Venturing into Languages Highly Dissimilar to Your Own: Helpful Tips

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

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

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

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

 

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

2: Icelandic, Fiji Hindi

3: Hungarian, Finnish, Fijian, Hebrew, Irish

4: Kiribati / Gilbertese, Palauan, Tuvaluan, Burmese

5: Greenlandic, Lao, Khmer, Guarani

 

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

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

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

 

  • Make Connections Between Words in the Language

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Wati – husband, wife, spouse

 

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

 

 

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

 

palopuhuja lol

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Scene: a synagogue event.

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

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

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

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

  • Hidden Loan Words from Colonial Languages.

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

It’s the word “drawing” –Fijianized.

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

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

Which brings me into another point…

  • Do You Recognize any Words through Proper Nouns?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Lastly…

 

  • Embrace the Differences in the Grammar

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sure of it!

ga

Gulf Arabic and Thai Airport Mission Results: Minor Successes, Not Optimal, but Important Things to Reflect on

Here I am in the United States, more tired than I have ever been in my entire life. Nearly two weeks of absence from my blog, and I have finally returned.

The last I wrote on this blog, I committed to learning a tiny bit of Gulf Arabic, a tiny bit of Thai, as well as Burmese to a Tourist Level.

Gulf Arabic for my Dubai stopovers? Well…I did prepare a significant amount of very essential vocabulary (and yes, the Middle East phrasebook arrived on time!), but, as it turns out, given how (1) I wasn’t buying anything in any of the shops and (2) expatriates outnumber local significantly in the United Arab Emirates (this was even MORE pronounounced in the Airport, where it often felt significantly more Southern Asian at times…I should also note that I heard Hebrew spoken at the airport!)

When I tried to engage security personnel in Arabic, they virtually ignored me. But maybe I’m missing on something. I’ve heard that in Jordan (for which I failed to prepare Arabic on account of my school schedule), even a few words may get you the response “You speak Arabic better than I do!” from a local (I think it was the Rough Guide to Jordan that said this…)

Anyhow, it seems that I’ll pivot from Gulf Arabic to the Iraqi variety (but it’s not going to be my main focus). Why? I told someone at a language exchange that I would like to learn Iraqi Arabic out of curiosity, and because I studied Ancient History (among other things) in college, and I got told (on multiple occasions). “WHY? ISIS practically destroyed everything there…” (Keep in mind that I have no intention to travel to the country at this point at all, although interacting with Iraqis everywhere else would be a fantastic endeavor!)

So, did I fail? This was a surprise mission after all, but I managed to learn quite a lot under the circumstances, and I think I would be able to hold my own in an emergency situation.

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Also the first time I’ve spent Ramadan (for any amount of time) in a Muslim Country. Would have never predicted that I would have arrived at 3 AM in an airport. Wowie.

Now, as for Thai…

Yeah, WAAAY too tired to have prepared it properly on the plane. And I decided to go with an app that I wasnt used to (the Japan-based LingoCards) rather than using the sturdy Mango Languages (which I think is fantastic for “activating” a basic language, actually).

That said, I was capable of using “Hello” and “Thank You”, as well as “Where is…?” The phrasebook helped.

Lesson Learned: If you expect yourself to be tired in a given situation, prepare yourself. I remember that I used to be a fire dancer and fire stuntsman in college (True story!) One thing I was told…that when you are ACTUALLY dancing with fire, expect it to go more quickly. Same here. Expecially if you haven’t had experience with a language, expect to be slower and a lot less quick-witted when using the language with other people in comparison to your exercises by yourself. This is doubly true if travel is weighing you down.

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Bangkok’s Legendary Airport + Self-Proclaimed Legendary Hyperpolyglot

Now, ordinarily, I would write something about how I managed with Burmese during the two-week-plus trip, but that’s worthy of a post in its own.

The bad: I got answered in English more often there than any other place (with the exception of the Netherlands), and this is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that few Burmese are fluent in English.

The good: managed myself using Burmese in almost every single situation (with the exception of the hotel, which is an anomaly for multiple reasons I’ll discuss in another post). I can plainly say that I have mastered basic Burmese although I am not fluent.

And, of course, next week will feature posts on Danish (in honor of the…closest thing they have to a national day) and Swedish (in honor of the Day of the Swedish Flag). Neither of them will follow the patterns I’ve laid out for the previous National Day posts.

And I should probably get some rest.