Learning Similar Languages: What Can Go Wrong and What Can Work

 

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen with most novice language learners (and, being completely honest with all of you, most language learners, especially in the English-speaking world or with languages that are not English, stay novices permanently for a number of reasons) is the issue of learning similar languages.

Specifically, the issue of the Romance Languages comes into play often, and people scramble the vocabularies of Spanish, Portuguese and sometimes even Italian sometimes quite often.

To be fair, I’ve haven’t been COMPLETELY immune to this (for example, between German and Yiddish or between the Scandinavian Languages or similarly related Creole Languages). However, I found myself better equipped to handle this issue than most.

And there IS an easy way around it, and it has to do with emotional attachment to your target languages.

For most people, Spanish is an easy, useful language closer to English and Portuguese is an easy, useful language close to that one. But I’m curious if you asked them about what sort of native-speaker material or culture they genuinely associate with either of these cultures, what would you get?

I’ve put Portuguese on pause for the time being (and have for about a year now), but Spanish (despite my guarded antipathy towards popular languages) is something I associate with spunky YouTube channels and my experiences with my Spanish friends during my year in Poland. Sometimes the occasional Juan Magan song comes to mind as well. The language has a distinct flavor in my mind that I anchor with particular things, not phrases in Duolingo.

Here are some other anchored flavors for languages that are HEAVILY related to other languages that I know:

  • Danish: my time in Greenland, Rasmus Seebach, a host of ancient traditions and experiences I’ve had with Danish-speakers, Denmark’s animated film industry, THAT PRONUNCIATION OMG.
  • Tok Pisin: fiery opinion pieces in Wantok Niuspepa, Daniel Bilip, my Dad’s memories of Port Moresby, documentaries involving the police and the “raskols” (truly heartbreaking and 100% the fault of colonialism and aftershocks from World War II)
  • Trinidadian Creole: Proverbs, Calypso Music, my neighborhood, very memorable comedic sketches and talk shows, notable Indian influence in comparison to much of the Caribbean.

Most people don’t have any emotional reasons for learning and usually have an abundance of logical reasons or, worse, choosing a language because it is a combination of easy and/or useful.

Yes, it is possible to develop an emotional connection after the fact, but don’t try to bend your desires to what the world wants (the world is crazy enough as is and it doesn’t need another follower, please!)

Even if you do choose to pursue something for logical reasons, you’re going to be more drawn and put more time into things that make you feel better. I really, really like Swedish and Tok Pisin, French or Spanish not so much. Until that changes (if it ever does), improving my Swedish or Tok Pisin is going to be the path of least resistance and not only would I put more time into it but more of it would stick (which is even more important).

So you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with learning related languages?

If you have distinct flavors for each language, the possibility that you mix them up is going to be minimal. I don’t associate Norway’s country-music-infused pop hits with any other place, and Stockholm beats only belong in one place, regardless of how similar these languages may be. I’ve associated these languages with very different feelings and places in my brain and this is why I, at this juncture, virtually NEVER mix them up.

To not mix up languages, you need to collect experiences with them and anchor them in that language.

Interestingly, concerning the creoles of Melanesia, Bislama material on YouTube tends to involve a lot of Ni-Vanuatu flags, and Solomon Islander material uses the Solomon flag even MORE, thereby ensuring through a natural mechanism that I can anchor my material in Bislama and Pijin with their appropriate categories.

When people mix up languages or speak something like “Portuñol”, it’s a sign to me that they haven’t anchored their experiences in enough real-world happenings (or entertainment, for that matter). And that’s okay, as long as you take concrete steps to fix it.

I think that parents of twins may have no problem keeping them apart by virtue of the fact that they have different emotional attachments to each twin. You’ll have to do something similar.

Don’t be discouraged! Keep working!

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In My Opinion, These Five Countries Have the Best Contemporary Music (November 2017)

 

I’ve tasted music from well over FIFTY different countries and at least that many languages

I’m sorry to say but, after having tasted music in a lot of the rest of the world, it seems to me that contemporary American music more often than not seems uninspired, shallow and formulaic. Granted, other places do have their share of bad music as well, but ever since college I’ve been looking abroad for musical hits and I’ve never, EVER looked back.

As of late 2017, here are the countries whose music of contemporary times (1980’s to the present) have left me significantly impressed and have changed my life. I also judge primarily for lyrical content as well as for how often I find myself humming or thinking about these tunes when I’m away from any music player or while walking in a field or down the street.

Here we go!

 

  1. Finland

 

One month from today this fascinating country will celebrate its 100th birthday!

It seemed to me in 2013 that I would just learn enough Finnish to “get by” during my venture to meet the local Jewish community in Helsinki and I would promptly forget it. Fate had other plans…

After having discovered a website that offered Finnish Language music 24/7 shortly after my trip, I got hooked. Finnish remains one of my favorite European languages and many of the song lyrics and tunes have been a potent look into what Finnishness (“Suomalaisuus”) entails.

That website, by the way still exists, and it comes with complete song ID’s for everything that plays during a 24-hour period. Check it out, it may prove fun even if you don’t speak or understand any Finnish at all: http://www.radiosuomipop.fi/

 

  1. Solomon Islands

 

I know what you’re thinking, maybe some of you have visibly said “WHAT?!!?” out loud, but Solomon Music is unbelievably refreshing and heartfelt. What’s more, a lot of the music does tend to mix together standard English, Pijin and many of the local languages of the Solomons.

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

 

 

By the way, I asked Dezine how their name was pronounced and they said it was pronounced “de-ZYN” (my understanding is that it’s a homophone with the English word “design”). Yes, I’m FB Messenger contacts with one of the best known musical acts in a country on the other side of the globe. Long story.

 

  1. Myanmar / Burma

 

I still distinctly remember the withdrawal I suffered when I went back from Yangon to New York City and the music I hear from boom boxes and smartphones was noticeably different and not in a good way. Even in very poor regions of the countryside (in Bagan I noticed that this was particularly common), I heard farmers using their smartphones to play music that seemed as though it was vaguely inspired by Chinese pop ballads and classical British radio hits.

Did I tell you about the time I found 100+ Burmese-language songs for $10 on the iTunes store?

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/greatest-hits/id1222130595

There are totally no American, Russian or Chinese cover songs anywhere in that album. Nu uh. No way. [/s]

I also hear that many aspects of the punk music scene in Myanmar have been essential in ensuring inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation, especially important given current events throughout the world but especially in Myanmar.

 

  1. Iceland

You can’t have a landscape like that and not have it inspire you on a very primal level. Sometimes I listen to bland music in grocery stores and at parties and then I listen to the likes of  Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró and I am thereby reminded that there is plenty of originality left in contemporary music, more than many people may give it credit for.

I think that every American alive will probably recognize this tune from somewhere:

And my love of Icelandic rap is literally no secret to anyone who knows me at all. Did I mention I got to see Emmsjé Gauti in concert the day before the Polyglot Conference? Be forewarned: he does demand a lot of audience participation in his events! (He even had an 8-year old boy from the audience join him on stage and sing the chorus to one of his songs!)

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Papua New Guinea

I played a family member some songs from Daniel Bilip the “nambawan hitmaker bilong PNG”. I have a distinct memory of nearly having the phone and the earphones yanked out of my hands when I tried to take it back (the music was THAT addicting!)

 

Trinidad and Tobago

Trini Carnival music is adrenalin in mp3 form. And that’s a very good thing for me. Also, in case you can’t tell, Trinidadian Creole is heavily utilized in these songs, in ways elude the understanding of the average English speaker.

 

 

Israel

At the Hebrew University in the Ulpan I have memories of doing “group singing”. They are very good memories, but the songs are plenty times more memorable.

 

 And now for the coveted no. 1 spot…(that is no surprise in the slighest to anyone who knows me…)

 

  1. GREENLAND

 

Thousands of songs throughout my life, dozens of CD’s, and the most moving music in my life has almost consistently come from one place.

 

 

Greenlandic music tends to contain poetry and musical elements that capture the magnificent feeling of the great beyond in ways that other places’ music just CAN’T.

Ever since I began studying Greenlandic in 2013 (and despite my meager progress), I listened to Greenlandic music and couldn’t get enough. A lot of the styles encapsulate the essence of the many feelings of the human experience.

Some songs have been so beautiful that when I’m listening to them on the subway staying composed is a difficult task.

My personal favorites include Nanook, Rasmus Lyberth and Marc Fussing Rosbach (who just so happens to be the author of a lot of the music for my upcoming video game). I had the chance to meet both Nanook and Marc during my Greenland trip in October (and narrowly missed Rasmus!)

And even if pop ballads and game music isn’t your thing, Siissisoq (“The Rhinoceros”) has come out with literally the best heavy metal I’ve ever heard in my life, and in recent memory they got back together after what was nearly a two-decade hiatus. (I do NOT attribute this to the fact that I wrote a fan letter to the lead singer shortly before hearing this news!)

I’ve written about Greenlandic music in detail elsewhere on this blog, have a read about it here and expect your life to be changed completely.

 

 

My New Facebook Quotes Section

On May 27th, 2017, my personal Facebook account turns ten years old.

Thinking of a way I could change the account to reflect my growth / changes since then, I decided to compile a number of quotes, one from each language featured in my video.

Thanks to issues with fonts I transliterated the Hebrew, Yiddish and Burmese. While I did the same for Russian and Ukrainian I also provided the original.

EDIT: I transliterated the Tajik portion as well.

Here you are!

Mervel zo ret, dimeziñ n’eo ket.
(Death is necessary, marriage isn’t)
– Breton Proverb

My a’th kar milweyth moy es ow brithel.

I love you a thousand times more than my mackerel

– Found on Cornish language learning forums for Valentine’s Day.

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
(Not my circus, not my monkeys)
– Polish idiom, meaning “I didn’t create this problem”

Ég skal sýna þér í tvo heimana.
(I will show you the two worlds)

– (Icelandic idiom meaning, “I will beat you up, very badly”)

Paasilerpara inuit kalaallit pissaaneqaqisut.
(This I recognize: the Greenlandic people possess a mighty strength.)

– Nanook (Greenlandic Band)

Tout ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français.
(Everything that isn’t clear isn’t French)
– Antoine de Rivarol

“Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste.”
(Broken Irish is better than clever English)
– Irish saying

“Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon”
A nation without a language, a nation without a soul
– Welsh proverb

Наша мета – знайти щось нове. (Nasha meta – znaiti shchos’ Nove)
Our goal is to find something new

– the Ukrainian Duolingo Course

Я скажу по секрету, между нами,
Самое главное – money, money.
За них сегодня можно все купить
Их нужно тратить, а не копить.

I am telling you a secret between us,
The most important thing is money, money
It can buy anything today,
It is necessary to spend it, not to save it.

– Leningrad, “Money”

Stilla kvøldarmyrkrið lokkar ljósini fram á skipum ið liggja við kai.

(A quiet evening darkness casts light forward from ships resting by the harbor.)

– Terji Rasmussen, Faroese Singer

“Cazi. Doida ja réidne goruda buhtisin. Dan éazi. Doida ja raidne.”

(Water, cleanses and purifies the body. This water. Cleanses and purifies.”)

– Sofia Jannok, Sami singer, “Bali Cahci” (waters of Bali),

Ven Shlomo homelekh volt dikh gezen, volt er gevolt hobn nor eyn froy.
If King Solomon would have seen you, he would have only wanted one wife

– (Michael Wex, in his Yiddish language phrasebook “Just Say Nu”)

Disfala Waes Tisa hemi tok olsem, “Laef blong yumi, hemi no fitim tingting blong yumi! !Ya, evrisamting hemi barava no fitim wanem yumi tingim!”

(Solomon Islands Pijin translation of Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Yu no talem se, wan sel nomo.
(Don’t ever say, ”just one shell”)

-the Ni-Vanuatu Kava Song

„MI NO WOK MANI –
BAI MI KEN GIVIM U PLANTI SAMTING
NAU U LAIK GO AWAY
LUS TINGTING LONG MI
MANGI LONG PELES
OI SORY LEWA
POROMIS YA OLSEM WANEM”
(“I don’t have a stable job, but I can give you lots more, now if you want to go away and forget about me, the local boy, I’m sorry, love, I can promise you this…”)

-Daniel Bilip, the “Nambawan hitmaker bilong Papua New Guinea”

Donde hay gana, hay maña.
(When there is something to win, there is a means to get it.)

– Spanish proverb
“Jos et mun tyylii tajuu, se meinaa että sulla ei oo tyylitajuu”
(If you don’t get my style, it means that you got no sense of style.)

– Cheek, Finnish rapper

“Jag vill ha en egen måne, jag kan åka till
Där jag kan glömma att du lämnat mig
Jag kan sitta på min måne och göra vad jag vill
Där stannar jag tills allting ordnat sig. ”

(I want to have my own moon that I can travel to,
There I can forget that you left me.
I can sit on my moon and do what I want
I’m staying there until everything gets better.)

– Ted Gärdestad, Swedish singer

“Leser aldri bøker, og se på TV er jeg lei
jeg liker Zappa, men Zappa liker sikkert ikke meg”

(I never read books, sick of watching TV,
I like Zappa, but Zappa sure doesn’t like me.)

Lars Kilevold, Norwegian singer, “Livet er for kjipt” (Life Sucks)

Du skal ikke tro, du er noget. Du skal ikke tro, at du er lige så meget som os. Du skal ikke tro, at du er klogere end os…

(You are not to believe, that you are something, you are not to believe that you are as worth as must as we are, you are not to believe that you are cleverer than us…)

– Law of Jante, Danish literary touchstone

Nu, az ma yihiyeh?
Well, so what? (Common Israeli idiom)

„Ich kann zu meiner Reisen
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen
In dieser Dunkelheit.“

“I cannot choose the time
For beginning my journey.
I must show myself the way
In this darkness”

Wilhelm Mühler
April doet wat ie wil
(April Does whatever it wants)
Dutch Proverb

Em tempo de guerra, qualquer buraco é trincheira.
(In wartime, every hole is a trench.)

– Portuguese proverb

“Mu südames oled kirjutatud luule,
mida nüüd vaid loen.
Kuid ma tean: need sõnad heidan tuulde
ja vaikselt peitu poen,
vaikselt peitu poen.”

“In my heart you have written poetry,
That I am now reading
But I know: these words I cast into the wind
And I go into hiding
And I go into hiding.”

Ott Lepland, Estonian singer, “Sa Ju Tead”,

“Aki mer, az nyer”
(He who dares, wins.)
– Hungarian Proverb

Биёед, канӣ санҷем!
Let us try it.

(By-yo-ed, kanii sanjem!)

– Tajik sentence from the Tatoeba sentence database.

mooj\wa bemA dOO kheji\ shä’ mä.
(Even though it is raining, we will travel onwards.)

– Myanmar Word for Word.

Italiano – La verita ha una buona faccia ma cattivi abiti
(The truth has a good face but bad clothes.)
– Italian Proverb

polyglot moi

Absolutely no connection to the last quote there. Nuh-uh.

Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

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Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!

The Top 5 Catchiest Songs I’ve Heard in My Whole Life to Date (March 2017 Edition)

 moving forward 1

Today is Purim, a Jewish Holiday that does involve costumes, celebration and the reversals of fortune.

Interestingly, it occurs to me that it may be the closest thing to a “troll holiday” that really exists in the Jewish calendar.

My identity, especially my Jewish identity, is something I struggle with a LOT more than I should.

But that’s a story for another day.

True to the spirit of reversal on Purim (vnahafokh = Ancient Hebrew for “and it was reversed”, referring to the denouement of the Book of Esther which you should read one fine afternoon, if you haven’t heard it already today or yesterday evening), I ain’t gonna be writing about language learning.

I’m going to be posting the catchiest songs I’ve heard. Ever.

Actually, what am I thinking? Does this have anything to do with Purim? No, it probably doesn’t. There isn’t even any Jewish performer on this list (as far as I can tell…sorry)

But I hope all of you regardless of background or level or anything else can enjoy this playlist.

Want the lyrics? Leave a comment. Didn’t include them because I thought it would clutter this post more than message. I didn’t include commentary for the same reason. You came to hear catchy songs, not a lecture.

So more music, less wordz!

  1. Basshunter, “Boten Anna” (Swedish)
  1. The Tokens, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (English)
  1. Daniel Bilip “Mangi Mendi” (Papua New Guinea / mostly in Tok Pisin)
  1. SUSSAT! “Sila Qaamareerpoq” (Greenlandic)

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Staysman and Lazz, “En Godt Stekt Pizza” (Norwegian)

Juan Magan, «Mal de Amores» (Spanish [Spain])

Marc Fussing Rosbach, «FIIST!» (Greenlandic)

And now for the first place you’ve all been waiting for…

  1. Keatly Kalulu, «Kava» (Bislama [Vanuatu])