that list will be lacking altogether. Bislama and Spanish have no case systems, but Finnish has no articles or noun-gender patterns).

Now what exactly do you do when you’re done with the puzzle?

You fill in the rest, but unlike the jigsaw puzzle in real life, the language-learning process never ends. Even for your native language, you’ll always be learning new words and new expressions. I’ve been speaking Yiddish for nearly a decade now, and nearly seven-eight years as a fluent speaker, and I’m always discovering new expressions, new words and new surprises. The same is even true with English, even if I count American English by itself! (And after having studied Trinidadian Creole and Krio, I’ve realized the true extent to which African-American culture has developed this unique language and made it distinct, expressive and admired the world over! And my journeys with Irish and Yiddish and German have also made me realize how many other immigrant groups made their mark on it as well! )

The portions you fill in next will be those that you deem the most important to apply in your life. You’ll notice exactly what you’re missing from your time spent with the language, whether it be with native speakers or using the language online or with your books (whether they are books for learners or books for native-speakers).

And perhaps the most important thing about the jigsaw puzzle is that it will involve rearranging the pieces and finding out how they fit together. You’ll look at the huge collection of pieces and think, “well this one goes over there, and I think it fits with that one? No? Well maybe I’ll need to try something else…all of these eight pieces go together! Great job!”

You may indeed be able to memorize words very quickly, but understanding how they fit together is another thing that may take time. If I were learning a language like Slovak (which I’m sort of letting sleep at the moment), given its similarities to Polish (for which I have already assembled the edge of the puzzle), I wouldn’t need to really “assemble” the edge again. But for Palauan I had absolutely no prior advantages, and I had to assemble the whole thing from scratch. Fun times.

Here’s hoping to you finding all of the edge pieces and putting them together! Happy puzzling!

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Yah, I know, it ain’t no jigsaw puzzle, but it’s all I got! 

In Defense of Learning an English Creole Language

Today is actually a Jewish holiday of sorts, although one with very few religious practices involved. Tu B’av (Jewish Love and Harvest Festival of Sorts, which literally translates to “the 15th of the month of Av”, using a numerical systems in which Hebrew numbers are stand-ins for letters way before the Arabic Numeral system came around) is one of the most auspicious days of the Jewish Calendar, the other being Yom Kippur.

Being generally confused as well as having some issues with illness I thought yesterday was actually that holiday and so I posted this picture to announce that, yes, I will be coming out with a New Polyglot Video, hopefully very soon. If not August, than definitely September.

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No doubt there are going to be those that are fuming due to the lack of French / Chinese / Italian / Portuguese / Turkish / other global languages, but come on. Too many other polyglot videos featuring those languages exist. Let others have their turn.

And if other people want to downvote my videos just because of leaving out their favorite language or including a minority language and not theirs, then so be it. It just speaks to a greater issue of ruthless pragmatism and conformity in the online Polyglot community.

One of my big memories of the Polyglot Conference in 2015 was hearing a well-known Polyglot whose opinion I respect very much say that he wished that many of his peers would investigate Asian languages other than Mandarin Chinese in more depth. My decision to study Burmese beyond my trip was not only motivated by him (even though I’m not really focusing on it at the moment), but I also got inspired to learn another Asian Language, Lao, because I’m just…generally curious to learn more about the most bombed country in the history of humanity (true story!) Oh, and … uh… snippets of Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil, etc. on the side. But I suck at these. A lot.

Besides, I can communicate with some Thai people with Lao and I prefer smaller languages, something that you knew by now.

Gee, you really love reading my ramblings, don’t you?

So if you looked at the picture above, there were probably very few of you that could recognize every single country in it (by the way, that’s not footage from a future video, that’s just a teaser).

But out of the 27 or so countries featured, there are six (SIX!) English Creole Languages and seven if you include Standard American English.

Let me count them for you:

 

Vanuatu -> Bislama

Papua New Guinea -> Tok Pisin

Solomon Islands -> Pijin

Trinidad and Tobago -> Trinidad English Creole

Sierra Leone -> Krio (Salone Krio)

Belize -> Bileez Kriol (Belizean Creole)

 

I would have become my Bileez Kriol videos a few days ago but I got tied up with a guest in town as well as not getting good sleep and what-have-you. And I haven’t published a new video or a day or two…

By taking on minority languages in my video (such as Breton) as well as English Creoles (like the list above), I know that I will get some very harsh negative responses.

A lot of people feel genuinely threatened by online polyglots in general, and even MORE so if they actually commit themselves to “useless languages”.

And imagine if you’re very proud of your country and your language and your language is a global language, and then this guy comes along having chosen to neglect the study of YOUR language and chosen languages spoken by significantly fewer populations instead. You may feel CRUSHED.

And then there are those that insist that their Creole language is actually a dialect of a European language (and this is especially true in some Caribbean countries, note that I did not say “Carribean Island Countries”, because there are some Caribbean nations [e.g. Guyana] that are not islands).

I could have chosen to leave out Trinidadian English Creole (which I’ve been studying on-and-off for the past few months, even though I got the book in January 2016 as a “you don’t have Lyme Disease anymore!” give), but I’m including it even if it will subject me to ridicule and dislikes.

Here’s the reason why.

 

Creole Cultures Need Legitimacy and Love

 

Some have indeed acquired it, with Haitian Creole being the primary example. Walking around New York City you’ll see signs written in it, especially on public transport. Haitian Creole is also in Google Translate as well, not to mention countless of other avenues to learn it online (Haiti has a fascinating history that actually served to permanently change the face of colonialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade).

However, too often do I encounter with disgust that Creole Languages are “not real” and that people “should never consider learning them”. (in Francophone and Lusophone areas, I’ll have you know, this is overwhelmingly not the case, and sometimes I’ve encountered people who have learned French and Portuguese Creoles from France and Portugal respectively).

The disdain towards Creole Languages seems to be an English-speaking hangup that I’ve primarily encountered in North America (in Australia and New Zealand languages like Tok Pisin are actually highly valued on the job market, even though some of those jobs may get you sent to places where they are spoken with great regularity. True story!)

That being said, I do have some theories as to why some people may be inhibited in learning them and also why learning Creole Languages, for me, is a moral imperative:

For one, there is always the issue of “number of speakers”, which is just plain silly if used by itself. Attracted by the culture of Argentina? A great reason to learn Spanish.  Genuinely concerned by the way Chinese culture is misunderstood in your country? Mandarin may thing for you. “Lots of people speak it, therefore I should learn it”, is just flock-following. I’ve encountered too many people who explicitly list that reason for learning such a language and when they speak these languages, it comes off as stunted and non-genuine. As it should! Because the cultural connection is usually lacking!

And why learn African Languages from the former French colonies when just French will do? Well it seems that China’s language institutions are investing in African languages precisely so that they can have an edge in business against people who think like that.

English Creole languages are spoken in places where Standard English is the language of the government until you actually step inside any of the actual government meetings.

Oh, and my parents needed a Krio translator when they were in up-country Sierra Leone, so especially in the case of African and Pacific Creoles, knowing the standard language is only going to get you so far (even though in some cases it may be wiser to use Standard English, especially in some urban areas in countries like Papua New Guinea).

Another hangup is appropriate usage. Especially if you are a white person, you may be concerned that your speaking a Creole language may be construed as making fun of their culture. Well, appropriate usage can always be discussed with your friends from places like Salone, Melanesia or the Caribbean.

In the case of Papua New Guinea, speaking Tok Pisin with too much English influence and not-too-well can be construed as “Tok Masta”, which is considered highly condescending. And we haven’t even touched on some of the Caribbean Islands in which people see their Creole as a version of English so much so that they deny having any knowledge of a Creole language whatsoever (the situation in some communities like these is very, very odd, although I think Jamaica is a holdout, after all, did you know there is Wikipedia translated into Jamaican? Hey, I’m living in Crown Heights, I should probably order my Jamaican Patois book sooner rather than later. Perhaps after an important milestone, maybe, although I don’t think I’m including Jamaican in my upcoming video…)

Another thing to mention is “opportunities to use it”. Online, tons. Even for developing-world creoles. This is true even if you go onto news sites in places like Vanuatu and see a lot of the news written in English rather than in Bislama. Comments on the articles may not be in English, not also to mention snippets of Creole Languages that are used in articles that are otherwise written in Standard English.

Yet another hangup is yes, it has to be said, undercurrents of white supremacy. An idea that, somehow, the way that these people speak actually isn’t worth your time, even with a lot of black people in the United States feeling increasingly unsafe. And another idea that the language of Europe are more important and have more money attached to them than the languages of any of the places they colonized or languages that came into being because of colonialism (=Creoles).

I want to help people and cultures heal and understand each other. I arrived to Crown Heights and seeing the Trinbagonian flag everywhere (yes, Trinbagonian is a real word!), I took it upon myself to know my community better (after all, I knew plenty about the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights prior to moving there!)

Am I going to get comments about usage of Creoles in my video? Most definitely. Some will be negative, no doubt, but I think that there will be many people from places like the Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone and Trinidad and Tobago that will appreciate the fact that I tipped my hat to their cultures when very, VERY few people (or perhaps almost not one) in the polyglot-video-making-world does that.

Already in my video series on YouTube I have caused people to rethink language learning (including many thank-you-notes).

I’m going to continue to do so for as long as I can.

Who knows? Maybe I’m the healing the world needs…maybe it’s you!

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Important Lessons I Learned from a 3-week Journey through Sierra Leone Krio

Three weeks ago I set out on a journey to learn a language that was important for my family history: Krio, the English Creole of Sierra Leone. For those unaware, my parents worked there before I was born, and I often heard stories about “Salone” (pronounced “saal-loan”, two syllables) throughout my life.

Often my parents were fairly reluctant to open up about the full extent of what they experienced in Sierra Leone (they left shortly before the Civil War made famous by Blood Diamond, which my parents as well as many people from Salone were vexed by concerning the fairy tale / white savior elements, but on some level reluctantly satisfied that it did bring awareness about the Civil War to places like Hollywood).

I should start out by saying that I actually had two missions, one to improve Greenlandic (which was sadly not a success!) and another to learn Krio to whatever degree I could, giving myself 30 minutes a day.

If I didn’t allot myself to the 30 minutes a day, I actually said I would permanently delete this blog. So that really kept me to the commitment!

However, for Greenlandic (in which I was in no such “rush”, although I may be closer to the release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”), I made no such deal. Then I got handed a translation job last week that sucked out almost all of my time for a week and threw my study schedule for Greenlandic out the window completely.

However I cut it, my Greenlandic mission crashed.

But my Krio mission, perhaps because of my commitment, was a success! I had promised myself ever since 2014 that I would become conversational in it, and while I have a long way to go (I wouldn’t call myself fluent yet…), I would call myself proficient in spoken Krio!

Welcome to the club, Krio! You’re my first African language. Glad to have you with us on the show today. And on all other days.

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The lessons I picked up from having my Greenlandic goals thrown to the wayside are straightforward: I had a routine, but I burned out easily. Perhaps I should have been more fluid rather than with the rigid goals that I set (in which I would read a certain amount of something every single day, and then that lasted a week and a half and then I “wasn’t feeling up to it”).

That said, I think I discovered that my big weakness with written Greenlandic lies in the suffixes. More on the fascinating Greenlandic Language here (and I’ll likely write another piece about it on June 21st, the National Day of Greenland, and yes, it was picked because it is the longest day of the year!)

So, lessons I picked up during the Krio Journey:

  • Have a Fluid Routine, Especially if You are Otherwise Busy or Consider Yourself “Lazy”

I should have done this with Greenlandic. I should have said, “30 minutes of engaging with Greenlandic with new material, however you please, every day, no exceptions”.

The fact that I did that with Krio meant that I was capable of adjusting my routine towards whatever I wanted to do that day. Needed music? I could do that. Needed a grammar review? Yup. Wanted to read? All right then.

Surprisingly, this actually made my routine fairly well-balanced and it worked in raising not only the various levels of my understanding and speaking (I didn’t do much writing with Krio because of the inconsistency across writing systems I encountered), but also prevented me from burning out!

Even having the heaviest translation job of my life didn’t throw me off my routine!

 

  • Use YouTube Personalities as Your Virtual Friends and Mentors

 

Chances are, if anything on YouTube is in Krio (although I didn’t do a lot of documentary watching), I watched it. In some cases, I watched some videos as many as ten times on different days!

This actually bonded me to the creators and I saw fit to imitate them, their accents and the Salone personalities (because if you don’t have a connection to an associated culture of the language you will NEVER be fluent! At least this is my opinion).

A lot of people aren’t aware of this, but you actually come to imitate the various people in the media you consume. Yes, even in works of fiction! Given the unbelievably high standards I have set for myself, I have to choose my media very carefully, because often, especially in the smartphone world, you may end up spending more time with them than your real-life friends!

The great news for you as a language learner is that you can self-select virtual peers using TV Shows / YouTube Channels / other video content featuring characters and/or creators that speak your target language.

The same way that your peers will influence you professionally and in terms of their hobbies, your virtual peers will do the same. In this case, I got myself a Krio-speaking friend group in two-dimensions and it was fantastic! (Not also to mention other learners of Krio online through various platforms! Salone enthusiasts of the world unite!)

 

  • If you’ve studied a lot of varying languages, you’ll notice similarities peek in, and in the weirdest places.

Krio uses the word “we” as an all-purpose relative pronoun. That means, “Who, that, which”, as in “the person who (whom?) you are trying to reach is not available. Please call again later”.

Oh gee, I wonder what other languages I’ve studied that use an all-purpose relative pronoun?

Swedish (along with its Scandinavian siblings) uses the word “som” in the EXACT SAME MANNER that “we” is used in Krio, although “som” has usages that “we” in Krio does not have. I’d write more but I think that in 2017 people get bored really easily so if you’re really curious, write about it in the comment and I’ll explain it in more detail…

Bislama (the Ni-Vanuatu Pidgin English with French and local loanwords) in particular had uncanny similarities to Krio. “Nomo”, meaning “only” or “just” in Krio, is used in the same way that Bislama uses “nomoa” (and yes, Solomon Islands Pijin does the exact same thing). Bislama also used the word “se” to indicate an indirect statement, which means the “that” in “I think that you are going to want to learn Krio after reading this blog post”. Yes, both are related to the English word “say”.

Krio also did away with most of the accusative and possessive cases’ remnants in English. Imagine “us” and “our” being replaced with “we” (or “wi” in the case of Krio) and you’ll get an idea of something you may need to get used to with Krio. Tajik also uses nominative pronouns to indicate ownership similarly, although the execution is different.

“I heard once you pick up about four languages, the rest become easy”. Yes, but as long as you’re not staying limited to one family.

If you pick up French, Spanish and Italian one after the other, you’re going to likely struggle if you want to learn any East Asian language.

But given that the first languages I studied were French, Biblical Hebrew, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Talmudic Aramaic and Russian, there’s obviously more variety in that (and I studied all before I reached the age of 16).

Yiddish, Norwegian and Swedish, the first languages I reached true fluency in, were handed the keys based on my prior knowledge of a wide birth of languages (none of which I was conversationally fluent in five years ago), something that only just continues to endow me with an endless array of unfair advantages that it genuinely scares me!

 

  • Studying a Developing-World Language is going to be Different from Studying a Developed-World Language

 

Developing-world languages tend to be different from developed-world languages in the following way:

 

  • Significantly less internet content

 

  • Significantly fewer localization options

 

  • More focus on spoken forms rather than written forms (for comparison’s sake: when I was learning Solomon Islands Pijin and my first step was the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, I distinctly remember the phrase, “Relax, business letters are written in English!” [shortly afterwards they explained how to write a letter to your friend in Pijin].

 

  • Prospective language learners, especially from the west, often toss them aside as “insignificant” and prefer their colonial languages (such as English, French or Portuguese). Yes, you could get by with Standard English in Sierra Leone or the Solomon Islands. But you won’t understand the culture beyond a surface level without knowing the true language that unites these countries (I cringe already when I think of people telling me “I will never learn a creole language. Ever”. I could write a whole article about it and I probably will one day). Fun fact: China is actually going to be investing in teaching native African languages so as to build trust with the developing world. The U.S. needs to step up its game in this regard. The Peace Corps books are great, but they’re not enough by themselves.

 

  • Like many endangered languages, a lot of developing-world languages reflect the advanced vocabulary of their former colonizers and code-switching is common (yes, Irish-speakers from the Gaeltachtaí will use English in a shockingly similar back-and-forth manner when speaking Irish sometimes, not unlike what I’ve heard Krio speakers using between Krio and English!)

 

Learning Creole Languages, and Krio in particular, made me more aware of the true face of colonialism and empire as well as made me a better human being. I feel that knowing Krio language and culture, even in the short journey I’ve had thus far, taught me more about Sierra Leone and West Africa in general than any amount of photos or stories from my family members ever could (although no doubt I am grateful for them). I also had no clue that the Afro-Carribean Cultures and Salone Krio cultures were actually siblings, not also to mention the many different types of African-American cultures that exist throughout the US.

Now I know where to go from here: not only continuing my journey with exposure through Krio-language content throughout my life, but share with other people how I came to discover a land of fascinating, brave and articulate people without even having set foot on it!

Here’s an idea: look at a map of the world and think about where you would like to go and what cultures you’d like to experience. Pick a language you’d like to learn based on your thoughts, which I hope are running wildly and colorfully. You won’t regret it!

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