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!

ga

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

Is it a Waste of Time for Americans to Learn Foreign Languages in 2018?

Way too often have I encountered this idea that, for native English speakers, especially from North America, time spent with languages could best be done doing “other things that are more important”.

(But given that a lot of American youth I’ve really lived with, with noteworthy exceptions, did spend a lot of time on English-language TV and YouTube more than pretty much anything else outside of the workplace, I’m extremely skeptical when it people making such claims, certainly in this country. Fun fact about me and video games: whenever I play them, I have educational podcasts or language-learning materials playing in the background!)

Indeed, I think if a lot of people from English-speaking countries would be fully aware of the realities and histories of other places in the world, they would be in a state of permanent shock.

With each new language I study the more I realize (1) how awful human beings truly can be and (2) how imperialism and colonialism are almost COMPLETELY responsible for virtually every single conflict present in the world. What’s more, this imperialism and colonialism is consistently rooted in shallow greed.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language on the surface without getting to the core elements of the culture(s) attached to that language, but to TRULY be good at any given language you need to understand many elements of local history and cultural mindsets.

For international languages, picking one country to anchor that cultural knowledge will usually suffice (it will also make your accent better so that it doesn’t sound like a mixture and your knowledge of colloquialisms can be deeper and more believable).

With that cultural knowledge comes a willingness to discover the human experience beyond your immediate surroundings.

Now let’s get back to the original question: is learning languages, for Americans, a waste of time in 2018?

Let’s get this over with:

No.

Here’s why not.

The first reason is that, given how FEW Anglophones truly want or even try to learn languages in detail, you will consistently be given fantastic treatment from native speakers.

Granted, some languages are more susceptible for getting you special treatment than others (In the United States, speaking high-school or even college Spanish isn’t going to have the same effect on your Venezuelan bartender as speaking even basic Hungarian with your new acquaintance who speaks it as a first language. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now Spanish in a place like Southeast Asia is an entirely different manner!)

But regardless if you want to learn Spanish or Hungarian or Fijian or Mandarin or anything else, there’s one thing you’re doing that is ESSENTIAL in maintaining the United States’ general health right now:

You’re bringing down barriers built by a system that wants to keep people permanently confused and embattled.

Donald Trump peddled fearful rhetoric about Mexicans and Chinese during his campaign and more recently rhetoric of a similar nature towards Haitians and residents of Sub-Saharan Africa.

His rhetoric was appealing to a large portion of the electorate because of a system that we as American language learners have the power to fix!

When I speak languages or even relate some of my cultural knowledge or even, heaven forbid, ask questions, I get people to open up.

My Taiwanese-American friend who is also Jewish told me that in his entirely life (he’s 30 at the moment) he never heard anyone ask meaningful questions about his identity until he met me. An acquaintance from West Bengal told me that I was “amazing”, “knowledgeable” an “brilliant” because I…knew that Assamese was a language (“You’re probably one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!!!”)

People from small countries the world over are told by liberals and conservatives alike that their culture aren’t important and that they and the languages associated with them don’t mean much to the world (or that they’re not “economically useful”).

When I speak languages like Finnish or Icelandic with these people, it has an almost therapeutic effect, as if to say “your place and your identity have value to me”.

More people giving up their culture in favor of becoming more Americanized only benefits the same system that has created income inequality more great than human history has ever seen.

Even if there might have been someone who wanted to use English with me instead, even the fact that I TRIED to use their language may have caused them to rethink the idea that becoming more like a powerful culture is the road to success or happiness.

Now imagine that every American learned languages of many sorts. Let’s say every American learned at least a little bit of a series of languages the way that Professor Alexander Arguelles recommended (e.g. a language close to your own, a language far away from your own, a personal language of your heritage, a personal language relevant to the history of your passport country or countries and/or your area, etc. For me, those could be Swedish, Greenlandic, Yiddish and Irish)

Not everyone has a time commitment to become readily fluent in five languages or so, but perhaps a few phrases in five languages would be something easily manageable by anyone. Even ONE PHRASE in five different languages. (I know I get impressed by, let’s say, Polish people rehearsing the five Finnish phrases they know on me)

In that world, Americans see the world as a collection of cultures and a collection of peoples.

In contrast to this there stand the idea that the world is, first and foremost, about money and monetizeable skills, that the world is to be exploited and that the winners of that wealth are to be celebrated, that places on the planet that don’t provide money are as good as dead. (“Who the hell cares about Nauru?” says someone who isn’t aware of the fact that that attitude may have lead to an entire country being reduced to poverty and ruin and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees from powerful countries.)

An activist friend told me that thanks to Manifest Destiny and other factors set in place earlier in American history, the country has had “shallow values” for centuries, namely the philosophy of “more, more, more!” and of entitlement (much like the idea that all of the land from California to the Atlantic coast is OURS and deserves to be OURS).

There are other elements of American culture that I believe to be noble. The open-mindedness I see among young Americans is unparalleled by the youth in other places. The curiosity of these same young people is also unmatched. Americans living in cities are globalized story-collectors that are the envy of the world and rightly so.

Well, you may say, you’ve made a case that learning languages even to a simple degree and learning about cultures is certainly NOT a waste of time for Americans and may actually end up SAVING THE WORLD, but what about learning a language to fluency?

And here comes something:

The better you learn a language as an outsider, the more readily you gain someone’s trust.

Even if they do speak English fluently, they use that language to communicate with outsiders. They CAN’T go on outsider mode with you, in using their L1 they have NO CHOICE but to address you in the same dimension that their cultural insiders are in. Granted, there are some light exceptions to this (e.g. some languages may have modes in which locals speak to foreigners or foreign-looking individuals, I believe Japanese and many East Asian Languages are guilty of this, not also to mention Fijian and Samoan having different modes of speaking depending on whether or not you’re an outsider). But even if someone is engaging with me, in any degree, in their native tongue, this means that I am the guest with special treatment.

It’s like getting premium access to an entire culture. And with it come invitations, free drinks, people asking you questions and wanting to do business with you, and even romance.

On top of that, you may encourage another person to become a polyglot (or even a hyperpolyglot) as well. If not that, then maybe someone like Ari in Beijing who devoted himself to near-native fluency in one language, one that (because near-native fluency as an L2 is so unbelievably rare) provided with him celebrity treatment in Chinese subcultures EVERYWHERE.

But most importantly, our system of destruction in the name of profit depends on making us teams of humans fighting against each other, distracting us with infighting while they commit unspeakable acts of destroying the planet.

The infighting starts to disappear, to however small a degree, when you decide to learn the language or languages of your dreams.

come back when you can put up a fight

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

How to Do Polyglot Karaoke, Even If There are Only English-Language Songs in the Catalogue

I’ve performed Karaoke songs in a total of thirteen languages to date, not only have I done languages like German and Swedish but also Breton and Greenlandic. In an era in which English-language songs seem to be taking over everywhere, how do I do it?

This piece has been requested for a long time no one has ever written a piece on this before, so I’m going to relate my procedure as best I can.

For one, let me detail the variety of karaoke events I’ve been to thus far in my life:

  • The ones that take place in a bar with many people that sign up and take turns. (In some Chinese ones, you also pay one dollar per song).
  • The room that you rent with your friends, and
  • The living room variety in which you and your friends scramble for what you can find on YouTube or other video services.

For (3), the process in singing songs in other languages can be fairly straightforward. Find songs in your target language that you know happen to exist in Karaoke versions and just sing away (given that I’ve never heard a Breton-language cover song, this is how I got that language on the list).

For (1) and (2), as I already mentioned, you’ll usually need to rely on foreign-language covers of English songs, although you may be lucky and find songs in western European and East Asian Languages in your catalogue (e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). This is particularly common in establishments in international cities owned by people from Latin America or East Asia.

If you are in another country, you will usually expect to find hit songs not only in that country’s language(s) but also in the languages of nearby countries. (One example that is hardly surprising is that Swedish songs can be found in many Finnish karaoke establishments. I have a vague memory of Polish ones having some German- and Russian-language songs as well, and had I been more astute at the time I might have noticed ones from other Slavic-speaking countries as well, such as Czechia or Ukraine.)

You can use your smartphone in order to have the lyrics on reference, or otherwise you can memorize them beforehand if you’re feeling committed.

So, where do I find foreign-language cover songs?

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

Ah, yes, these have been covered in a vast host of languages, almost all Asian and European (although The Lion King was dubbed in Zulu and Moana / Vaiana was dubbed in Tahitian with a Maori dub on the way). What’s more, these covers are due to the official localization efforts of the Disney Corporation.

You can find many of the lyrics for these versions available online, and even if you can’t find them on lyric websites, you could find them in videos (in which the localized language in subtitled) and then you can type them out and post them online or just e-mail them to yourself.

These are usually by go-to songs in multilingual karaoke, although there are some things to know about:

 

  • Some songs require very fast-paced singing or chanting (“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, “You’re Welcome” from Moana / Vaiana). Unless you’re okay with messing up in front of other people, rehearse these beforehand. Obviously the better you know the language the more readily you’ll be able to use it quickly.
  • Some languages are “latecomers” to the Disney localization game (the Baltic languages [Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian] as well as Vietnamese come to mind). Interestingly many of the Nordic dubs (and some from former communist countries such as Hungary) were actually done in the 1990’s. Interestingly while the voice of Bianca the The Rescuers was a native Hungarian speaker (Eva Gabor), she could not actually voice the character in the Hungarian localization because she was deceased by the time it was in production. Some of the localization collections cover the whole collection of Disney films (even Icelandic, oddly enough) others start from a certain point (I think the Baltic Languages were from 2010 onwards).

 

  • YouTube / iTunes Store Fiddling Can Actually Turn Up Some Interesting Song Covers Across Many Languages

 

Yesterday I purchased a Burmese music album (10 USD for 101 songs, that is NOT a typo!). Across that album (entitled “Greatest Hits”), I encountered past Eurovision Songs, Britney Spears, “You Raise Me Up”, and ABBA…in BURMESE.

I’ve come across a number of very surprising covers, including Chris Brown in Tok Pisin, “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a host of languages, and “You Raise Me Up” in GREENLANDIC:

 

 

There’s seldom a chance that typing in “covers in (INSERT LANGUAGE HERE)” is actually going to turn up meaningful results. You’ll just have to play around with recommended videos, playlists and what-have-you until something interesting comes to you. When I bought that Burmese album, did you think I was getting a bunch of cover songs? Well, it was in the iTunes store, but I don’t have the time to listen to 101 song previews and I hadn’t purchased any new music since early July.

This is one way that the fact that English songs are “taking over the world” can be used to your advantage: you can find fan-covers and fan-translations of a lot of these online. Sometimes you may encounter “singable translations” via lyricstranslate.com or even find them in YouTube Comments(!) And this time, you have many, MANY more languages represented.

Also, one thing I should mention is that a lot of English-language pop songs are commonly translated with singable versions into Irish, which probably has among the richest collection of cover songs out of any market out there (except for maybe Myanmar or other East Asian countries that, as of the time of writing, I don’t know a lot about).

 

 

A lot of these Irish songs also come with full lyrics and English-language translations of these Irish-versions.

 

Other Comments

 

You’re probably wondering, “won’t people think I’m a weirdo for doing this?”

Well, let me tell you, in the United States, I’ve got NOTHING but positive reactions from doing this (from the audience, at least). Some organizers have had mixed reactions but nothing wholly negative (one encouraged me to “sing in Klingon next time”)

I’ve even got some prospective students and friendships out of it, not also to the mention the time I was stopped by a stranger in a bar saying that he saw me sing the Lion King in Icelandic…five months ago! (I do an awful job at being forgettable…)

And, of course, if you’re together with your polyglot friends, you’re with people who think like you, so what more is there to want?

Also, people are not going to be judgmental about your accent, even if you encounter native speakers of the language (happened once when I sung a Polish song), you’ll actually get more enthusiasm from THEM than from anyone else out there.

One of my big life lessons from a few years ago was that “different always does better in the store”. In the store of life, as long as you abide by the social contract, being different and doing it differently will only do you wonders.

Happy singing!

The 5 Languages that Changed My Life the Most

Yes, I know, polyglots don’t play favorites. Or at least that’s what we say we should do. I’ve noticed with great consistency that polyglots get attached to certain sets of languages a lot more than the rest of the group.

For example: I have a greater affinity to Jewish, Nordic, Celtic and Pacific Languages than I do global languages like German, French or Spanish. I have friends that focus on Balkan languages, Central Asian languages, Official Languages of the UN, Germanic Languages, languages of East Asia, and too many other types to list.

Today I’ll write about the five languages (note that I do not say “language learning journeys”) that changed my life the most.

And if I were to write a post about “The five language learning JOURNEYS that changed my life the most”, that would result in something different. The reason? Because the processes you undertake during a journey is very different from the benefits you reap from it. These discuss the benefits.

 

  1. Krio

 

“Jared, I don’t want you to learn this language. It makes you sound like an idiot.”

That’s what someone said to me once about two years ago when I was discussing my parents’ journeys in Sierra Leone and the conversation turned to Krio and how to learn it.

Suffice it to say that I was not of that opinion in the slightest, aware of the fact that my parents needed interpreters at times when they were in up-country Sierra Leone.

Learning Krio truly enabled me to understand African-American culture in ways that I hadn’t before (this may surprise some of you that don’t know it, but the African-American culture in the US, the Afro-Caribbean Culture on the Islands [and places like Belize and Guyana], and the Krio culture of places like Sierra Leone and Liberia are actually linked to each other and have ties of solidarity and cultural mindsets).

Elements from Krio and its relatives from these three areas I mentioned entered American English not only in its informal registers but also its sentence structure. “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” is one such sentence that may have Krio influence, as a speaker of Krio would say  “na ya a deh tok!” And, of course, we haven’t even discussed jazz jive, which exhibits way too many elements from Krio as well as native African languages to list coherently

The proverbs and idioms are also extremely colorful (as they are in all languages in the world and Creole languages especially).

In listening to Salone Krio speakers on YouTube, they find themselves poised between many aspects of their identity that they describe in a heartfelt matter, including the Civil War in recent memory, the hope of the country moving forward, as well as the solidarity ties to their cultural cousins on the other side of the pond (and in the rest of Africa as well).

The people of Sierra Leone seem to carry an extraordinary fortitude that someone like me can’t possibly understand, and my parents also remarked on the collective cultural work ethic and willingness to hang on as something that continues to inspire them to this day!

Krio speakers in the past century or so have been emphatic in making their language a symbol of Sierra Leone as well as a language that wasn’t just seen as “broken” or “mislearned”. You can even access Google Search in Salone Krio as well! (google.sl and press “Krio”)

Also one of my favorite rappers, who lays down a lot of realities and pains of the developing world, Bone na Throat, is very much worth checking out! (He uses Krio and English, not also to mention his performances alongside guest stars from other parts of Africa).

 

  1. Modern Hebrew

 

I knew Ancient Hebrew as a child, and when I saw what happened to it as a result of one Eliezer ben-Yehuda and millions of determined people, I was stunned.

For one, my previous knowledge of English and Russian made it clear how much foreign influence was present in Modern Hebrew, right down to the verb structure.

But despite that, the charm of Hebrew that one can feel from reading the Hebrew Bible in the original is still kept very much intact. The verb system is not only kept in place but expanded upon to as to include words related to SMS and Facebook, among many other things.

(For those unaware: Semitic languages use a system in which a set of consonants form the basis for a verb stem. These letters, known as the root word or “shoresh” in Hebrew, will dance around in various forms that differ in terms of activity / passivity, as well as in verbs-turned-to-nouns. “l’kabel” is to accept, “kabbalah” is something accepted, which is not only the name for the Jewish mystical tradition [accepted from a divine source] but also a receipt you would get in an Israeli store).

Hebrew’s development found parallels in my own life story, in which my mannerisms and even my accent (not to mention my personality) changed as a result of hopping around the world. Jews hopped around the world as well, and Modern Hebrew, with its abundant influent from Slavic languages, English, French and many others, shows it, all while retaining its primeval charm.

 

  1. Greenlandic

 

A language with HUNDREDS of suffixes!  The hardest language I have attempted to date! And, then as well as now, my overall favorite language of them all!

Greenlandic, above all, was different. No other language I have studied (with the obvious exception of the closely-related Inuktitut) has worked in a similar manner.

It confounded me to no end. I had dreams of becoming fluent but no matter what, it seemed that understanding the radio or a lot of songs was always out of reach. And my writing abilities were in the trash (and sometimes they still are).

However, I decided that I was going to do SOMETHING. And the decision to do something , however small, with consistency—it edged me closer and closer to gaining a vocabulary that will probably serve me well during my trip to Greenland in October 2017.

What’s more, the culture I gained insight into actually inspired me to make my first video game, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”. That’s not nothing!

I’d say more about it, but there’s only so much I can spoil for a product I haven’t released yet, right?

 

  1. Tok Pisin

 

Up until I studied Tok Pisin, the languages I had studied in my life had been tongues of the developed world. Tok Pisin changed all that, and in encountering it I felt that I had encountered a time capsule.

The world that was captured in the cultures of PNG felt stuck between the present and whatever our ancestors were before many forms of technology made (and continue to make) our genuinely human side closed off to us.

Tok Pisin taught me how to be a human again, how to think in a language that was minimalistic yet expressive, and also gave me access to a culture that knows all too well that we are poised on a precipice in which either our desire for profit or our humanity will win (the time is not too far off in which we cannot have both!)

It also showed me that, even if I never intend to visit “the country”, I can feel a great resonance with “the culture” from a distance, sometimes even stronger than for countries that I had actually visited once!

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

 

Irish

Ah yes, a language more commonly used by non-fluent speakers than by native speakers…or that’s how it seemed to me when I first encountered the way Irish is used on the internet.

Given how many non-natives were using it enthusiastically online and in speech, the many usages of the Irish language, from those who speak a handful of sentences to full-on TV shows and YouTube series, has captivated me. The Irish-Language sphere on the internet is one of enthusiasm and acceptance, one that many other language learning communities, endangered or not, should take note to emulate.

 

Trinidadian English Creole

 

My first language with no standardized writing system, it truly made me think about code switching more deeply than in any other language. Trinis will often shift between standard English and Trini Creole very quickly, and listening to informal radio programs with a substandard knowledge of the latter requires you to be on your toes.

What’s more, this was a language I chose in part because I live in Crown Heights (and I’m writing this article from there). I learned this language enough to have conversations in it, and suddenly my neighborhood came to life in a way I didn’t even think possible (although my knowledge of other Caribbean Creoles, such as Vincentian, Grenadian, or Jamaican, remain weak as of the time of writing).

 

Finnish

 

The language everyone tried to tell me was impossible. Finnish made me think about how distinct formal and informal language can be. The various “grammar games” that are played in Finnish’s more informal registers made it easy for me to switch from the colloquial variety to a formal one. A useful skill to have if you ever want to learn, let’s say, East Asian languages in great depth.

Finnish music can be heart-wrenching, but also some of the edgiest music I’ve ever heard, one that truly causes me to embrace my darkness and fuel it into my missions of peacemaking and bridge-building. The great pride that many Finnish speakers take in their culture and language is also something that profoundly affected me, and it made me realize that all cultures and languages have it—they just sometimes need more coaxing to get it out and fully expressed.

 

AND #1…

 

YIDDISH

 

I bet none of you is surprised at all right now, right?

Yiddish was the first language I became fluent in as an adult, and for the rest of my life it seems that I will be of the opinion that it is an excellent choice for the first language I definitively mastered. (That said, I’m still learning new things about it and at times, if I’m rusty on practice, I’ll slip up, but given that I do that in English too…I’m okay with that, I guess…)

Yiddish showed me that a language could be a community.

Yiddish showed me that a language could echo a culture in ways that reading from a guidebook or even holy texts just couldn’t.

Yiddish showed me that a language can serve for a depository of cultural memories, as “Yiddish-Taytsch” wandered off further East, picking up words along the way from Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and many others. The people groups you encounter rub off on you (as an individual AND as a nation), and that became clear with the story of Yiddish.

What’s more, the enthusiasm of the Yiddishist community all throughout the world is, I have to say it, unmatched.

The songs and stories of the Old Country are coming back to life, even among non-Hasidic Jews.

Certainly there may be some light tension (or sometimes not-so-light tension) between the secular and religious Yiddish speakers, but hey, when it comes down to it, we’re all “Klal Yisroel” in a sense (even if you happen to be a gentile Yiddish speaker, I would say! The time wasn’t long ago in which even non-Jewish Yiddish speakers were honorary Jews, as well as non-Yiddish speaking Jews as an oddity)

Yiddish showed me what the true prize of fluency in a language is, and even when I wasn’t fluency, I was still getting plenty of prizes. Yiddish made me a better Jew and a better human being through its proverbs, songs and, above all, the community and friends that I’ve acquired through this fascinating tongue that will probably not only remain with me throughout my life, but  I hope to raise my children speaking it one day! (Of course they’ll have other languages, too!)

2015-07-06 11.22.31

What languages have changed your life and how? Let me know!

How to Use the Pokémon Animated Cartoon Series to Learn Languages!

pokemon piste fee

Screenshot from the Finnish-Language Pokémon Website.

Few cartoon series have been localized as widely as the journeys of Ash Ketchum and his many friends. In addition to the usual advantages of using TV series to learn languages (patterns and repetition are essential in creating a space for your target language in your brain), the Pokémon Anime also endows a number of unique quirks that are definitely worth mentioning.

If you came here to find a listicle, you’re absolutely right!

 

  • The Cartoons are Available for Free Online 

On The Pokémon Company’s official website, as of the time of writing, you can access the site in the following languages: English, Spanish (EU), French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese (Brazil), Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish. (There is also the Japanese site as well but I can’t really access the site map aside from a Pokémon Go download link as of the time of writing).

You can use the versions of the site in order to access (from anywhere in the world, mind you) not only various episodes of the anime but also various flash games that are completely localized in all of these languages. There are other features on the site as well, and obviously in the bigger languages the site is more complete (with a Pokédex available in some of these languages).

Furthermore, the content and layout of the anime episodes will vary depending on language and sometimes they “rotate”, so when you access the site on different days or weeks you’ll get different episodes.

To access the website in these languages, just type in “pokemon.com/XX”, where XX is one of the letter codes: ES (Spanish), BR (Portuguese), DE (German), FR (French), IT (Italian), RU (Russian), NL (Dutch), SE (Swedish), NO (Norwegian), DK (Danish) and FI (Finnish). Pokemon.com takes you to the English version of the site.

Once you’re on the site, click on the TV icon and have fun! (Or you can fiddle around and browse all the while).

If you are not learning one of those languages, you can also access, via YouTube or other sites, the anime in the following languages (and probably many more, depending on where in the world you are): Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Latin Spanish, Portuguese (EU), Czech and Romanian. (If I missed any, let me know in the comments. I know that the anime is sometimes localized into languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese, but I can’t find any depositories of them online, although sometimes the Pokémon movies are available in all of the languages listed on this page with more ease. Sometimes these movies will be available on the websites).

 

  • The Speed of the Dialogue is Perfect for a Beginner-to-Intermediate Learner

 

This was oddly consistent throughout a lot of the localizations of the anime, as well as the English Dub.

What’s also very odd about the speed is that speaking at the speed that many of the characters do in the Pokémon anime is actually completely natural for a native speaker.

While learning Hebrew, Russian and Spanish in high school and college, one extraordinary hurdle I had was that I was addressed in low-speed “Learnerese” a lot of the time. Then thrown into the real world of these languages, I really didn’t know how to speak like anything natural. The same was true with most of the teachers that addressed me as well (although there were noteworthy exceptions).

One thing I really liked about the Pokémon TV show in various languages was that it presented the perfect speed for a learner that was anywhere between beginner and intermediate. It wasn’t too slow, but it also was just the right speed that was suitable for a conversation.

Granted, there are some more challenging parts, primarily the Team Rocket Motto (which is probably the most difficult portion for learners to understand), but above all most of the dialogue should be at a manageable speed for you.

And even if you don’t understand it, the Pokémon anime can still be helpful for a learner because…

 

  • The Pokémon Anime is Rich is Visual Context Clues

 

When Team Rocket talks about their plans to capture Pikachu, often you’ll notice that a significant amount of illustrations and animated visuals accompany their plan. You can actually use this in order to make out what is happening even if you really don’t have a clue what’s being said.

Keep in mind, kids learn their first languages with the aids of cartoons like these, and these visual cues help them…and that means they can also help you!

Another example in which visual cues are also used is when Ash and his friends encounter a landscape or a cityscape or a colony of Pokemon (among many other things). You’ll also notice that every member of Ash’s party often remarks on what is being said. Pay attention to these short phrases. They’ll be extremely useful throughout your language learning journey.

Also, during battles, note that some key words are also repeated at key actions, as well as various words and styles used depending on what emotions the characters are feeling. Anime is very rich in expressing people’s emotions across many different lines, so that should also help.

Speaking of battles…

 

  • In Some Localizations and Seasons, the names of Pokémon and their Techniques will be in English. Use this for accent training.

 

In Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and German, the Pokémon’s names will be localized. In all other languages they will use the English versions of the Pokémon names, and in the Nordic dubs in the later seasons the techniques will also be recited in English (although the names of the Pokémon types are NEVER localized).

You can use this to your advantage if you really want to train your accent in these languages if you pay attention to the quirks in how these English names and words are pronounced by the voice actors.

If you’re a native English speaker, pay attention to pronunciations that may sound strange to you. Even in the Nordic dubs I’ve caught a handful of complicated Latinate technique names being butchered, although examples escape me.

Interestingly, in comparison to casual speech in many of these languages, the dubs are significantly low on English loan words (the way that German or Dutch in particular tend to use them very often). You may be able to snag one once in a while, even in languages like Portuguese and Russian in which Anglicisms are rarer than in languages like Norwegian.

 

  • The Pokemon Anime Provides a Plethora of Stimuli that Can Serve as Memory Techniques

 

If you hear a phrase or a word you need to remember, you’re going to forget it easily unless you find something to “connect” it with. It could be a funny incident involving the word, it could be a story involving the word, or you could associate it with your environment or feelings at the time.

(This is why learning the language in an immersive environment is so helpful.)

The Anime provides memorable characters in the Pokémon themselves, as well as a host of settings and music tracks that you can connect to the phrases you’re taking in.

And we haven’t even touched on the possibility that you can also connect various words and phrases to plot points in the story. Not also to mention you can do what kids do: re-watch your favorite episodes endlessly (again, this is how kids learn their first language!)

 

  • Various Portions have No Dialogue at all (or Dialogue in Pokémon Speech). Use This Time to Reflect on What Words You’ve Heard and How to Internalize Them.

 

One thing that can be frustrating about watching Pokémon in a language you’re learning is that sometimes the action shifts to having the cute monsters hop around the screen or just looking at landscapes or, true to anime fashion, just having characters look at each other with menacing stares (in addition to many other down-time situations that I haven’t touched on!)

Use this time in order to develop memory techniques to fully internalize any words you’ve learned earlier on in the episode.

Also, if you’re having trouble picking up words, feel free to type something that sounds like it into Google Translate or another dictionary thing. It will usually correct you, especially if it is a phonetic language. Otherwise, if you don’t have a translator, you can use context clues. This is especially helpful if you’ve seen the episode before in a language you understand better.

 

Conclusion

 

One of the most successful animated cartoon shows in history can be used as a learning tool with surprising efficiency, given its ability to weave words with storylines and illustrations. The episodes themselves are perfect for a learner seeking to make his or her way out of the “language learner material ghetto” (as All Japanese All the Time refers to it as).

I should mention that I don’t have a lot of experience using this show with East Asian Languages given that my East Asian Languages that I’m working on ever-so-slightly (Burmese and Lao) don’t have localizations (as far as I know).

So if you’ve had experience doing that, let me know what I missed out on! Part of me thinks it may not all be that different!

 

Happy Watching!