When Do You Know You’re Good Enough in a Language to List in On Your (CV / Profile / Etc.?)

Perhaps one of the more straightforward ways is “testing procedures”. But what if your target language doesn’t have that? What then?

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Let’s say you’re learning a language from the developing world for which there is no test. When do you know that you can list (Fijian / Dzongkha / Tuvaluan / Tok Pisin) on the list of languages you speak?

There are a number of milestones you must pass on the way to conversational fluency (being able to have bar conversations in your target language) and then, should you so desire, to professional fluency (being able to perform your job[s] in your target language).

  • Learning the most essential verbs (to want, to have, to be)
  • Learning how verbs work (this is going to be harder to learn in some languages than others. Spanish verbs may take you a month, Lao verbs will take you five minutes at most.)
  • Learning how gender works, if any.
  • Learning how politeness tiers work, if any.
  • Learning how adjectives work (do they go before or after the noun they modify?)
  • Learning the “pronoun zoo” (This can be very straightforward in some languages. In some languages like Tok Pisin and Fijian, you’ll have to deal with ungodly large amounts of pronouns [the two of us but not you, me and you, the large group of us but not you, etc. In other languages, especially in East Asia, this is noted via pronouns you’d use with your partner but not with your boss. Sometimes as a foreigner in Asian countries you will be expected to use only a narrow set of pronouns. Still, recognizing many of them can be useful).
  • How prepositions / postpositions work.
  • The case system, if any (in Finno-Ugric languages, for example, this overlaps with the previous point).
  • Any miscellaneous grammatical features that enhance understanding significantly (such as Finnish or English having “multiple infinitives”. To give an example in English “I want to eat dinner” vs. “I don’t feel like eating dinner”.)

 

Once you pass all of these “checkpoints”, your primary goal, then, is to fill in the vocabulary that is missing. It will mostly be nouns, adjectives and verbs, but sometimes more complicated prepositions can also be involved.

 

There is no singular way to acquire vocabulary but there are some very FUN ways I can recommend:

 

  • Television and videos (subtitles can be used if you’re disciplined enough, otherwise many YouTube videos can explain words through “context”, not also to mention in the comments and description).
  • Joke pages (remember that our friends at uTalk said that the best way to learn is to make things funny!)
  • Writing exercises
  • Apps (e.g. Memrise, Clozemaster, uTalk, Mango Languages, ‘n friends.)

 

Okay, now back to the question at hand, WHEN do you know you are good enough?

The same way that I described milestones above, you’ll have to pass a number of milestones that genuinely “prove” your worth. Think of these as “boss fights”, in a sense.

Some boss fights would include things like:

 

  • Understanding a 15-minute video or audio in your target language and understanding anywhere from 90%-100%.
  • Having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker in which you get genuinely complimented or EVEN if you get mistaken for a native speaker.
  • Conducting your job entirely in your language for a substantial period of time (15+ minutes, again, is a good benchmark).

 

So when do I put a language on my list? If I can do tasks like these CONSISTENTLY. Usually if I have done any of these tasks ten or more times than I can put the language on my “fluent” list.

And the reverse is true: if I fail to accomplish doing that in a row several times, it is no longer on my fluent list.

You can also modify this list to include writing and reading as well.

 

  • Having a chat conversation for 5+ minutes in the language. (You tend to do more quickly with writing so I modified the time from 15 minutes to 5.)
  • Reading several articles in a row in which you don’t need to reference a dictionary (or barely need to).

 

A final note: there are those who will glorify testing procedures above all and say that fluency is binary (either that it exists or that it doesn’t exist). It is very possible to pass a fluency test and then forget absolutely EVERYTHING (I’ve met several people who have done so, actually). They are worth something and they are an accomplishment, but if you definitely show signs of fluency and belonging the likes of which I’ve shown above, and ESPECIALLY if you’ve been getting extremely positive signs from native speakers of your target language, don’t worry about having a test result or not having a test result.

Strictly speaking in terms of paper qualifications, I speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Danish and Swedish (to the exclusion of my other fluent languages). Sure, I know these well (although my contemporary Hebrew showed signs of decay at the tail end of 2018 but I’ll get it back in order soon), but that doesn’t show the whole picture of how I live my life. And neither should you be discouraged by narrow slips of paper. The world has been poisoned enough because of that.

Feel free to let me know what you think!

 

My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

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Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.

 

Compliments on Your Language Skills: Is it a Good Sign or Not?

Probably one of the most CONFUSING things ever written about concerning the finer points of language learning is the question as to whether or not getting complimented on your language skills is a good thing or not.

Those who might not know anything about it would say “well, of course it’s a good thing!” However, several Facebook pages have had blog posts that indicate otherwise. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to my opinion in a moment, and it isn’t a simple one!)

The logic that says “truly good language learners don’t get complimented on their language skills” goes like this: native speakers don’t get complimented on THEIR skills, and so to get compliments from native speakers indicates that something is WRONG.

The truth is, I’ve been complimented on how well I speak English, even by native speakers. By that extension, that means that something is off (according to this line of logic).

However, there are many sides to the compliment factor, including the following which play important roles:

 

  • How commonly spoken is the language by foreigners? (This is especially true for what is the world’s most commonly studied L2 – English. If you’re learning that, don’t expect compliments unless you’re doing a REALLY good job).

 

  • How commonly is the language spoken by foreigners who look like you? (Being a white person such as myself can also work for me in learning a language from, let’s say, East Asia, but it can also work against me if I’m a beginner, as many people in Myanmar expected me to know English or German but Burmese? Not so much).

 

  • How well do you speak it? (The compliment is going to mean something completely different if you began learning the language a few weeks ago vs. if you’ve had several years of experience with it and consider yourself conversationally or professionally fluent. Having someone telling me I speak good Swedish at a party [which I’ve been learning since 2012 and fluent since late 2014 or so] is going to be different than the Burmese taxi driver telling me I speak good Burmese when I can say “I want to get off here” when I began learning a few months ago.) Also tied into this issue is how your sentences flow. Some beginners or even intermediate learners can sound like robots at times (I’ve been guilty of this myself) but if you sound believably like a radio announcer your compliment is more likely to be a good sign.

 

Compliments serve TWO purposes in a sense. For one, even if you don’t really speak it well, native speakers can tell you this in order to “egg you on” into studying further. (Believe me, native speakers KNOW this, especially with polyglot culture becoming bigger and bigger with each year, and sometimes meeting more and more resistance with each year, too). Another one is to let you know that you’re doing a good job AND that you should keep it up.

Emotionally intelligent people are aware of the fact that people do things that give them good feelings and avoid things that give them bad feelings. To get anyone to continue anything, make them feel good about it. To try to get someone from desist, make someone feel bad about it (again, this ties into the topic of online bullying and language learning that I wrote about in depth last month).

Now, is getting complimented a BAD sign?

In all honesty, no.

It’s just a sign that you have been making some variety of progress and you should keep going. And that the L1 speaker you are speaking to wants to get that across.

It’s also NOT TRUE that native-like speakers never get complimented. Because they do (heck, as I said above, I get told very often that I speak English very well and it’s my mother tongue).

Also remember that your goal is NOT to be mistaken as a native (although it is a good thing when it happens, it has happened to me on too many occasions to count), but rather to communicate and thereby show respect to someone’s culture and origin.

I know that there’s a myth going around saying that getting compliments means that your language skills are lacking, but usually it doesn’t mean that. Those who say it intend for it to be encouragement and you should take it as such. And they intend for you to let you know how FAR you’ve gone rather than how far you have left to go, even if you have only a few words.

Life is too short and too precious for discouragement! Keep on winning!

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Reflections on March 2018: Fijian, Lao and Starting Fiji Hindi – How Did I Do?

2018 is nearly a quarter-done and I could barely believe it given that it seemed as though only a few hours ago I was welcoming in the year by jumping off a chair, Danish-style.

After the pure euphoria that was the 2017 Polyglot Conference (and my presentation at it), I expected to rake in victory after victory this year, but so far I don’t think that it has happened. For one, I developed a partnership to develop “Nuuk Adventures” as soon as their new game comes out and it was postponed from January to April. I found myself losing a lot of motivation, burning out and just “wanting to take a break”—from game making, from language learning, pretty much everything, to be honest. I continue to feel detached and suspicious.

This month I had two challenges, one for Fijian and another for Lao. Fijian, no big surprise, made the largest share of gains. I feel that I could navigate my way around the countryside in Fiji without using English now. In a few days begins April, and then my focus will shift to Fiji Hindi with most of my efforts with Fijian focused on education and the Memrise course I’m working on.

With Fijian, every single one of my weak points has been significantly dealt with, in part because of a YouTube series that I made that you can watch here. I figured that if I were having trouble with some things, other learners of Fijian would as well:

The grammar I have practically mastered, thanks in part to the 30-Day Speaking Challenge when I successfully completed (I’ll post it during April).

I’ve noticed my pronunciation is better but I certainly don’t sound like a native speaker at all.

Lao was interesting. I devoted 30 minutes a day to it (much like I did Fijian, and often this resulted in later nights and earlier mornings). This included the following activities:

  • Actively listening to my YouTube Series:

 

 

  • Actively reading out loud phrases from my Lonely Planet Phrasebook (this time I got the Lao exclusive one and it has been going by very well, although some aspects of the proverbs mentioned in the blurbs still confuse me).

 

  • Listening to Lao music while walking on the street. (Look for “Lao Contemporary Music” in YouTube if you’re an absolute beginner, by the way!)

 

  • Teaching some phrases to my friends (especially people from East Asian countries such as China or South Korea that want to know why on earth Lao is my strongest East Asian Language—yes, now even stronger than Burmese, which I haven’t been putting effort into).

 

Am I fluent? No. Am I making progress? Yes, but I sidelined it because for April I’m focusing almost exclusively on Fiji Hindi as well as Fijian.

 

Already Fiji Hindi is opening doors for me, given that it is sometimes mutually exclusive with Hindi and Urdu. The differences between these languages also make for good conversation points. Sometimes I’ve been told that I “speak like a white guy” but above all most people with whom I have used it have been appreciative.

 

In addition to that I’ve now been learning about Indo-Fijian history, which makes me appreciate the overall Fijian story in a new light.

 

So goals for April:

 

  • 30 minutes a day on Fijian, focusing more on making my personal Memrise course.
  • 30 minutes a day on Fiji Hindi, focusing on the 30-Day Speaking Challenge and writing to my friends who speak standard Hindi.

 

I’m also ALWAYS open to the idea of finding more iTaukei (Indigenous Fijian) and Indo-Fijian music. So if you know anything you’d recommend, let me know!

April makes the third month of my 3-Month Fijian Challenge. I intend to make it a great one!

vosa vakaviti

Think Human Translators Will Be Replaced By Machines? Not So Fast!

In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:

Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)

My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.

Iso an Jekob

I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?

I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.

But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.

I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)

If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.

Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.

Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).

And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!

When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.

 

  • Gendered Speech

In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.

What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).

Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?

On that topic, there’s also an issue with…

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!

A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).

If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.

A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.

Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.

If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).

In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.

In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.

What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)

Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.

The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!

 

  • A Good Deal of Languages Haven’t Been Touched with Machine Translation At All

 

And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)

 

And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).

 

For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.

In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)

Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?

 

Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.

 

 

ga

30-Day Speaking Challenge, or The Gift of Lao

Just the right thing I needed in order to drill the “ONE LANGUAGE AT A TIME” thing home: came across a link to a 30-Day Speaking Challenge in a Facebook group and decided to get in on the action before the new month of November came in.

You can read more about the challenge here: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/

For those of you who probably don’t want to click on the link, I’ll share the concept here: film / record yourself speaking a bit of your target language for thirty days in a row, publish the results in a group and get feedback / encouragement / what have you.

Now interestingly the language that I chose was Lao and there’s a strategic importance behind it:

  • It’s small enough for me to be passionate about it, but also is close enough to Thai to the degree that maybe a speaker of it could help me even if he or she hasn’t made much exposure to Lao. From what I know: they seem to differ in their pronoun usage as well as in some key words, not also to mention the fact that they use different (although similar) writing systems. What’s more, Lao tends to include pronouns in sentences and speech more often than Thai does (which can omit the pronoun the same way that Burmese or Japanese ordinarily would do. In layman’s terms: in Burmese I would say “have food” in order to indicate “[I] have food”, “there is food”, “we have food”, etc. That’s not passable in English [except in VERY casual speech] and in that respect Lao resembles English in which the pronouns are commonly used.
  • It’s tonal and if there is ANY language I would strongly need a community for, it would be a tonal language.
  • I correctly predicted that most people doing the challenge would be doing European Languages, wanted to get “other continents in on the action”.
  • I’ve had more exposure to my other tonal language, Burmese, as well as significant practice using it. That said, I may consider doing Burmese in a future 30-day speaking challenge.
  • I’m not an absolute beginner in Lao (A1 at the moment)

 

I just submitted my second recording to the spreadsheet and may consider publicizing the 30-day result depending on how much I like it. Hey, it seems that I’m 1/15th of the way done!

Here’s how I predict the challenge will affect me:

 

  • It will make me take my construction of the “Temple to Lao” more seriously.

 

When I was interviewed by Ari in Beijing in April, I mentioned the fact that the most important thing for learning a language is the fact that you need to build a “temple” to your target language within your time routines.

 

The only real way I’ve been doing that so far is with my YouTube channel. Sure, reading Lao dialogues out loud with some funny commentary and messing up the tones can be entertaining, but there’s so much more I could be doing.

 

I could become as immersed in Lao culture the same way I was with Greenlandic or Yiddish. I could truly feel as though understanding this poor and “forgotten” country is something I shouldn’t back away from.

 

My peers in the group have been very supportive of me thus far, and I’m thankful for that.

 

  • I Will Learn to Have More Mercy on Myself

 

I don’t speak languages from East Asia very well (although Burmese is by far my strongest out of…two…). I should expect to make mistakes and realize that I’m not getting any Lao trophies or getting to watch any Free Lao YouTube movies without any subtitles without a lot of work. And that work is going to involve discipline, learning how to make sounds I’m not used to, and, very importantly, on the importance of tones.

I hold myself to extremely high standards. A lot of people in the group are uploading recordings upwards of three minutes on the first day. Most of them are learning European Languages and are native speakers of European Languages so they have an advantage that I just don’t have. It’ll take me longer for me to make progress in Lao than it will for an English speaker to make progress with French.

And that’s okay.

And sometimes I worry that I mess up the tones entirely and completely.

And that’s okay too. For now!

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Explore Lao Culture and Identity as a Hobby as a Result of This Challenge. That will Enforce my Desire to Learn It More.

 

Already within these two days I’ve begun  to see it happen. I’m monumentally increasing my exposure to Lao and commitment to learning more about it, even if it involves reading books and travel blogs in English.

 

I’m beginning to see more of what the world looks like through Laotian eyes. And with each new culture I feel more human, more fulfilled and more righteous.

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Focus On One Task

 

I have a bunch of languages to improve, but I think that if I give the lion’s share of my focus to one task, I’ll be able to gain confidence more quickly and that will carry over to my other languages, both ones that I speak fluently and ones that I don’t speak as well.

Come to think of it, I’m feeling a lot better focusing more on improving just my Lao rather than improving Lao alongside Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and Tajik. I can maintain those on the side (or what I know of it), but I think that this focus is helping me fall in love.

And it seems that this is the beginning of something lovely!

LAO

7 of my Favorite Foreign-Language Gaming Channels

 

As the Polyglot Conference looms ever-nearer, and my trip to Greenland even nearer than that (one month from today, actually!), it occurs to me that I had to thin my outline in order to make room for what is likely to be many, MANY questions from the audience

To that end, one thing I’d really like to write about is what sort of channels devoted to playing various games (and beyond) have provided me with significant entertainment.

Keep in mind that (1) these are based on the sample size of languages that I have had deep experience with (2) as a general rule, these tend to come from the developed world and (3) any channel that I am subscribed to is, in my opinion, 100% created by winners!

I’m not rating these based on how much these channels have helped me learn languages, I just want to express that (otherwise I would have to rate them completely differently under that metric).

You can for a list, and here it is!

 

  1. Streview (Israel)

Primarily focused on reviewing video games in Hebrew, this channel also serves to highly Israeli gaming culture as a whole (something that, for obvious reasons like being stuck in class during a lot of the day, I never got to experience in detail).

What’s more, Streview also shows a colloquial Hebrew that they don’t teach you in the Ulpan, one with enough English words to make your Hebrew school teachers cringe.

If you’re anywhere in the Gimel/Dalet level in the Ulpan or above (B1/B2), I highly recommend you get to experience this channel:

 

  1. Sami Hartikainen (Finland)

 

While Sami does tend to do some series on major commercial games, like Sonic Mania and Super Mario Maker, Sami also brings a significant amount of unpredictable Indie Games into the mix which makes his channel super-fun for me to turn to time and again.

His videos really helped me hone my Finnish-language accent as well as get regular exposure to the language’s more casual registers in a way that other sources, even TV and music, weren’t really doing.

Sami’s voice is also very theatrical as well but not overdramatic:

 

  1. TheGerald39 (Poland)

For some odd reason his voice sounds like that of a radio announcer coupled with that of a storyteller. Also, one thing you can use “Let’s Play” ‘s for is simultaneous translations (e.g. because a lot of games are localized in the world in English, especially outside of select Western European countries or the Americas or East Asia, a lot of people ad-lib translate all dialogue into their native language. It actually really helps to train you to think in your target language and it is supremely helpful).

The Gerald literally does this better than ANYONE I’ve ever seen, in ANY language. Even if you don’t speak a word of Polish or any other Slavic language, have yourself a listen:

 

  1. Lasse Vestegaard (Denmark)

Great production values, a great voice and a fantastic array of games and other side-video projects make this channel one of my favorites for Danish practice whenever I need it.

What’s more, the fact that he uses a lot of browser games in his Let’s Play videos is very refreshing (and I’ve discovered A LOT of very interesting programs because of him!)

Here’s an extremely interesting video in which Lasse tries his hand at an Airport Control Tower simulation. Does he have what it takes to become an air traffic controller in real life? Have a watch!

 

  1. Matboksen – Tommy & Marthe (Norway)

This channel has a very homegrown and genuine quality to it that other channels are significantly lacking. The Norwegian used on the channel is suitable for learners of all types and I’ve found many of the videos on this channel helpful for rehearsing my Norwegian regularly when I’m not up to watching heavy-duty TV or reading complicated articles.

What’s more, Tommy and Marthe tend to ad-lib translate the dialogues from the many games they play (esp. from the Zelda series) with just the right amount of personality.

Surprisingly I remember their ad-libbed Norwegian voice-overs more vividly than any actual dialogue from the games themselves!

  1. Domtendo (Germany)

The owner of a voice you never truly forget, Domtendo has proven to be such a success in the German-speaking world that he also expanded to narrating video game news. As you could guess, his channel does focus a lot more on Nintendo games and virtually every game I’ve seen him play has been localized into German as well.

My prediction is that Domtendo will hit 1 million subscribers in 2018, and for good reason: a lot of genuine reflection coupled with moments of “rage” and usage of the German language in its colloquial form as genuinely as it comes. Extremely helpful to many learners of German and highly recommended:

(Watch the final scene of this video for something extremely Schadenfreude-worthy):

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Mustachtic (Sweden)

I don’t really know what makes this channel so interesting for me at all, to be honest. I just know that I really like it.

 

Yn Chwarae (Welsh)

Donkey Kong Country in Welsh. Because why not.

 

Senkou Jimmy (Hungary)

 

The most smile-causing voice acting I’ve ever seen in Let’s Play videos, period.

 

 

And now the #1 slot goes to…

 

  1. ZetaSSJ (Chile)

 

While not particularly helpful from a language-learning standpoint, ZetaSSJ’s channel is my overall favorite gaming channel as of the time of writing.

He does focus a lot on Super Mario Maker, but he’s probably the best player of any Mario game I have EVER seen. And watching him play through levels on Super Expert (which, for those unaware, are collections of levels that have been failed nearly 99% of the time) provides more tension than the scariest horror films.

He also includes a lot of pop-culture phenomena in his videos, including editing soundbites from well-known internet memes onto the gameplay videos (Including the Titanic recorder piece and “Surprise, Motherfucker!” with significant regularity).

Watch this now. Even if you know absolutely nothing about Mario at all, or don’t speak Spanish or a related language, you won’t regret it in the slightest: