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.

Why the Jerry Cans (the Musical Band from Nunavut) is Everything Music Should Be

Happy 20th birthday, Nunavut! Well, technically speaking, it was yesterday (given that Nunavut became a Canadian province on April 1st, 1999), but who would take an article seriously if I were to publish it then?

I first discovered Inuktitut (which I have paused for several years ever since my bout with Lyme Disease in 2015, during which I wasn’t actively writing on this or any other blog) due to KNR (the Greenlandic National Broadcasting service).

They showed this music video (turn on CC for English subtitles):

My first thought was to imagine how many Americans would react to seeing the video (use your imagination). My second thought was the fact that the music was not only extraordinarily catchy and familiar but it also showed a genuine desire to showcase everything that daily life in the Arctic is for the community.

Also what’s amazing about the Jerry Cans is the fact that it showcases both Inuktitut and English at regular intervals in many of its songs, as well as the fact that their songs serve as a culture guidebook to the region.

In case you’re curious about the name, it was, if I recall correctly, named after the fact that during their first jam session they used Jerry Cans as makeshift percussion. (I believe they’re used to power snowmobiles) Obviously the jerry cans themselves were substituted for real drums, but the name stuck.

While this song isn’t one of my personal favorites from the band, the fact that it mentions the struggles that Arctic shoppers have has always made it memorable for me in another sense:

And also different cultural perspectives are in order as well, including this song that, in my opinion, no one truly ever forgets:

“This one goes out to environmental propaganda / Dear PETA, you know we can’t stand ya!” (This song will be thought-provoking no matter who you are).

Also note the presence of Inuit throat singing in the song as well, which is, I should note, conspicuously absent from most Greenlandic music (because Danish missionaries banned it in). That said, Rasmus Lyberth from Greenland does also feature something like it in some of his songs.

More controversial issues aside however (or…what people in my area would consider them), the Jerry Cans’ music is positively sublime and captures perfectly the feeling of strolling around the Arctic and admiring all that humanity cannot create.

Check the video description for the lyrics and their English translation.

(I should also remember that I saw many of the hides that you see in the video also present throughout the National Museum of Greenland during my visit there).

In a world of growing cultural divides, I think the world needs a lot more music like this that genuinely causes worlds to open up to people and ignites the curiosity that we all innately have as humans.

Feel free to check and purchase their music on iTunes should you feel so inspired.

Their website is also bilingual in Inuktitut and English as well: https://www.thejerrycans.com/home

Happy 20th birthday, Nunavut!

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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!

5 Things I Liked about Living in Israel as an American (and 5 Other Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

70 years of Israel! Happy birthday!

There are so many choices for what I could write about for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). No doubt a lot of people would use this day as an opportunity to fortify their own political opinions.

As someone who has lived in five different countries and have been to nearly twenty others, I tend to see countries as “cultural canisters” more than political entities (especially given that I don’t do much work related to government or politics).

I’m not going to write about anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict this time. Today is a day to celebrate all that is Israel and I am very unequivocal about my hope for peace in the future (if not the present) and I don’t need today to prove that.

Today I’m going to open up about my experiences in the Holy Land as a human being, and someone who is very much intrigued, if not obsessed, with the differences between nations and cultures.

Here are some things that I liked and…didn’t like so much…about living in Israel. (I’ve been there three times, 2009, 2012 and 2015, the first time for half a year).

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Didn’t Like So Much: The Country Sometimes Feels like Jewish Teenager Disneyland

 

I can imagine pretty much every Israeli is nodding their head at this point. There is value in getting young people to experience places, especially ones with deep political stories and historical significance and no one can deny that.

With that said, while I have encountered groups of teenagers everywhere in my travels, especially in Western Europe, in Israel I feel that sometimes some of the tour operators may focus too much on “having a good time” perhaps at the expense of truly understanding what Israeli culture and the Israeli mind is all about.

Thankfully with the Paideia Institute I had not only responsible tour guides who asked and answered questions and shared their stories but also responsible tourists as peers—ones who made observations, listened, asked questions and realize that they are there to build bridges and create mutual understanding rather than party, hook up, have fun, etc.

Obviously not ALL of the tourist operators are like this at all, and I’ve had deep conversations with many tourists about their struggles, insights and hopes. But I found myself having to constantly apologize on behalf of my “American compatriots” based on the behavior I saw from other people who held the same passport as mine.

Perhaps this will change with time.

 

Liked: A Lot of Israelis are Very Curious About the World and Have Global Experiences

 

Mention the name of a country you’ve been to to most Israelis and chances are they’ve visited there or know someone who is a permanent resident there. Hebrew is a language I’ve heard spoken in every country I’ve visited so far except for Greenland (English and Polish are the only two I’ve heard spoken in all of them).

Thanks to the fact that “galuti” (exilic) isn’t really considered an insult anymore, many Israelis relish their heritage of being “out of many, one people” (like Jamaica, another place with an interesting Jewish backstory!). Tel-Aviv can feel so globalized to a degree that would put Manhattan to shame.

Also with many Israelis I’ve seen that many of them speak other languages very well not also to mention know tidbits of very surprising ones (e.g. Vietnamese, Finnish, Indonesian, etc.)

Mention your recent trip to and Israel and you’ll have a conversation topic for the next thirty minutes guaranteed. And in a good way.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some Olim Idolized the Idea of Israel to a Fault

To me, Israel was a country with deep Jewish heritage and holy sites and many layers of history. The various groups of Olim all made their mark on the country in addition to the Arab Citizens of Israel as well (not also to mention guest workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Romania, etc. and possibly anyone else I forgot)

It’s a fantastic place to experience, I love it very much and I love talking about it. And then there are some that see it as a glorified fortress to prevent the Jewish people from experiencing a second Holocaust and, sometimes…little beyond that. And sadly I’ve spoken to some staff members at Yad Vashem who see this as the primary function of the state.

As such, their devotion to it can seem a bit on the nationalistic side in which outsiders of any varieties are not only distrusted but also potential double-crossers, especially if they’re not Jewish. And sometimes not being Jewish in Israel, even as a tourist, can be a bit of a liability. (This is what some of my friends have told me. By contrast, my Judaism never really has been a liability in any of the places I’ve visited nor has being visibly foreign in places like Myanmar been a liability either.)

There are elements of some Israeli sub-cultures that can serve to blind people from dialogue, reason and mutual understanding and the fear of a second Holocaust, not also to mention the omnipresence of the Shoah in popular culture there, serves as an engine for it. But I can imagine that when peace comes to the region there won’t be a need for this anymore.

 

Liked: A Healthy Diet Can Usually Be the Path of Least Resistance

Yes, you can get more candy than you can know what to do with in Machaneh Yehuda, but also the omnipresence of vegan foods (Israel does have the highest percentage of vegans in the WORLD!) and chickpea specialties being good local favorites will help you tremendously towards whatever weight loss program you’ve been itching to try.

The falafel is Jerusalem is legendary and once you’ve had it, none other in the world will come close. Never, ever, ever.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: A Mutually-Enforced Barrier Between Israelis and Most Foreign-Born Residents, even Jews, even Olim, and Especially Americans and other Anglophones

 

Perhaps in part because of the “Disneyland for American Teenagers” trope I’ve discussed earlier, I’ve encountered many Israelis (including Yordim = Israelis living outside of “The Land) who somehow see Americans as almost a completely different species upon which they purport themselves the local experts. (To be fair, Israelis probably know American pop culture better than any nationality I’ve encountered, honorable mentions go to Germany and Iceland [both places with histories of American military presence, no big surprise]).

In Hebrew University many of my attempts to socialize were usually stuck among the Anglophones, even when I could manage Hebrew conversations just fine. And even then once or twice I got the line “we should continue in English because I’ve studied your language for more than you’ve studied mine” (I have literally got this treatment NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD!)

Thankfully the majority of Israelis have been encouraging of my Hebrew studies both within and without the Holy Land….as it has been for all of my languages.

 

Liked: Deep Conversations about Meaningful Topics, as opposed to small talk, are Common

 

Ah, yes. In the United States, sometimes conversations will go “so…what do you do…?” Three minutes of platitudes followed by “oh, it was nice meeting you”.

In Israel this NEVER HAPPENS. Whether it go into a direction about religion, politics, cultural differences, American sitcoms (which I know nothing about) or my personal favorite: teach me how to swear in (Yiddish / Swedish / Burmese etc.)

I’ve remember SO, SO many soundbites from Israeli conversations that I’ve literally cited conversations I’ve had with Israelis more than I have from any other nationality!

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Outward “Culture of Insensitivity” Can Be Off-Putting.

 

Yes, Americans care about their “feelings” and “smiling all the time” very often (at least this is what people who have “hyphenated American” identities have also told me and I’d have to agree as a TCK myself). That said, there is a certain outward machismo that not only took me time to get used to but was genuinely STRESSFUL during my first few weeks in Israel.

Usage of loud voices is an acquired taste not also to mention a culture in which confrontation is somewhat reveled in (in contrast to Sweden or Spain in which confrontation can cause people to freeze up in confusion).

Even some American students who have been studying in Israel for YEARS never fully adjust to this reality. It isn’t for everyone, and even some people who see Israel as the most beautiful place on earth where everything is perfect for Jews may encounter the fact that they may never fully grow used to this element of the culture.

 

Liked: The Educational Culture is Something to Marvel At.

 

Oh, yes. Israeli professors treat you like an equal, they respond on point and value every single one of your ideas. If they disagree with you, they do so respectfully. They’ll keep their politics a guarded secret (one friend told me that disclosing your politics as an Israeli professor means that you’ll get permanently banned from the profession, another friend laughed at the idea that any such policy could be meaningfully enforced).

In the United States, I’m sorry to say, a lot of professors sometimes have fragile egos in which they don’t want to consider their students viewpoints and often want to force their viewpoints on others. NEVER, EVER among Israeli professors have I encountered this, not even among Ulpan teachers.

The rest of the world needs to learn something from this idea of “learning as equals”.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: You May Sometimes Be Barely Able to Finish a Sentence in Conversing with Israelis.

 

When I was in Poland, I had tour groups from Britain / Chile / Norway / Iceland / the US / Canada (keep in mind that this was before my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 / 2013 and so in 2011 I was really capable of only giving tours in English and Yiddish and not much else. Okay, I could use some Hebrew, Spanish, Russian and Polish but sometimes I’d have to use English in between. )

British teenager groups -> tended to listen to what I said. A bit like me putting on a show for them with puppets.

Israeli family group -> if the British teenager group was like the puppet show, the Israeli family group was like if I would be tackled in the middle of the show, all of the puppets taken from me and then they start making their own show in which I have the occasional comment.

It’s really charming to reminisce on but again, like so many things Israeli, this is an acquired taste, one that many people, even Olim, never fully acquire.

 

Liked: Every Day in Israel Feels Like an Adventure.

 

Between the weather and the fact that few people treat you like strangers, and that people want to talk to you and get to know you, and ask you your opinions about honest topics even if they met you a few minutes ago, Israel feels like an RPG overworld in the best way.

There’s always something new to explore, a conversation to be had, a weather to marvel at, and a place and a people you never truly forget and that will always be in your hearts.

 

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Happy birthday, Israel!

Who’s Afraid of Swedish ‘n Friends? The Culture of Discouragement from Learning Scandinavian Languages and its Implications

Polyglot Facebook groups exploded last week with countless debates and personal stories about learning languages of Scandinavia via on-location immersion (or, in simpler terms, learning Swedish in Sweden very much like I did [even though I did the majority of the work after I left]).

The vast majority of the stories were discouraging for a multitude of reasons. Icelanders who wanted to use English no matter what. Danes telling study-abroad students that learning their language was a waste of time. Nearly a HUNDRED stories about people had given up learning these languages because of these attitudes.

I’d like to say two things.

First off, there’s tunnel vision at work in a lot of these. Looking back at my time in Sweden, I was met mostly with ENCOURAGEMENT to learn Swedish from native-speaking friends (especially since I told them that I was doing it for heritage reasons). But again, there were times that I screwed up with in hesitating (which WILL get you answered in English) and unnaturally slow speech (same result).

I had frustration, no doubt. I called up my parents for encouragement and sometimes was nearly on the verge of crying, wondering how I could ever learn the language of my family to read the letters of my ancestors who had passed on.

But there were also people like the learners I met in Heidelberg, staff members at stores who would use Swedish with me even if I was speaking English to my family members within earshot, and those who were pleased when I switched from ordering my groceries in English to Swedish and told me that I was going a good job.

Keep in mind that during all of this I was at a BASIC level. And another thing to keep in mind (with all of these internet horror stories hopping around) is the fact that using a language is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GAME depending on what level you’re on.

That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, yes, the attitudes need to improve. As far as the west is concerned, the day is not far when NO ONE will be impressed by good English spoken by non-natives anymore. The flipside to this is that as fewer and fewer people in the Anglophone world see a reason to learn languages, especially those outside of the mainstream, the more you’ll stand out and the more people will want to engage you because of that.

If you are a speaker of a language other than English, you have a MORAL IMPERATIVE to not switch to English unless absolutely necessary. This isn’t up for debate anymore in an age of mass language death.  No one is impressed, no one thinks it fun, and it just makes you look insecure. If you don’t like the fact that I said that, get over it. Learn to have some pride in your identity and your native language and realize that throwing away your identity for some cool American-esque one only serves the corporations destroying the planet. (And did I mention it makes you look insecure? I did. Also using multiple languages with English is okay, as no doubt I may encounter in places like Fiji should I go there later this year).

The good news is that most people are changing. The polyglot communities seem to be getting more powerful and with the Internet people are being exposed to other languages and cultures more quickly than before and realize that machine translation isn’t going to solve everything or make everything accessible.

When I was reading a lot of the Scandinavian discouragement stories in groups, I kept on thinking “why did none of this really happen to me?” In Greenland when buying things in stores, it was usually in a mixture of Greenlandic and Danish even though sometimes they might have thrown some English in their in the off-chance that they thought I was from somewhere else. (Disclosure: with the exception of speaking with friends [in which we took turns hopping between various languages], I didn’t take the English-thing personally and just continued using whatever language I was without flinching).

Then, of course, the fact that I’ve met speakers from the Nordic countries in New York and they’ve all been super-appreciative of my efforts to learn their language and with CONSISTENCY they’ve told me that they’ve been impressed. Sometimes some of them wanted to learn other languages from me, in which case I was willing to switch (I gotta do my part to keep languages alive too, y’know). But nowhere NEAR the variety of stuff along the lines of “people told me to stop wasting their time, people rolled their eyes, I needed a perfect accent in order to not get English used with me”, yada yada yada.

It has nearly been one year since I was in Myanmar and I could have easily blamed the fact that I got answered in English fairly frequently on the fact that I’m WHITE. Or I could do the mature thing and realize that I’ve encountered fluent Burmese speakers of all races and that I should have worked on my general fluidity and sounding natural rather than expecting to get answered in Burmese with simple phrasebook material.

Looking back at my time in Sweden and Iceland, I saw it as an added challenge. Getting answered in Icelandic in a restaurant was so elusive in polyglot groups that it almost never happened. I had it done consistently (with public transport it was another story because they expected me to be a tourist. Keep using Icelandic and they’ll switch, trust me on this. Again, with personal conversations = completely different game). That said, I also hear that Quebec and Senegal make Iceland seem like “the first level in the game”.

At the end of the day, I want you to read this piece with nothing but encouragement.

Getting fluency in the languages of the Nordic countries AND getting L1 speakers to use it with you IS VERY MUCH POSSIBLE. Don’t believe ANYONE who tells you otherwise. Sure, there may be some people who discourage you but they’d exist for any language community and are always in the minority.

But any language journey, no matter what language you choose, is no simple process—you need to be dynamic, inventive and persistent.

And keep in mind that, in all likelihood, you’re not reading a whole lot of success stories about language learning in the polyglot groups. But those success stories are out there and you can start writing your own!

Have fun and don’t give up!

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Here’s Why Corporate Power Doesn’t Want You To Learn Languages

It has been more than a year since Donald Trump was elected and I know I’m not alone in being positively furious, but in a way that my fury has further impassioned me to change the world.

One thing that I’ve brought into conversation, seldom with disagreement, is the fact that ever since that fateful night, I’ve been seeking to cut the toxic influences of American culture than enabled Donald Trump to happen (that is to say, sensationalism, the idea that money is life’s report card, conformity, extreme divisions within our society with not a lot of dialogue, being directed by mass media to be angry for the sake of being angry and not in a productive manner, among many other things).

After all, saying “Fuck you, Donald Trump” is easy. Looking at your life choices and realizing what sort of choices you can make to create a culture less likely to choose and promote someone of that sort takes effort and sacrifice.

All the while I see that America continues to be a land in which the dream that brought my ancestors here continues to be more and more elusive. Behind it all is a military-industrial complex, op-eds that seek to confuse, emotionally manipulate and gaslight the public, and a mass media culture so great that resisting it completely requires the self-discipline of a spiritual giant.

Granted, there are many aspects that I really like about American culture, and I have no doubt that my hyperpolyglotism came about in part because of the many intercultural conversations and intersections that only the United States can provide. But that’s for another time, although I realize that in order to criticize a society you need to affirm yourself as a friend of said society. And all things considered, I truly do love the United States, given as I may have not been given the opportunity to live had it never existed (given my Jewish roots).

One thing that I thoroughly dislike about it is the fact that I hear a lot of people say extremely predictable things, over and over again. This is in part because many people in this country read the exact same newspapers, watch the exact same television shows and consume many of the same contemporary popular songs. (People often ask me how on earth I can manage to learn so many languages to fluency and I tell them consistently that it requires you taking in entertainment in other languages and downsizing your entertainment intake in your native language. Guess how many people I’ve spoken to [outside of polyglot communities, that is] who have actually followed through on that plan after I told them what to do.)

Often I hear almost headache-inducing ideas of “you’re good with languages” or “I heard that it’s no use learning a language” or “I tried learning a language for a decade and I can’t speak any of it”. I know why I hear these same things continuously

And it’s primarily by design.

Look, if the ruling class in the United States truly wanted it, the secrets of Language Hackers and my friends at the polyglot conference would be known to 4 out of every 5 citizens living in this country. The knowledge is available freely on blogs in English. My advice is free and I’m glad to share any of my stories and the uglier sides of my struggles to fluency.

But instead, the same old myths persist.

Because a corporate dominated society doesn’t want a broad citizenry of open-minded languages learners.

Here’s why not:

 

  1. Income inequality is very much based on pitting people (or groups of people) against each other. Language Learners build bridges.

 

“The Arabs”, “The Russians”, “The Jews”, “The Iranians”, “The Europeans” … I’ve heard all of these referenced very frequently in dismissive tones in conversation from people in many different political arenas.

 

Truth be told, division is essential as a distraction tactic. This fear of the other also drives the military-industrial complex which is probably the one thing that has endangered the biosphere most severely in human history.

I’ve met language learners from all continents, from all over the globe. They’re certainly not perfect people, but they’re bridge-builders and peacemakers. They view people different from them as potential friends and hobbies, not something to spark fear. Many of them see themselves and doing “divine work” (even if they don’t believe in a higher power), and rightly so.

They learn about cultures that the corporate state boils down into stereotypes. They realize that problems are more readily solved with dialogue, understanding and respect than with force and violence.

They are the very antithesis of a system that keeps people divided and distrustful of one another.

 

  1. A lot of sensationalized news stories (many of their owners and writers also seeking to prop up income inequality and perpetuate it) strategically make people afraid of other places. Language learners recognize all countries of people with ordinary dreams.

 

I’ve met people from the majority of countries on this planet, thanks to my time in New York City. Believe me when I say that people are remarkably the same everywhere in terms of many things, although social conditioning is one aspect in which there is a lot of difference.

If you take away a lot of the mythologies that our various national and/or religious agendas have instilled into us, we are pretty much all the same.

And yes, there are hateful and destructive people on every corner of the globe, but they exist by virtue of the fact that, in some respect, they’ve been derived of something, whether it be economic opportunity or a caring support system, or even taken in by a system of “us vs. them” that is almost entirely promoted by self-serving politicians and people who want to keep the system in place in which the rich keep getting richer. And I haven’t even touched on limiting beliefs yet, the almighty slayer of dreams.

Our governments divide us but at our language exchange events and in our online forums, we’re bringing the world together. There’s difficulty in having such tasks come about, but almost all of us strive for it. And in a world in which any culture in the WORLD can be yours to explore within a few mouse clicks, YOU can be on the right side of history!

 

  1. Neoliberalism frames countries as their governments and economies foremost, rather than their cultural stories. Language learners get to the heart of places’ cultural stories that are often hidden.

 

“China’s gonna take over the world!”, “Saudi Arabia is an evil country!”, “Israel is a cancer!”, “Russia hates everything about the west”, and on and on and on.

Again, division at work. And yes, there are a lot of political problems present throughout the world, but seldom if ever do people investigate the cultural roots of conflicts and even more seldom do they try to administer dialogue and healing.

With language learning you can delve into the cultural story of anywhere you’d like, complete with its flaws and darkest chapters. Usually a lot of the “issues” that have come about in which people are afraid of other countries are present for reasons that are not visible on the surface. The path of least resistance is to be angry and call names. That’s what the system depends on, meaningless rage and emotional manipulation in which people are tricked into thinking that they’re helping when they’re actually not.

True peace doesn’t come about with divisions like this, it comes about through realizing that we have shared cultures and dreams that all humans understand. These commonalities are far stronger than our differences, however big a world of income inequality would like these differences to be.

 

  1. If enough people explore other places, even virtually, the entire framework of fear which serves as a distraction from the problems of capitalism will fall apart completely.

 After so many emotional headlines and frantic googling when I had Lyme Disease (believe me, you don’t want Lyme Disease) and again in the months leading up to Trump’s election as well as after it, it occurred to me that there was just a lot of … fearmongering…and not a lot of productive dialogue.

No doubt there is productive dialogue (that I have particularly found among independent journalists), but usually it’s just click-farming, dumbing down and making people more scared.

Right now at this very moment I remember when I met the Chief Rabbi of Norway, Rabbi Michael Melchior. He told me boldly the following statement (and I PROMISE I’m not making this up!): “I’ve spoken to the most extreme Jihadist in the West Bank, and when I was done talking with him, he agreed that a Two-State Solution was the best possible outcome” (!!!)

In 2013, I couldn’t believe it. In 2017, I can. After having encountered tons of people throughout the world, I realize that if we just strip away our fears one by one, we’d lead fulfilled live of peace and harmony as a species from then on out.

But instead, our current system depends on fear. Fear to distract from the genuine problems of capitalism that threaten the future of our species. A good deal of that fear depends on misunderstanding other people.

I don’t misunderstand other people and other cultures, I only seek to explore. And I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have sneered at me telling me that I was fraternizing with “countries that hate Jews and Israel” (exact words).

Surprisingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone’s xenophobia, however microscopic it may be, can be whittled away to nothing with choosing to explore other cultures and languages. I’ve seen it happen. And close-minded people are created by being made to be fearful of others first and foremost. Being in other countries, I realized my fears about other places were largely just imagined.

Some of my acquaintances haven’t been as lucky to achieve this path to open-mindedness as I and my polyglot friends have, but it’s always available and we’d love to have you.

The world depends on your being an explorer.

So go explore!

just-visiting-in-jail

If you don’t explore, this might as well be you. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

The Tongan Way

It was my life’s dream to begin learning languages of the Pacific since I was a kid. The fact that I haven’t done so for decades is confusing to me, but perhaps one reason I started it this late was because I needed to hone my techniques and confidence, both of which are required in greater depth if you want to take on languages that virtually no one you know of is likely to learn or speak.

Granted, I have been speaking Tok Pisin since 2014 and Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin since 2016. What I mean when I say “Pacific Languages” are those truly indigenous to the region, and this year brought me into the arms of three of them specifically: Palauan, Tongan and Kiribati / Gilbertese. I’ve been extremely fascinated by all of them (and I would say at this juncture that Palauan is the hardest and Kiribati the easiest).

But today I’m going to talk about Tonga, because today is Tonga National Day.

Tonga is a country that continues to hold very strongly to its traditions, being an absolute monarchy even today, as well as one in which Christian identity is taken very seriously. What’s more I would venture that most people learning the Tongan Language might be doing so because they are missionaries.

The language itself is fascinating on every level and works unlike any other language I’ve seen. Let’s hop in!

The pronunciation, like many Austronesian languages (or “Languages of the Southern Islands” which stretch all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island / Rapa Nui) is extremely straightforward. You have a, e, i, o and u, pronounced virtually the EXACT same way as they would be pronounced in Spanish. If you see a line over any of these vowels, hold it a little bit longer. This principle, thanks to Finnish (which employed lengthened vowels very similarly but uses “aa” instead of “ā”, was not foreign to me.

Tongan also has a glottal stop, noted as the “ ‘ “ character. This is trickier, and it is pronounced with something like the breathing sound in the middle of “uh-oh”. (In singing this is extremely difficult to hear!)

Now let’s introduce you to what is probably the most commonly known Tongan word abroad, an interjection that literally serves ALL purposes (surprise, joy, anger, excitement), “ ‘oiaue!” Yup, all of the vowels and a glottal stop. Also super fun to say!

The consonants will not be slurred and, much like in a language like Hebrew, always have the exact same pronunciation! Given how similar they are to English that’s not something you need to worry about.

One aspect in which Tongan has really caused me to enter a word of mental gymnastics is the fact that, instead of indicating a tense with changing a verb, you use a “tense marker”.

Let’s give an example. “ ‘oku” is a present tense marker, so if you see it, a verb that follows it will be in the present tense. And PRONOUNS also change with tenses accordingly!

 

Ou -> present “I”

Ku -> past “I”

U -> future “I”

 

‘oku ou -> I am (lit. present-marker I-present)

Na’a ku -> I was (lit. past-marker I-past)

Te u -> I will be (lit. future-marker I-future)

 

You put verbs afterwards

Now there’s yet ANOTHER version of “I”, one that is utilized when it goes at the end of the sentence after a verb. “au”

 

‘Oku ‘alo ki kolo ‘a au. = I am going to town.

Present-marker go all-purpose-preposition town verb marker I-post-verb-version

 

The various pronouns in Tongan are all calibrated in various ways according, complete with exclusive and inclusive versions “we” as well as a singular / dual / plural system.

 

Much like some other languages, Tongan also has an interesting way of asking “what” you ask “Ko e hā e meʻa” = “what is the thing …”

It can be set up in other ways:

 

Ko e hā e lea faka-Tonga ki he _____?

What is the Tongan Word for _____?

 

The word “ko” is translated in so many ways and used is so many constructs that it’s dizzying to even think about how I would begin to describe it on paper. After all, I just got into Tongan a few months ago.

But you probably noticed something about “faka-Tonga”, which translates to “the Tongan Way”, something that is, obviously, at the center of the country’s national identity. Lea faka-Tonga, speaking in the Tongan Way, refers to the Tongan Language (of course).

Faka- as a prefix can also turn any noun into an adjective of the noun. Tonga is, of course, the Kingdom we all know and love (or, at least, we NOW know it and love it!). faka-Tonga turns it into an adjective. Not just Tongan, but an adjectival word that encapsulates everything that is the Tongan Way.

Another thing I didn’t find on the internet so far was how to say “why” in Tongan. That would be “ko e hā … ai” (and it is a sentence construction, with the thing you are asking the “why” about goes in the area with the three dots).

In summary:

  • Pronunciation is extremely easy
  • Verbs don’t really change but you note the tense of a sentence with a word that indicates tense.
  • Pronouns also change for tense too, they also can change depending on sentence structure (there are four forms of the word “I” covered above suited for different situation)
  • I didn’t touch upon it here, but possessives come in two classes. Read more about it on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongan_language#Possessive_pronouns
  • Idiomatic differences and learning what constitutes a “natural” construct will be your biggest obstacle in learning Tongan (more than anything else would be.

 

What’s more, Tongan also (unsurprisingly) has a lot of English Loan Words, and much like in Japanese, they will be adopted to local spelling conventions. This includes NAMES sometimes!

 

David – Tēvita

Mary – Mele

Science / Scientist – Saienisi

 

Tonga has great music that makes you feel as though you’re on an island (no, REALLY!) as well as a history that features it on center stage locally many times (it has been described as “expansionist”). Pieces of Tongan culture have been featured on the global stage, with the national drink, Kava, having its name COME from Tongan, as well as having costumes from Disney’s Moana / Vaiana modelled after the dress from the Tongan Royal Family, not also to mention it having been a playable mini-civilization in a mode of Civilization V (No joke!!!)

Polynesia as a whole (not to mention the Pacific Island cultures as a group) has been featured in many aspects of both American and Japanese popular culture (it was the colonial frontier for both of them!) As a result, many aspects of any of these cultures will be oddly familiar to you, given how both American and Japanese popular culture have impacted the world.

I have a long way to go with speaking the Tongan way, but it’s been SUPER fun (as well as challenging!) and I can’t wait to see how well I speak Tongan in a year’s time!

And now a song that will get stuck in your head!

Happy Tonga Day, world!

LEA FAKA TONGA