My 100th Post: Be Different, Do It Differently, Go Anywhere

PREAMBLE:

I had the idea to start this blog all the way back in March 2014, and I launched on May 22nd of that year (to coincide with the anniversary of my college graduation).

True story: Back then, I actually considered not writing anything about learning languages or foreign cultures at all. The reason why? I didn’t think I was qualified. I thought everyone would fact check me and I would feel so guilty that I would have to shut down the site.

My, my!

And then several years later I find myself on one of my esteemed mentors’ blogs as well as interviewed by a translation agency and eventually making a video of myself speaking 31 languages, and had been featured in several Jewish newspapers because of it. (AND I’ve been invited to speak at a school! And at other Jewish institutions!)

An important lesson: a lot of discouragement exists in the world. You shouldn’t be thinking “I would like to, but”, but rather “I would like to, and I have a plan to” (or intend to ask enough people so that I can make that plan).

I wanted to make this post something powerful that you would remember, and as a result here it is:

 

BE ANYTHING, DO ANYTHING, GO ANYWHERE

 

For those of you who know something about me outside of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a game designer as well as a language instructor (who is more than happy to teach you).

My backbone series of games, “Kaverini”, is emblazoned with holy words on every one of its gaming products: “Be Anything, Do Anything, Go Anywhere”.

Since I was 11 years old I’ve noticed that the world is an almighty crusher of dreams. Many years later and it seems that it shows no sign of letting up.

I’ve seen one thing that’s been getting stronger throughout myself, and maybe it has to do with aging, maybe it has to do with technology, or something else entirely, but I’ve noticed people are getting significantly more scared. Of everything.

Of making their visions become true.

Of getting outside of their immediate friend circles

Of even doing anything that may actually make them distinctive or make them “stand out”.

Of nonconformity in general.

Of too many other things.

 

Throughout the globe, we are being transformed into followers, I’ve seen this everywhere.

 

These times are not the times to mince words.

We cannot afford to be followers anymore.

 

In interacting with other people, I get complimented very regularly, especially at language exchange events. But often a lot of these is “your mind must work in interesting ways” or “you must have a talent”.

 

NO.

 

NO NO NO!

 

What I’m going to reveal to you was one of my most closely guarded secrets. But in times of trouble, I’ll need to reveal it.

My mind may indeed work in interesting ways and maybe I do have a talent of sorts, but I can tell you how I got it.

What I actually do is I think about what a lot of other people around me aren’t doing, what a lot of people aren’t exploring, and what a lot of people around me aren’t saying.

Since I was 7 or so I realized that I had only one chance to write my story (as far as I know). Since I was 12 I was aware that my own existence, by virtue of being an individual in a capitalistic society, is responsible for destruction and pain somewhere else at any given moment.

I also realized that, had my ancestors made other decisions, given that I am Jewish, I never been given the opportunity to live. Given that privilege, I have to make an extraordinary effort for the many other humans who would have been who have had (and continue to have) those avenues taken from them.

Under no circumstances would I enable myself to live an ordinary life. To talk like most other people, to think like most other people, to write like most other people, to post the sort of pictures online in the manner of most other people.

As a youth, I heard stories of Abraham, David, and Odysseus, ones who were always willing to do things “differently”, and that’s what turns them into heroes in worlds of conformity.

Indeed, up until the end of college it was my intention to follow a predictable path (however nonconformist I was insistent on being), but thanks to job and graduate rejections that didn’t happen.

I got so desperate that I decided that, instead of sending job applications to the Northeastern United States, I would even be willing to traverse oceans for it. It might be painful, but at least it was better than the shame of unemployment.

After tasting many cultures, having had my group identity completely vanish, having had my American accent turn into a mixture of local accents from everywhere that I had been (you’ll hear a lot more of this once I get over my camera-shyness), I came to the realization:

BE DIFFERENT. DO IT DIFFERENTLY. GO ANYWHERE.

I try not to use expressions or clichés that I hear frequently used in my speech. (Instead of saying, “It’s a small world” I would say, “adventurers cross paths in many of the same places”, instead of saying “it’s not all black and white”, I would say “Hollywood morality doesn’t apply here…or almost anywhere, for that matter”).

I try to think about the sort of things that most people around me would not consider doing (leaving school to start a company, unplugging from many forms of popular culture).

I try to pick languages based on almost anything but their “popularity” and “practicality”, and often for sentimental reasons, realizing that I can’t let crowds make my choices. People actually respect my choices a lot MORE because of it! Same for hobbies or interests or topics I’d like to research.

If I have to become a member of a circle or group, I’ll try not to get too attached. Yes, there is some pain involved, but this will always enable me to be the “observer” and the “artist”, the type of people to whom we are indebted for our human story.

Another thing was that since I was young, I’ve seen myself as a rising hero of sort, although of what sort I couldn’t imagine. But just in case the world needed my heroism somehow, I needed to learn as much about the world as I can, to seek wisdom everywhere, and to realize that “It can’t happen” or “you shouldn’t” or “you don’t have the (X) to do that” aren’t good pieces of advice.

I don’t exist for Father Time. Father Time exists for me. Fate exists for me. I will not go silently into the timeline. I will not allow myself to be forgettable.

Yes, maybe you might think of these sorts of beliefs as egotistical in a way. But they’ve worked. They’ve turned me into a character, one who sometimes is silent or doesn’t say or do the right thing, but one who has the “hero spark”.

Almost no one who has ever met me has ever forgotten me (ask ANYONE who knows me in person). Perhaps it wasn’t always for reasons I would be proud of in retrospect, but that’s okay.

There are those who have tried to make me feel bad about my choices, but my story isn’t over yet. And besides, people who want to make you feel bad about your choices are always wrong (remember that!)

Oh, and if you would prefer to not listen to what I have to say here, I very much respect that. You are welcome to have a different life from the one I have and it may work out for you and for all I know I could be very wrong indeed about absolutely everything.

But in case you’re curious where you get that hero spark, it is through being different and doing things differently…in addition to surrounding myself with people who do similar things (or are at least inclined to do so). Ones that are willing to swim against the stream, ones who are willing to make unpopular and sometimes strange choices, ones who venture into depths of human knowledge few have a desire to explore.

Once you find yourself willing to do that and willing to help others explore where you are, you will find yourself with an enthusiasm and a strength that no one will ever be able to quench.

They may not agree with you, they may not even respect you, but they will never forget you.

And neither will you allow yourself to be forgotten.

kegn dem shtrom

True to the theme, that sign says “against the stream” in Yiddish (kegn dem shtrom), and I made that scarf myself, choosing the most outlandish colors possible. The scarf still gets me a lot of compliments.

 

1000 HITS!!! My Gift to You: 10 Vital Lessons from My Language Adventures (Part 1)

Two days ago, the hits for this blog hit the quadruple digits!

This list needs no further introduction except for the heartiest “thank you all” that I can muster…

tusen tack

  1. Confidence and Peace of Mind are the Most Essential Ingredient

 

“Everyone speaks this language better than I do, everyone’s gonna hate me, everyone will just see me as the stupid American anyhow…”

 

This is how I had to endure my semester a year ago, in which every single course of mine was held in German (although sometimes the instructors let me answer questions in either English, Hebrew or Yiddish).

 

I was self-conscious about my accent in the language. I was self-conscious about my grammar. I thought that people would correct me excessively.

 

It was a mind-numbing experience, one that made me feel tremendously stupid! My self-esteem was in another dimension and you can imagine the relationship I had with my American upbringing at that point.
As it turned out, one fine day I met Isabella the Italian, who turned out to not have any of this self-consciousness in regards to her language journeys, even if it meant using words in English while speaking German or using Italian while speaking English. Even while doing this, she laughed, she kept her peace of mind, and wouldn’t let a single mistake or slip-up faze her.

 

I wasn’t going to let this difference in passports phase me. I took up the same variety of carefree learning spirit, and with this came the final transformation in my soul from polyglot-wannabe to genuine speaker of many languages.

 

No matter how many words you learn, no matter how many mistakes you make, without a certain peace within yourself, you cannot speak any second language well.

 

You don’t need perfect confidence or inner peace. You just need enough to ensure that you can communicate and that people won’t judge you negatively. Which brings me to my next point…

 

  1. Most…Make that…ALL…People want You to Speak Their Language

 

I will never forget the time when I was surrounded by a bunch of students in Heidelberg from various countries.

 

Hopping languages from Hebrew to German to Swedish to Spanish and English again, I had some people begging me (cutely, not desperately) to pick their native tongue as my next language.

 

Whatever you might have heard about “being answered in English” might tell you, the fact is that everyone craves whatever attention may be given to their native languages, however badly it may be spoken.

 

I’ve seen Greeks light up in jubilation with just a few words of the language. Not even the nationalities with the reputation for being the most emotionless of all are immune to this charm.

 

Admittedly there are some countries where the local language(s) are put down, but if anything you should take this as “playing hard to get”…not also to mention that every place that comes to mind where this is the case has people who put on vastly different personae outside of their home countries.

 

Even if you had to stutter (as I did when I first ordered a drink on a Finnair flight), even if you have to mix up a gender (as I did with Swedish for the first time) or use an incorrect idiom (too many times in German and in Hebrew to count), your effort will matter, and people will notice!

 

There is a special phrase in Finnish that I like to use when trying to sell an idea: usko pois! (literally: “believe away!”) That is to say: take it from me, and you can thank me later.

 

  1. With Multilingual Friends, Juggling Languages is Very Helpful

 

I certainly found this a lot easier to do in New York City than anywhere else, but gone are the days where I felt that having a foreigner speak English to me at all is an insult.

 

What I sometimes enjoy doing is juggling various languages between someone who speaks several in common with me, and it can be surprisingly easy to keep this precedent going!

 

Usually you don’t even need to ask to switch the language, just make the switch and then the conversation will follow accordingly.

 

  1. Translations Create an Entire New Dimension for a Text / TV Show / Etc.

 

I remember a popular sport that my flatmates and I had at the National Yiddish Book Center—to watch the same portion of a Disney Musical Film in a series of different languages one after another. This can be surprisingly addicting, although the quality of dubs is, in the case of most languages, all over the place.

 

With every language grounded in the source of its origin, the translations can diverge significantly.

 

Imagine something like ice cream sundae with different toppings or flavors. The language alters the flavor of the work accordingly. You can experience the same text or episode in a different way and actually notice other things that you haven’t seen before, perhaps highlighted by a well-delivered line or by an oddity that becomes more apparent in one translation than another.

 

And then there is news media and how that diverges in accordance with the language…

 

  1. Less Common Languages Have Their Place

 

“Obviously you don’t encounter speakers of Scandinavian Language in Heidelberg, because generally there aren’t many of them

 

I got this over and over and over again during my time living in the city.

 

In New York City, however, I was met with a surprise. From the very first week, I had certainly heard Spanish and Chinese being regularly used, but now that it is nearly two months that I have spent here, I ran into more Scandinavians on the streets of New York than I have Slavs and Germans and Romance Language Speakers (other than Spanish) put together!

 

“That’s odd”, I thought, “I was expecting very much a similar mix to Heidelberg in regards to what European nationalities I would find here, I was not expecting to be regularly encountering Swedes and Danes with such an extraordinarily high frequency!”

 

Truth be told: every language as its place. If it isn’t where you are, then it is definitely somewhere else. Somewhere, someone will thank you for your effort…

A Sample Warm-Up Ritual for Polyglot Gatherings

In the days leading up to it, I ask myself the following questions:

  • Which languages am I most likely to be using? (Spanish, German, Portuguese, Hebrew)
  • Which rarer languages might be featured? (For example, this round I am practicing Finnish and Faroese because they were both name-dropped in a blog post about the last polyglot bar. Given how Estonian and Finnish are related, it might be fair to count Estonian in, too)
  • Which languages am I not feeling particularly confident about right now? (Answers: Romance Languages, Greenlandic, Estonian a bit rusty too)
  • Which Languages do I feel I could use quite readily right now? (Answer: Scandinavian Languages, German, Yiddish)

The ones in regard to (4) are ignored for the time being. Anyone that intersects with both (1) and (3) (in this case, Spanish and Portuguese) gets special media treatment.

Anyone which intersects with (2) and (3) gets treatment as well.

Lastly, any other languages in (3) get attention.

So, what languages of mine require practice?

Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Finnish, Estonian, Faroese

Yay, list!

Now, what I do:

The ones that I feel are the WEAKEST I practice at the earlier in the week.

Faroese goes first (On with Kringvarp Føroya until I get bored of it, and then an assortment of Faroese Music).

Once I feel that I’ve had my fill of that, I take out my phrasebook and review the grammar. Alas, I am still using “language learning materials” with Faroese but hopefully within a month or two I’ll drop it.

Estonian is next. Songs, review vocabulary lists (I don’t use textbooks for Estonian except for reference now), and watch Estonian versions of some Disney musical animated films for kids.

After this, I put the computer away and train myself to think in Estonian (with Faroese it is a bit more difficult because there is no Google Translate for it…but mark my words…I think we’ll have it before the year is up!)

Words I am blanking on are looked up and recited out loud.

Hebrew—well, I figure I have the class on Wednesday. No big deal.

Finnish, Portuguese, Spanish— I watch TV in all of them at various points throughout the day when I have time. Words I do not know are looked up, but for Romance Languages I feel that my understanding is usually very, very good, but active use is weaker than I would like.

The rest of the languages get about two minutes worth of attention each (usually a YouTube something). The ones that I am learning I either use (1) Memrise (2) Quizlet or (3) a book.

And then when the day comes, I get my confidence in perfect gear, and then I walk to the area on foot, training myself to think positively about my abilities all the way there.

And then the fun begins…

The Polyglot Barrrrr!

Good thing I forgot to write this yesterday, otherwise I would have realized the wonderful title opportunity too late. (Happy International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day! Arr! True story: I first heard about International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day through a Playbill for the New York City Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance)

The second time at the NYC Polyglot Bar didn’t nearly have as many Yiddish speakers, with German- and Spanish-speakers dominating instead (although Yiddish did have a significant presence).

Apparently there was someone who interviewed me for a story. More on that later, because this post is about my reflections from Wednesday Night:

  • I remember Ernest Hemingway having noted that in every port of the world there are at least two Estonians.

 

No Estonians were present at this gathering, and I was the only Estonian-speaker present, but there were at least six other people who said that they knew/lived with/met with one Estonian (or more).

 

Some things don’t change…

 

  • This time I wasn’t the only speaker of a Native American Language present (there was a Quechua speaker who was very intrigued by Greenlandic. True story: if I were on the 2013 Peru trip with my family instead of in a German Village, I probably would speak Quechua very well by now. But I didn’t, so I had other interests. Maybe one day…who knows?)

 

  • Nor was I the only speaker of a Scandinavian Language present. There was a fellow Danish-speaker present as well. Fairly interesting: he found Swedish and Norwegian quite elusive (given as he didn’t study either of them), despite the fact that these languages are so similar. So similar, in fact, that I made a discovery this week that the singing voice of “The Little Mermaid” was done by the same person (Sissel Kyrkjebø, a Norwegian singer) in the Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish dubs.

 

  • While on the topic of Scandinavian Languages, I had my tag on and I was speaking in Hebrew with a colleague on the subway on the way back. Apparently I got asked by someone leaving the subway if I spoke all of those languages. That someone was a Swede, who was extraordinarily overjoyed that her mother tongue was on my tag. And you can probably guess what language the remainder of that conversation was in (hint: not English)

 

  • My command of Danish and German I felt was strong, I wasn’t grasping for words although I might have slipped up some grammar points (did that in English, too). Yiddish was slightly weaker but still good (despite one time in which I misheard something and answered a completely irrelevant question). My Spanish and Hebrew leave a lot to be desired. Specifically, I felt myself pausing too often and making grammatical mistakes more than I would in any of my comfortable languages. Confidence, too, was an issue. My ability to understand everything in all four of these languages was perfect, however. There were at most three words that I missed between the four as far as the conversations went.

 

  • One nickname I got was “the guy with the Faroese book”. It made its appearance when people asked me how I learned the language. Obviously the book wasn’t the only thing.

 

  • The Northern Sami phrasebook also seemed to be quite popular. Interestingly, nobody asked me to speak any of it. The one language I get most commonly asked to speak for people to hear is, obviously, Greenlandic.

 

  • Apparently someone told me that spoken Dutch sounds like someone talking with a potato stuffed in his or her mouth. Any Scandinavian will definitely recognize this idea as having been applied one-too-many-times to refer to the Danish Language. Asked to say something about Danish, I recalled the not particularly politically correct observation of one of my German colleagues that “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

 

  • Portuguese and Dutch were a lot better off than Spanish and Hebrew. I made significant progress with both ever since I got back to the United States. I’m at a point where if I don’t have enough media of both in my life, however, my knowledge of both will lapse significantly. I was told with both that my accent is really good (heard the same for Yiddish).

 

  • I was asked what my favorite language is. I gave an answer in multiple capacities. That is a post for another time.

 

  • Got asked my favorite language for cursing. This one I can give: Finnish. Without a doubt. I’m not going to teach you any Finnish bad words here. Send me a private message or, better yet, meet me at a polyglot event. But if you know me in person and spent any time around me, you’ll definitely recognize a few (unfortunately, I tend to use them quite frequently when agitated).

 

  • Now here’s the biggest improvement: I wasn’t mixing up any German and Yiddish this time! Boom! But while German/Yiddish and Swedish/Norwegian are out of the picture, now I have a new culprit: Spanish and Portuguese. Who knew?

 

There were some people who took my picture / interviewed me / asked me questions etc. Quite exciting! If anything comes of such things, they will make their way to this blog in due time.

 

Anyhow, a diagnostic on what I need to do from this time until the next:

 

  • Make Spanish and Hebrew television a part of my life, and keep it that way until I feel that I get good with both. I did this with the Scandinavian Languages for the past year and I don’t regret it one bit. Now I have to do the same for the languages I learned in school.

 

  • To a lesser extent, given as I have only recently gotten quite good with both Dutch and Portuguese, I need to cement their “entrance into the echelons” with media as well, and training myself to think in these languages in all situations.

 

 

  • My skills in Russian, Polish and Northern Sami really, REALLY leave a lot of room for improvement. I’m not even close to conversational anymore, and a lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve neglected them for other buddies. Plan 1: Ođđasat (the News in Northern Sami) every day. Plan 2: Bring back the Russian and Polish Music. Plan 3: Don’t skim the Russian and Polish posts on Facebook. Plan 4: don’t shy away form Slavic YouTubing. Plan 5: Don’t neglect my Nothern Sami Notes (from Gulahalan, etc).

 

  • Now it comes for a time for me to really wonder: how many languages do I actually have time for? Do I have time for learning a new one? Can I actually maintain close to twenty languages and be ready to converse in them readily on a casual level? Will people even believe me? Will people doubt my resume?

 

My local friends (and many others) tell me that I can definitely manage this, and already I seem to have skewed the odds in my favor by choosing languages in various family groups (Scandinavian / West Germanic / Finnic / Romance Languages).

 

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll know when it will be time to drop one of my language projects when I fall out in love with it.

 

For now, however, I won’t stop my new acquisitions. And if the day comes in which I lose my attachment to one of my projects, then I will find no major problem with letting them go (I could relearn them whenever I want, and a “good head start” will certainly be useful should I choose that path).

 

But I’ve noticed that one video a day in various languages is usually enough for me to ensure that I don’t forget anything (or…as much). And the journey of learning new vocabulary never stops…not even for my native language…

 

For that matter, my journey of peering into new worlds won’t stop either…

The Legend of Isabella the Italian

I hereby devote this post to a personage who I very much need to thank for making this blog possible, one who enabled me to stop being so self-conscious about my efforts to learn languages (or anything else), and without her help and her example, I wouldn’t consider myself worthy of any polyglot title.
She herself may never end up reading this. I remember one time when Isabella the Italian was asking me about my experience learning Russian at Yale University. I mentioned the “ы” sound and smiled at her various attempts to pronounce it.
I mentioned that only a few days ago from that point, I had written a post on how to mangle with difficult sounds.
“Why would I read your blog?” she said with a mischievous smile, “I don’t read blogs. Blogs are stupid! Why would I read your blog when I could just talk to you?”
For what was not the first and what will definitely not be the last time, I almost bent over laughing. Isabella the Italian is very much unmatched with her honest opinions, the way she expresses them, and her ability to make small talk with just about any human being on the planet.
Having arrived in late 2013 to Heidelberg with no previous knowledge of German, her method of applying the language in her early stages was often to just unhesitatingly use an English word when she didn’t know any German one. “Bitte nicht touch-en”, was one of my personal favorite examples of such.
Isabella the Italian moved into my suite after having lived in the city for a while. At that time I was still struggling with how to express many ideas in the German Language, and in no small part could this be due to the fact that I found myself easily intimidated.
When I was in Stockholm, I was picking up the Swedish language after nearly two months of using mostly English. Not only was my best Swedish friend a teacher of the language for foreigners, but I was also surrounded by many supportive Swedes who would cheer on my efforts, however silly or simple. By the time I left, I was told by a guest that I spoke the language better than most immigrants to Sweden do in three years. I speak the language even better now.
On one hand, because of Isabella’s legendary superpower of small talk and friendship making, she enabled me to meet countless acquaintances, German and otherwise, with which to practice my skills non-judgmentally. She also enabled me to rehearse the language in a non-judgmental environment either, and as it turns out that I was the scrutiny that I thought that I had perceived was mostly imagined.
Sometimes she had to gently nudge me away from speaking any words of English, and it worked. But her contribution to my own linguistic journey doesn’t lie in that.
I remember one conversation I had with her about accent reduction.

As an American, a native speaker of probably the most common dialect of the most coveted language in today’s world, I have to do a good job at pretending that I am something else.

Most of the time, especially when I am feeling well, it works—sometimes I get mistaken for British (a constant for about six years now), but sometimes I’ve been mistaken as German, Dutch, several types of Scandinavian, and even Czech at one point.
But sometimes, people just know I am a foreigner, possibly due to the clothes or the walk or hearing me talk on the phone with my family.
One time I asked Isabella the Italian what she did for accent reduction.
“I don’t do anything”, she said, “people like my accent”.
She is a lot more comfortable with her national identity than I was with mine at any point in my life. But there was an important breakthrough: for one, accent reduction wasn’t particularly that important. Some of my family members and some friends had tried to tell me that I was so obviously American to everyone (and sometimes with an implicit discouragement to give up polyglottery forever), but Isabella did away with that self-consciousness for good. So what if they think I have an accent? Maybe people like it, after all…
Isabella the Italian enabled me to complete a transformation from mostly-English-speaking student with some knowledge of many languages to confident speaker of many languages—a transformation that began in November 2012 and was completed by about March/April 2014.
She taught me by example how not to let errors or other silly things act as such as ego-crushers in any learning process. Furthermore, she believed that there was a balance between discipline and relaxation that had to be reached in order for a true learning experience to happen—very different from the “work a lot and get good grades!” culture that exists in the United States.
One time I was in a grassy field and we were having a conversation about lifestyles. She told me that an ideal life would be that of a bumblebee, one that goes from flowers to flower while “enjoying life”. For most of my adult life, I saw something different when looking at bumblebees: competition for resources.
I realized that, especially as concerns an educational journey, especially with foreign tongues, that excess competition and steel-fisted work usually isn’t the best answer. Going from flower to flower, taking opportunities, savoring them with little thought to ego—this enabled me to improve many of my languages in the past year, and I look forward to using the same bumblebee method with even more in the next year.
The legend of Isabella is soon headed to Paris, probably the one place on earth where “linguistic chauvinism” is said to reign supreme (although thankfully I have no experiences to speak to this at all). I can imagine that some Parisians may scoff at those who may attempt to speak French as foreigners, but I am very certain that Isabella the Italian will not be one of them.
If there is a crisis of education, I am certain that more Isabellas (Isabellae?) would be the solution we would need. I think that the American educational system could learn very well from people like Isabella, who sees life and schooling as something about fulfillment rather than about prizes, jobs and grades.
Maybe one day we will learn from the bumblebees and apply that method to schooling. I am still waiting.