Venturing into Languages Highly Dissimilar to Your Own: Helpful Tips

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

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

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

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

 

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

2: Icelandic, Fiji Hindi

3: Hungarian, Finnish, Fijian, Hebrew, Irish

4: Kiribati / Gilbertese, Palauan, Tuvaluan, Burmese

5: Greenlandic, Lao, Khmer, Guarani

 

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

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

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

 

  • Make Connections Between Words in the Language

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Wati – husband, wife, spouse

 

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

 

 

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

 

palopuhuja lol

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Scene: a synagogue event.

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

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

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

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

  • Hidden Loan Words from Colonial Languages.

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

It’s the word “drawing” –Fijianized.

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

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

Which brings me into another point…

  • Do You Recognize any Words through Proper Nouns?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Lastly…

 

  • Embrace the Differences in the Grammar

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sure of it!

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What the Irish Language Revival Needs

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh! (Happy St. Patrick’s Day to All of You!)

Having spent my adolescence in New England and the week before my freshman year of college in County Kerry (including walking through areas of the Gaeltacht), Ireland has always had a warm place in my heart (including countless attempts to learn Irish with mixed results and yes, conversations in Irish throughout the year. )

I myself am of Irish-American heritage (although sadly I don’t know which county my ancestry stems from). The Kerry Way and rural Connecticut clearly have similar architectures and layouts, much like rural Sweden and rural Wisconsin seem eerily similar to each other.

My parents, having met in New York City, never found Hiberno-English foreign or even strange. When I began my studies of Irish in 2014 (with the Duolingo course and Transparent Language, for better and for worse, guiding me through the pronunciation), I realized exactly how much influence this language had on English as well as the American brand thereof in particular. (Yiddish also had a similar feeling as well, not also to mention when I studied Italian before my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 / 2014).

As an Ashkenazi Jew I realize how the Irish-American and the Jewish-American stories are so SIMILAR. Large diaspora communities and profound influence on American culture as a whole, systematic discrimination throughout the 20th century as well as having ceased to be a minority in many respects (as far as the United States was concerned), having posters of our holy lands throughout our classrooms, mixing our ancestral languages with English, prizing our music and our religious traditions and, of course, the debate about to what degree our victimhood narratives really serve us and cultural intricacies and narratives so deep that most foreigners will never understand how much of a “minefields” our internal politicking really is.

The Irish Language, despite being increasingly accessible with each coming year, is also a point of many, MANY heated debates, including alarmism of “the language is dying!” and some people saying “why keep it alive anyway?” not also to mention countless, COUNTLESS debates with a lot of hurt feelings and confusion.

That said, I think that, contrary to what many scholars think, if there is a future for ANY language, it will likely be in part because of L2 Learners. I think that Irish-Language learners the world over have the possibility to provide the salvation this language needs. The fact that the Duolingo Course, warts and all,  became the SECOND language course to be released from the community (ahead of languages like Russian, Swedish, Japanese and even Mandarin Chinese) and also reached more than FOUR MILLION learners deserves to be celebrated.

The most likely reason, however, that I haven’t become fluent in Irish yet, despite all of this time, is…well, my self-discipline actually.

But I think that if the Irish language were easier to rehearse, then we would NOT have a system in which place in which people learn Irish and school and then forget it.

How many people have you met that learned English and school and then forgot it entirely? That’s because the MEDIA in which English is used are readily available. And in addition to creating Irish-language resources (of which there are plenty), there also need to be a multitude of ways to engage with the language.

Here are some ideas:

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  • Cartoon Dubbings (with various degrees of being learner-friendly)

 

Yes, I’ve used TG4 before, but often a lot of the sentences eluded me. I think that if there were the possibility to add subtitles (as, for example, is common and REQUIRED in Norway) and possibly even vocabulary lists (as what the Yiddish Forward does—you can highlight any word to see its English meaning), these TV shows would become VERY accessible and people would flock to learn the language and try it out with cartoon shows.

 

  • A Richness of Music in Many Different Styles

 

No doubt it already exists, somewhere, but often what is readily available when one searches “Ceol as Gaeilge” in YouTube is a number of covers of English-Language pop songs. I’m EXTREMELY grateful for that, but the world of Irish music also needs to expand into re-interpreting old classics in novel ways (much like Faroese music has done), and also venture into realms like Gangsta Rap and Techno (Burmese music got me hooked just because of the sheer variety—also because the albums were about $10 for 100+ songs, but that’s another story).

The music should also come with translated lyrics as well as, yes, you got it, vocabulary lists for learners.

  • Less Alarmism in Journalism Discussing the Irish Language

There IS a threat to the language, and no one is denying that in the slightest. However, playing it up for clicks is not helpful nor does it even motivate most people to learn the language (except for altruists such as myself).

  • More Richness of Learning Materials

 

Believe me, if the Irish Language had material that was even one-fifth of what a language like Spanish or even Turkish had in regards to websites and books and apps to learn it, no one would be fretting about its future.

More games, more interactive materials, more unique ways to engage with the language for ALL levels of learners, and we’d be in for many, many problems solved.

 

  • Fewer People Calling It “Useless”

 

Do I really need to discuss this point any more than I already have on this blog?

 

  • Making People Realize that Irish-Speakers REALLY Want to Help You Learn!

 

This was even referenced on Ros na Rún several times. Only today did I read a post decrying the idea that many Swedes seemed to be discouraging of people wanting to learn their language (I’m addressing this in a point next week—don’t worry, it is VERY encouraging!). With most Irish speakers, you won’t encounter this at all.

 

Much like secular Yiddishists helped me learn Yiddish at every opportunity and in every possible way, Irish speakers have given me very much the same. (I have a feeling that the rest of the world, especially in the west, will be on track for that as English continues to expand in its usage. I don’t mean to imply that languages of Northern Europe will be endangered much like Irish or Yiddish is now, by the way).

 

  • Encouraging Fluent Speakers to Make Their Own Media on YouTube (with possible monetary stipends)

A language like Finnish or German was easy for me to learn in comparison to Irish (despite the grammatical difficulties with both) given how EASILY I could find videos related to pretty much any topic in either. That, and also a lot of very popular videos would have Closed Caption Subtitles in these languages. Irish doesn’t even come close to having that luxury. Or, at least, not yet.

Within the past few years I’ve noticed Welsh-language gaming channels popping up and even some in Irish (although sometimes they fall out of use after some times). We need to get these projects going (and given YouTube’s new monetization guidelines instituted in February 2018, it is more of a battle).

I’ve seen it over and over again with people choosing their languages – the more opportunities they have to use it in some capacity, the more alluring that language is. Every video, post or song in Irish helps!

  • Making More Social Opportunities to Use Irish in Ireland, the other Celtic Nations and in Big Cities Throughout the World.

New York City has a lot of Irish speakers. I know because I’ve met many of them. But sometimes the Meetup groups fall out of usage because their owner can’t pay the fees anymore, or if they do exist they post events about once a year.

With apps like Amikumu and HelloTalk in the fray, it seems that we can create these opportunities. Sometimes we as individual language learners are held back. We don’t need to be scared. The world needs us. Now more than ever!

Have YOU ever learned Irish or any other Celtic Languages? How did it go? Let us know in the comments!