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

ajunngila

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.

 

Jared Gimbel: The Story You Never Knew

Tomorrow is my birthday (when I’ll be writing something else).

As my 20’s come to a close tomorrow, I will forever remember this decade of my life as the one that transformed me to a confused follower into an internationally-minded, confident explorer.

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Around age 24 I started to invest seriously in my studies of Jewish and Nordic Languages, thereby setting up the primary basis of my income (until my video games start coming out!)

Around age 25, weeks before my 26th birthday, I discovered Tok Pisin for the first time, one of the most transformative experiences of my life that left me with a soft spot towards the developing world and I am in awe of how efficient and poetic Tok Pisin is on every level. It serves as a testament to human endurance, that even when being enslaved and bereft of dignity, humans will hold onto culture, humor and the resilience that defines us all. Other Creole languages I studied since then from the Atlantic and the Pacific had very much the same features.

At age 29, I was told that my parents were floating the idea of travelling to Fiji. Within the following days, I went to Barnes and Noble and got myself the Lonely Planet Fijian textbook and began memorizing phrases IMMEDIATELY.

There is a lot of victory that I had over the course of the language journeys of my 20’s, but there are also the stories and sides that had deep defeat as well.

Sometimes I made silly mistakes in classes on the most basic level, sometimes even concerning things I said about the English language.

Within every one of my language successes I had dozens of times in which I encountered discouragement from native speakers or “beat myself up” because of my high standards.

While my videos were gaining traction in Palau and Kiribati I also had to deal with an angry Subreddit and woke up one morning to an entire webpage dedicated to insulting me. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened.

When abroad I worried that I would never “get good” at the target language and sometimes called up my family on the verge of tears. I also sometimes was made to feel like a stupid American or, even worse, that my religious upbringing in my teenage years left me with a permanent handicap in how I understood the world. (As a girl I dated once told me, “you know a lot about books, but you do not know life”.)

I also had to realize in my later 20’s that there would be a lot of dreams I needed to let go of. I couldn’t seriously become native-like fluent in a language I didn’t really care about (and unlike most people, the “languages that I didn’t really love” were actually the global giants of Western Europe. My heart has been with “the little guys” for quite a while now. )

In all likelihood, barring romance with a Spanish-speaker or business or tourism, my Danish will always be better than my Spanish, no matter what. But I’m okay with that because hearing Danish spoken on the streets of New York City (or anywhere else) always makes me happy. I remember one time when I was returning from a Bar Mitzvah in Washington D.C. I get off the bus and Penn Station and I hear a teenage boy on the street saying, “ja, det er jeg meget sikker på” (Yup, I’m really sure of that”) into a  smartphone. I smiled and knew I was in New York again.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to be someone else and I still remember a teacher in the Paideia Institute telling me that “life is too short and too precious to be wasted on something that you don’t care about” (that was Barbara Spectre, in case anyone who was also in the program is reading this).

In college and in high school I was deeply religious and looking back I think it was largely not because I myself wanted it but because I myself was afraid of divine punishment. In 2013 I made the decision to walk away from religion, bit by bit, and there were a lot of woodland walks where I was worried that some force was going to punish me if I made the decision to turn on the computer on Saturday. Shortly I realize that my fear was preventing me from having the life that I wanted and that I had actually thrown away many years and opportunities on account of being someone I didn’t really want to be.

I became ultra-competitive deep down inside. Hardened by my experiences in higher education, I had learned to become ruthlessly perfectionist to the degree that several friends told me that “no human being can [feasibly] live like that”.

I figured that in any field, whether that is in business, romance, success in getting clicks on your blog posts, etc…that you had to be as GOOD as you possibly can in a world of infinite choice, otherwise you would be thoughtlessly tossed aside in favor of someone better. Perhaps the first time I really experienced something like this was with the college application process, but it was deeply toxic because only years later did I realize that we live in a culture of fear in which our deepest insecurities are made omnipresent so that we can be sold stuff more easily.

Throughout my entire life, even as a toddler, I had known that I was very different. At age 3, I was perusing atlases and wondering about what life was like in areas far away from the DC area. At age 29, here I am in a room in Brooklyn and to my left is a bookcase with language learning books from every continent (except Antarctica). Then as well as now, I somehow felt as though my interest in places and things far away from me would be a cause for stigma.

One time I even had someone at Mundo Lingo tell me that learning Kiribati was not a wise investment because “they’re going to be underwater soon”. I was calm with him but deep down inside you can imagine how furious I really was at this display of heartlessness.

With each growing year I see that there is an ongoing struggle for control of the world, between ordinary people who want to save it and those who treasure short-term profit above humanity and don’t care if the world goes to pieces because of it. Too many people have told me that my work with languages of Oceania / the Arctic is essential to the assist in the struggle of the former.

With each language of the developing world I learn, I see man’s inhumanity to man even more pronounced with each page. But despite that, I also see that the human tapestry is something to admire in all of its glory, despite the fact that I’ll never get to experience the whole thing no matter HOW hard I study.

To some degree it shook me to my core. I saw exactly how rigged the system seems to be in favor of the world-destroyers and doubted my ability to change anything.

But I’ll end on this note.

April 2013. I’m in Woodbridge, Connecticut, my parents’ hometown (for Passover). I go to the library one day and I go to the travel section and I find a book on “Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands” in the language section. I discover the Greenlandic Language for the first time and I fall in love. I obsess about it and the very thought of me seeing another Greenlandic word makes me giddy.

I go to the library the day afterwards and I take a digital camera with me. I photograph all of the language section (it was about five pages or so) and then I go home and I make flashcards out of it on Memrise (it was the first-ever Greenlandic course on Memrise. Now there seem to be about a hundred more from all languages!)

Despite the fact that I was not good and it (and still don’t think I am) I wrote blogposts about my experience, consumed Greenlandic TV and music and told many of my friends about it.

In 2018 I’ve noticed that, at least online, there is a lot more recognition of all things Greenland. Especially in the language-learning communities. Back when Memrise had hundreds of course categories available on the app version (before relegating them only to the Desktop version), they had a Greenlandic category…one that was added because of something that I myself did. Thousands of learners have at least sampled the language from the looks of it. And it seems that Greenland-o-mania will grow even more with my release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” later next year (despite the fact that it got delayed MULTIPLE years on account of difficult circumstances in my life).

Perhaps I had a part in bringing about this “revolution”. I will not know for certain, but back when I made the Palauan video series I actually encountered several commenters saying that they were inspired to teach Palauan to their significant others because of my videos.

That’s. Not. Nothing.

Tomorrow is my birthday and I’m going to go get some gifts. I’ll say this: Clozemaster Pro in its custom sentence packs is going to be HARD to beat!

See you at age 30!

An Enlightening Conversation with Richard Howeson, Founder of Britain’s Biggest Language Learning Company

In October 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Richard Howeson, the founder of uTalk. Since I discovered it over the summer (and became a subscriber less than a month later), uTalk has been a godsend for every area of my language life.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 17

For one, it has enhanced my pronunciation greatly, as well as teaching phrases that are useful in conversation and focusing on getting you to SPEAK above all else. The various professionalized skills are also extremely useful, such as ones related to the Olympics, Golf and even rescue missions (!)

Before I present the conversation to you (well…what I edited down to something easy to read), I should also add that Richard, in addition to having brought uTalk into existence and won royal awards several times (as to be discussed below), also keeps himself both physically agile with an impressive variety of sports and mentally agile with uTalk. I’ve heard that he is someone who enjoys cycling, bike polo, sailing and windsurfing.

The languages I am learning with uTalk right now are primarily Greenlandic (on Monday and Thursday) as well as Hungarian (on Tuesday and Friday) and Vietnamese (on Sunday and Wednesday). That said, I’ve also hopped around with various other languages in uTalk, most notably in Southeast Asia (Lao, Khmer and Burmese) and in Oceania (Samoan, but also reviewing Fijian and Tok Pisin to see how the app approaches those topics). Then, of course, there is Tumbuka, which I have a year-long-challenge to complete every skill starting in September. (I should also add that the Basque and Galician courses look MIGHTY tempting for me, but I seem to be spreading myself too thin as is. Luckily my work keeps me focused with a good amount of languages that I HAVE to keep fluent!)

tumbuka

Already I’ve noticed a before / after effect when it came to uTalk in places like Mundo Lingo. The recording games not only improve my accent and make me a LOT less self-conscious but also serve to fasten all phrases into my memory. If you have ten minutes to use an app to prepare you with a conversation with a native speaker as an ABSOLUTE beginner, uTalk is your best choice. If you need to rehearse your tones, uTalk is your best choice as well. Also unlike many other apps there is a certain focus on subtle dialectical differences (as is present with how the male and female voices have subtle differences in both the Fijian and in the Burmese courses). Each voice actor is positively unforgettable. (And if I had to pick favorites of what I’ve savored so far, I would pick the Greenlandic male voice, the Burmese female voice, the Fijian male voice and the Tumbuka female voice, with my probably overall favorite being the Samoan male voice.[I have an ultra-weakness to Samoan voices in general]).

Anyhow, let’s show you some very interesting conversational pieces. Be prepared: there are recipes for having your memory be almost perfect in the exchanges below. Your life will never be the same!

ajunngila

 

Conversation Between Richard Howeson and Jared Gimbel

 October 23, 2018

 

Jared Gimbel: All right, so I think this should be working very, very well! I hope things are going fantastic with you. I was literally doing uTalk a matter of seconds ago. I can even tell you what language and what skill! And I am very pleased to be here with you! Okay, so, yeah, I had my morning regimen of uTalk with the Greenlandic illness skill in the recording game, so in any case…a pleasure to meet the legend and long last! I really have to say that there have been so many gaps in my language learning that uTalk has covered up extremely effectively. I recommend it to all of my students, bar none, ever since I have discovered it. And I’d really like to thank you and the rest of your team for really having made this a reality for so many dreamers!

Richard Howeson: Jared that’s fantastic to hear that.  So yeah. It’s amazing. I’ve been hearing that you’ve quite a few languages under your belt!

J: Keyn ayn hore, as you say in Yiddish. Without the power of the evil eye, in a sense. It can be quite fun in bars sometimes, as we shall say. In any case, he did tell me that you were investigating some new projects concerning using language learning as a means to really help with health and memory going into old age. Is that correct and do you want to provide any information or insight on what you’ve experienced?

R: First off all, we’ve heard from people how it has helped them. We’ve been working also with a charity that helps people with dementia. Basically helping by providing them language learning materials and carries them to do it. I think that there is a huge amount of research that says that if you keep your brain active then, it’s just like your body. If you do a lot of exercises, it can work beautifully. But if you sit there, it stops working. And you brain is very, very similar.

J: Yes.

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R: So the key thing is to keep it active. And learning a language seems to be one thing that really, really does help. And that is the interesting thing, because you are fluent in several languages, which I am not. I want to get by in languages if I have to, and I come from a background where I find that my skill is that I’ve…I know what it is like for people who find it really difficult to learn languages.

J: Hmmm…

R: Because I am initially…concerned as one of those. I struggled in school.

J: I did too, actually!

R: Oh good! (Laughs) Glad to hear that! I’m a convert. I was talking to a guy who taught me at school, he is quite old now but…and he said that of all the people he taught, and he had a very long list, it is quite a lot of students, and he said that if there was someone at the top who was the least likely person to have anything to do with languages, it would have been me.

J: Indeed.

R: But here we are. I have actually learned a lot about languages, I have learned a lot OF language, but fluency is a different story. That comes from, and think you’d probably say this too, a lot of your fluency comes by living in places.

J: That is correct as well, but on the other hand, I think in some respects it has something to do with friendship and circles as well. Also hobbyists, especially online. And I think that especially concerning Yiddish and Tok Pisin, I think that really being surrounded by other people who are very curious, in these cases about Yiddishland (that is to say, the literature and the songs) or Papua New Guinea and the rainbow, the bird of paradise as it were, there is a reason it is their national symbol, that really makes up the most linguistically diverse country on earth…that fact is that I really encourage a lot of my friends to realize that you can pretty much gain any skill if you actually surround yourself with an environment which is conducive to that or friends who also have it as well. And in New York City, it is very easy to be surrounded by hyperpolyglots or literally by anything else! And so as a result, I’ve encountered several people who said, “oh yes, I have encountered five-language conversations between multiple people on an almost weekly basis!” And so I actually know very much, given the various negative programming that really exists in language learning, the fact that in many countries some people believe that it is not possible for certain varieties of people or impossible beyond a certain age…I really know how it feels to actually feel hopeless and then to gain hope again. And so one thing that I do with my students is that I turn the hope back on. And that is something that I believe is extremely essential and I believe that uTalk is very much doing that. I did prepare a number of questions. And so I think the first question is how did you get involved with making uTalk and what makes uTalk stand out? How does your personal story echo in the uTalk story? You did provide some details as to your somewhat “back from the brink” story, but I’m curious to hear… how does your personal story interweave with your award-winning creation?

R: Yeah. If I go back to when I first started, as I told you before, languages were difficult in school. I was having anything to do with languages. But it started with a charged conversation with a then co-director at another company, where he was discussing how annoying it was that the French spoke French when we had meetings with them in France, and we thought that it was rude of them, and then we realized, actually WE were really rude with not learning THEIR language. And then we thought, “well, that’s our teacher’s fault. We weren’t really taught very well” And then we thought “that’s the really lazy learners”. And then we thought “actually, we are in the right area in technology to make something that could really work!” And the fact that language learning IS difficult without the right resources, there’s no doubt about it…

J: Yes.

R: And when I say it is difficult…the right resource is the easiest resource…the resource is to go live there. But if you haven’t got something like the ability to do that, then what else do you do? I should say that “books don’t work very well because they don’t make any noise”

J: Yes.

R: And the language comes from…

J: Fantastically put!

R: This is the bit that has got to do the job at most times. So we came up with the plan for making a language-learning product. We looked at everybody else’s methods, we did a lot of research on it. And one of the things that became clear is that all of them disagreed with each other on the right ways to learn a language. That means that it was up to us to come up with something else. And certainly over the years, there is no one product I would say that can teach anybody a language.

J: Agreed.

R: And if you’re trying to do that, you’re in very deep doubt. That’s where we came to. uTalk came from…we had a product that wanted to make people to be able to get by, to start off with, and we were doing lots of in fact to learn how to make a business disk. And I was on a trip to Hungary to see a new client, we already made some language learning products by then. I was waiting to be met there at the airport, and our plane got in early. There was no one in the airport, it was pre mobile-phones and all that sort of thing. I wanted to go to the loo. And there were two doors there and they had ladies and gents written on them.

J: “Női” and “férfi”?

R: I didn’t know which was which. And I waited for twenty minutes before someone went and. And to my worries I couldn’t quite work out the sex of the person who had gone in. So it was a bit strange. So then I realized if I were on a business trip, I wanted a business disk with “invoice” and “fax”. I wanted something that would get me by in any country. So the idea came that what we need to do is teach people the language they need to get started. And the second thing we realized is that actually, there are, you know, when you go to school you tend to learn one language, but what you should be learning is the skill to learn any language.

J: Very true.

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R: The reality is, you could end up anywhere in the world. So that was the idea that we came up with, to make a disk without too much in it, not to frighten people away, but to get going.

J: Indeed.

R: That disk ended up with fifty words, then we came up with 1500, and we slimmed it down to about 250 and we decided to do it in all the languages of the European Union. So we’ve got to do Russian as well, you’ve got to Japanese, you’ve got to do Chinese. So we ended up with 20-30 languages, and we made this disk, and this is sort of how it started. This was with a small corpus, not as much as uTalk, but that gave us the … with that disk, we ended up adding on these languages. People loved it, it went really, really well. And as a result of it, we were asked to apply for a Queen’s Award for Innovation. And after that, we had to fill in quite a complicated form, and this will answer your second question, actually “what makes uTalk stand out?” And one of the things on the form it said, “who’s your competition?” and you’re not allowed to put “none”…and I put “none”! And we were very honored by Her Majesty, the Queen of England to get an award for a grant towards innovation, because basically what we were doing, nobody else had done before! And this thing, I think you’ve learned Danish before, along with Greenlandic?

J: (In a Danish voice) Ja!

R: Well, at that time, there was no such thing as a Danish-Greek dictionary.

J: Yup!

R: It didn’t exist. So if you wanted to learn Danish from Greek, you had to go buy English or another language. And so we were actually the first people to do this crossover of languages! Because as you know, you can learn every language from your own language. We are now up to 20,000 combinations.

J: (Gasps) Very well done.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 25

R: So what sets us aside is that fact, it’s that… we love languages. We can’t resist if someone asks for one. Hence, Pidgin or that Yiddish will be coming along in a new uTalk course! I should say one other thing. TalkNow, it was brilliant, but people came back and said “we want more!” So we spent ten years making TalkNow, adding languages all the time, we got up to 150 languages, we put it out as an app on the IOS App store and it was going great guns. And then the complaint we got, this was the first time we really got good feedback for something on the app store, people were saying, “we need more! We love it, but we want more languages!” So we went back to the drawing board, spent a year and a half going through what the corpus should be. And as you’ve seen…you quite like uTalk! What we wanted to do is that people would have the vocabulary. Because that … in order to speak a language, you need more, than anything else, to have the words.

J: Yes

R: If you HAVE to get the grammar wrong, that is not the end of the world. I have looked at four year old bilingual children. They speak beautifully. And all of their grammar is perfect. And they’ve never had a grammar lesson.

J: Also I think some kids manage to say some things like “I goed to the store” as well. Even in that respect, they would no doubt be considered fluent. But in any case, I think it was Steve Kaufmann that really said “fluency, not perfection”. That said, I think very essential verbs should obviously be perfected as a matter of course. But the fact is that if you’re really expecting to know every single idiom all of the time…Lord knows, Australians, British people, people from all the British Commonwealth countries, and certainly India have showed me my native language in ways that I didn’t think it was possible to misunderstand.

R: Good! That’s the thing! It works! Someone once asked me “what do you do?” and I said “we help people make friends all over the world.”

J: That’s fantastically put!

R: Yeah! We sold 30 million CD-ROMS, but we’re gonna go way above that!

J: Indeed. Very well.

R: From friends like yourself as well!

J: Indeed. And I’m always really glad to put you into contact with any speakers of rare languages that I may know in New York. Or elsewhere, for that matter!

R: On uTalk, we haven’t got Yiddish yet. So we’ve been catching up!

J: Good!

R: So TalkNow is up at 160 I think, and uTalk is now 142, but there are some in uTalk that aren’t in TalkNow, and so we’ve got about 20 we want to catch up with. Yiddish is in TalkNow but it is not in uTalk.

J: I think the same with Tibetan as well if I recall correctly?

R: Tibetan…Tibetan is seconds away! It is ready for someone to press the button. There is always some last-minute reason! But Tibetan is out any second! Although we do…we are worried that we have had nasty comments from China before about it.

J: Indeed. But on the other hand, throughout the world over, I think most people are willing to be bridge-builders. This is really one thing I’ve really seen all throughout the world between…I’ve seen very deep friendships between cultures that are “supposed to be enemies” and surprisingly I think most people really want to make friends, want to live happy lives, and are actually quite glad to actually explore things. And certainly, there might be the occasional nasty comment, but I think most people in China and in the rest of the world are explorers and kind people at heart. And this is true anywhere. Okay, so another question! How have you found the language learning process change for you throughout the various stages of your lives? How about learning processes in general, such as learning how to play sports, learning new skills or I think…I saw one of your pictures that was in India. It looked like the Hungarian flag at first but then I saw the Devanagari script on the sign!

R: Was I on a bicycle?

J: Yes, it was a bicycle. Yes.

R: One of the things in terms of people able to learn a language. Your brain is a muscle like the other parts of your body. You’ve got to allow it to be relaxed in order to learn. The other thing that is really, really important in learning a language is that…I did some research, I read about how the brain learns before I started the company. What you need is dopamine coming up through the middle of your brain.

J: Aha!

R: And If you want to suppress dopamine, then take any of the anti-depressant type, valium and things like that, that will stop you from learning anything, and that surpresses dopamine. On the other hand, all the scientists were looking and asked “how can you make people have more dopamine?” And the answer is a very, very simple one, and there’s not much any drug company or scientist can do about it. It is to make you laugh. When you laugh, you produce tons of it. It is how human beings functions really well. You remember the good times! Your synapses are growing when you laugh!

J: That’s fantastic! I think I should be recommending all of my students to check out joke pages in their target languages. And come to think of it, I think that that’s probably…the reading exercises through which I’ve had the most vocabulary retention. And the fact that stupid jokes exist in every single culture. My personal favorites are the Yiddish Hershel Ostropoler stories, he is a trickster-character in many respects who really outwits very rich people who are used to getting their way all of the time, despite the fact that he himself has nothing. And, of course, within Scandinavia, we have the Swedes telling stupid jokes about the Norwegians, and in the other direction as well. And that I also found extremely amusing in many respects. Because they take them from one another and use the jokes in both directions!

R: Oh yeah! Like the Irish! We do it with the Irish!

J: Oh, like with the English, Scots, and Irish jokes?

R: Yeah, that! Anyway, the ejective of how we design a product is to make it fun.

J: Yes. And you’ve done that.

R: And you probably know, it is about scoring points. Scoring the points means you learn the language. It is not saying “you’ve got to learn this NOW!”, that just doesn’t work.

J: Yup.

R: So the whole thing is based on fun. Right from the beginning, you learn that. And you’ve probably noticed, some people complain about it, but the most challenging game is the hard memory game?

J: YES!

R: Do you utilize that or not?

J: I really have to confess to doing this but…on the Desktop version, I use the snipping tool to capture the…

R: My daughter does that as well! But that doesn’t matter! What will happen is that you’ve feel pleased with yourself when you got them all right! And THAT is actually what makes you remember it!

J: Indeed. And then what happens sometimes on the train, sometimes the train is significantly loud and I lose valuable seconds on account of that because I don’t hear something. But that’s MTA’s problem, not uTalk’s!

R: It is worth saying that the background to that is when we first did that game. We did it in Russian and we didn’t know any Russian…as beginners. What we found was that it was very difficult. We were going to scrap it. And then we thought “just try it, we’ll record it in English quickly, play it in English just to see! It is obviously impossible, this game!” And we find that in English it was very easy. We decided to keep the game. It is perfect! Here’s what it does…the target is to think in the language you’re learning. If you can think in the language you’re learning, you can get full marks! That is what it does!

J: You’re very right about that, actually!

R: That’s what you want! You don’t want to be half-learning words, you want them as if they come off the tip of the tongue, as though they are in your own language! That’s the goal! And that’s why uTalk works so well. There are a lot of language learning products where you half-learn things, and half-learn a lot! Then you can get a dictionary and say “I’ll read the dictionary” and then you won’t remember anything.

J: Yes.

R: And if you do any of our exercises, you’ll learn a number of words. If you go through the games and score top marks, including in the recording and recall sessions, then you’ll know that you won’t forget them!

J: Indeed. It is interesting because I find that even within a handful of days, my accent goes VERY VERY HIGH and already I think I have vocabulary that is actually at the forefront that I associate with the picture. And with the perfect voices that I really think are really suitable for every single one of the exercises!

R: All the actors come to London. It is special. The whole idea is that the company has a lot of fun.

J: A lot of the voice acting is snarky at times. I found that with the Fijian course and with the Lao one as well. And sometimes it can show residue of an almost fake anger to the degree that it can actually be humorous.

R: That’s exactly what it is meant to be!

J: Fantastic points! Another thing. One of the biggest battles I’ve seen from my students is challenging limiting beliefs. How does that struggle morph with age and how does it become easier or harder?

R: Right. That’s an interesting one. When you talk to people, and they’ll try to do a language learning product and they buy one and say “it didn’t work”, what you’ll find is “I’ve never used it” (for the most part). The most important thing is getting them to use it. I challenge ANYONE using ANY of our games not to learn the words. They should try and get full marks. At any age! You’re absolutely right! To a certain extent it can be self-imposed as well. There is loads of research that shows that children up to the age of five accumulate language at an incredibly fast rate. They remember words SO AMAZINGLY! And at the age of five, what happens? It suddenly stops and goes off a cliff. The reasons, I think, is what happens at the age of five…they go to school. Suddenly, language becomes regimented. It no longer becomes fun. And the key thing is to keep it being fun. What happens when we get older is that sadly people tend to treat things more seriously. If you do that, it isn’t going to work. And I look at you! You love learning! All you need to do is change your attitude! At uTalk, we say “do this, have fun” and away you go! That’s the key! The next thing is to say “when do you do it?” This is another one of the things that uTalk is strong on, I think. People say “I haven’t got time”. But if you look at your day, for old people, that’s one reason they actually do very well. Because they have time after they retire! No rush! Nothing more to do! They can spend time learning a language! But when you’re young, and this is particular to your age group after you’ve left school in your 20’s and 30’s, and then you ask them what they’re doing, “I spent an hour in a commute in one direction, in the other direction, nine hours in a plane going to New York…” With this app, you can get on with it anywhere!

J: Yes

R: Five minutes, ten minutes a half hour, an hour and…it works! A key feature of uTalk is that it carries on working even if you don’t have the Internet! It will sync up again later! It doesn’t mind! If you like doing it on your computer at home, or …

J: In the Subway, where the lack of Internet counts for a lot!

R: No Internet down there!

J: I remember during my last trip I was in Milwaukee leading High Holiday services at my grandmother’s synagogue. I am currently in my Brooklyn apartment. I think I got three skills of Greenlandic done in just simply one hour alone. And also I think the speaking game can be done in well under a minute. Either that or my memory is crazy good.

Trip_Planning

R: The speaking game has a little purpose to it by the way! Most people are terrified of speaking! What they find is that they can score all of the points without speaking or it one of those with voice recognition which…doesn’t recognize your voice or gets upset with background noise and you can’t use it anywhere. So we came up with the recall games we have. But we wanted to do is get people comfortable with recording your own voice. So 50 really easy point to get there. The easiest points you’ve got! We want to get people to do it! They are pleased with themselves afterwards and they think, “I CAN speak the language! It works! I am happy with it!”. When they come to the recall game, they know they can do it.

J: Also for tonal languages, it is a godsend. I noticed that Lao doesn’t actually have the tones in the transliteration and I think one possible reason for that is that in Vientiane and in Luang Prabang they actually have different tone sets? Slight differences! I haven’t looked at the Thai one. Or the Burmese. Or Mandarin. Or Vietnamese for that matter. (No longer true as of the time of transcription. I have done the Burmese and Vietnamese courses since). Gee. I’m way too obsessed, am I not? But I have seen in the Mandarin snapshots that they did include the tones. Through sheer imitation, I got over my fear of getting tones wrong, especially since I think that some perfectionists may be a little bit afraid to say a single tone wrong. Especially how …I think a friend of mine said that, in Thai, there is a tone difference between “I like to ride horses” and “I like dog shit”.

R: This is something that happened to me at school. Probably what put me off language.

J: Tell me.

R: The first thing I was taught was the danger of getting it wrong.

J: Oh! I tell my students to embrace their mistakes. This is one thing I have to deprogram my students from.

R: If you make mistakes, this will make people laugh, which is great. When someone says something wrong in a language, we have an automatic sense which corrects it. Half of the time we don’t hear it.

J: GOOD POINTS!

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson on easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 2

R: Don’t worry, no one is going to mind. Obviously a sense of humor helps. I was made to feel frightened of getting my accent wrong in French or saying the wrong thing. Just have a go! British people staying in the US for a few weeks take on an American accent.

J: Even when I was in Fiji I noticed that there was English spoken in the business sphere and Fijian between a lot of the locals. Most of the signs in Fiji are in English throughout the country, but the conversations on the street are in Fijian, with the exception of Indo-Fijians or the students of the University of the South Pacific from which all of the countries of Oceania are represented. As soon as you enter the university, you see a promenade of all of the flags of the Pacific. Very interestingly I noticed that over the course of my time in Fiji my s got very, very thick. Because, as is also demonstrated greatly by your voice actors, the Fijian s is pronounced thickly. Hence “sssssssega” (Fijian g = ng in English) is “not”. I actually….uTalk was helpful as well because I learned to imitate the voice actors. It was like having a private tutor, in a sense.

R: That is what it should be. By the way, one of my friends works an airplane as well. We have a number of interesting projects. We got asked by Emirates if we wanted to do something for language learning. What we’ve added to their in-flight entertainment is uTalk. They can learn about 15-20 words, the most important ones, but by watching videos. Now we are up to fifteen languages and you can learn them from five.

J: Wow.

R: Including from Mandarin and Arabic.

J: I love the representation of Colloquial Arabic varieties and local languages of India. I think that in that respect, you’re without competition!

R: We’re up to five Arabics, I think. We are working with some of the short-call carriers that don’t put anything on the back of the seat. On EasyJet, we’re putting language learning as a part of the wireless system.

J: I saw your photo ops.

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson boards easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 1

R: You can log onto the inflight system and learn any language from any language. We have the range. We are the go-to app for any airline system. No one else can match us! We want to get people to realize what you can do in one flight, and it is a lovely resource…because we all know what happens. You have the intention to learn a language and then you think “I wish I got around to it!” And now you can! Then another motivation can be “I wish I did learn the language” on the return journey. And uTalk is useful for that, too!

J: It seems as though you covered literally all of the main points. One final thought before I have to prepare for an English class: what essential ideas or techniques should the world know about language learning in general? Or words of encouragement?

R: Believe in yourself. Anyone can do it. And don’t believe anyone who told you you can’t. Because you can. Get uTalk. Do the easy game. That’s all. Do the easy game. And then do the next one up, the hard game. And you’ll release how much you’ve learned in a FEW MINUTES. It is not difficult. Start off easy. And don’t worry about grammar or reading or writing! This is about being able to speak to people and making friends! My final comment: even one word in their language can make a HUGE Difference!

J: I remember one time when I was making signs for a protest in the US and there was an American woman who showed up and she lived in Cambodia. She was fluent in Cambodian and I just say “sour sdey” (= hello) and her mouth dropped out of sheer excitement!

R: It feels so special to be able to do that! And tell people not to worry about being fluent!  Just have fun and do it! Presenting people with being fluent is like putting everything on the table at once! Just have one small taste! And then a bit more! Then away it goes! And learn what you want to learn! That’s featured in the app…you choose what you’re interested in!

J: I found that in the Fijian golf Course (no pun intended…sorry, I just had to). The five…the only reason I know the names of the clubs is because of the Wii sports games and I’m not ashamed to admit it. They used the exact same word to refer to all five of the clubs (=nai tavi ni golf)!  Like driver or…

R: They just called it a club, didn’t they?

J: Yes. I think so. On the other hand, I come from a very sports-illiterate family. I sometimes got invited by some of my friends to see the world cup matches and sing the Danish national anthem in the Denmark-Croatia final game and then I watched them get slaughtered in the penalty kicks. Both of my friends were rooting for Croatia, but whatever. And very interestingly, yes, other finer aspects of Judaism I can’t really discuss in any other languages other than Hebrew. Even in English, I have to default to Hebrew to discuss that. In many respects, one thing to note is that “di gantze velt iz a velt mit veltelekh”. The whole world is a world with little worlds, it is true about the world and also with individual languages in general. have been letting other people know how fantastic uTalk is and it has made a huge difference with Greenlandic which I say is the hardest language I’ve ever learned. I fell in love with it back in 2013. I was in Greenland last year and I struggled to put sentences together, but even when I did that I got free drinks galore.

Mother of the Sea and Me

I do not say this lightly: this is one of the most enlightening conversations I have had this year, if not in fact in my entire life, on this topic!

 Greece

You can begin learning one (or more) of over 140 languages RIGHT NOW at www.utalk.com. Dowload the uTalk app at utalk.com/app

 

Five Years of WordPress, 30 Years of Jared Gimbel, One Delicious Reboot

I haven’t written anything in a while, in part because various stressful adventures were making my head spin (relax, no language-learning-related abroad trips!)

Anyhow, after careful consideration it occurs to me that I have to refocus a lot of my efforts.

With my birthday coming up next month and a VERY exciting language-learning interview around the corner (to be posted soon!), I have been pondering my life and it occurs to me that I have to do more with less.

That is to say, I enjoy languages very much. I love the fact that my bookshelf is filled with tools to learn MANY of them, and that I know something about every language represented in my library.

The fact is, I’ve hopped around a lot and “flirted” with a lot of languages, but now I feel that I’d really like to savor an EXTREMELY deep variety of fluency, the likes of which I feel that I’ve gotten with my best languages (the English Creoles, Yiddish, Ancient Hebrew and the “Scandinavian sisters”).

Last month I wrote this in the Olly Richards Group:

 

“As I look to my 30th birthday next month it occurs to me that I’m going to focus a bit more substantially on quality, and that I don’t want or need perfection in every language.

As a result, starting this week, I’ll be devoting each day of the week to one language. Anything else can be maintained at language social events or through music or reading. I’ve studied a LOT of languages in my life but I viewed that as a bit of an extended dating game.

Now I’m “making a family” in a sense. Sunday – Lao, Monday – Swedish, Tuesday – Hungarian, Wednesday – Palauan, Thursday – Greenlandic, Friday – Hiva, Saturday – Yiddish.

Swedish and Yiddish I’m fluent in but I want to be a LOT better (to sound like a professor rather than a YouTuber). Hungarian I’m borderline conversational and the others I speak meagerly. And before you ask, I just can’t fall in love with global languages.

I can manage Spanish and German via my surroundings but I don’t really like them with a deep passion. I’m quite okay if I consolidate my skills with “what I like”.

I also need Norwegian / Finnish / Danish / Hebrew for my job but I use them every week as is so I won’t lose them.

Did you ever develop a routine like this? Or refocus yourself? How did it go? Part of me feels sad to do this but I’m going to try to change things and see if it makes me happier.”

 

Weeks later I made even more “cuts”, with relegating Hiva (the Marquesan Languages), Lao and Palauan to Memrise for the time being, Swedish and Yiddish to my work and conversational “happy hours”, and now my routine goes like this:

 

Sunday and Wednesday – Mystery Language that I’ve studied a bit before (I’ll reveal this in due time)

Monday and Thursday – Greenlandic

Tuesday and Friday – Hungarian

Saturday – Studying whatever I want (it is the Jewish Sabbath, after all)

 

So right now, it seems that my primary focus is going to be on just ten languages, which will be:

Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Finnish, Hungarian, Greenlandic, Fijian and unrevealed mystery language.

On Memrise: Lao, Marquesan and Palauan. (Low stress)

Everything else, I don’t know if it will stay, but I can always turn back to whatever I want.

I’ll still be investing in learning smaller bits of languages on the side on Saturday, and there may be a chance I could still keep them around (e.g. by doing small 30-Day Challenges here and there).

Also concerning my monthly challenges, I’ll be focusing a lot more on ONE language until I feel genuinely good at it, and starting with November (that is, tomorrow) that language will be Greenlandic.

 

I just want to let you know that I can always “spread my focus” the way that I used to, I just need to nourish my happiness and stop getting stressed by something that is supposed to enrich my life, not dominate it.

And besides, the Tumbuka project I haven’t forgotten about. I’ll turn to that again once Black History Month rolls around next year! I haven’t forgotten about my YouTube series either–that will be an entertaining “side project” to break my comfort zone, but right now I don’t think genuine fluency will be coming out of any of those “projects”. But the world is always surprising!

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The Tuvaluan Language: A Beginner’s Perspective

What started as a genuinely-hearted journey to find more about “sinking islands” turned into an entirely new passion. While I am still a beginner in Tuvaluan and have been for the past month, I have been capable of communicating with simple sentences and even quite able to understand a handful of songs!

In honor of Tuvaluan Independence Day, I thought I should answer a few questions:

  • Why Tuvaluan?
  • What should I get to learn it?

First off, a bit about my background. Earlier this year I had a Benny-Lewis style Fijian mission on location in Fiji (which I deemed a modest success). Prior to that my only deep interests in Oceania were with the creoles of Melanesia in addition to some knowledge of Kiribati and Palauan.

You’ve probably noticed that within these is a lot of representation of the Pacific but no Polynesian Languages (except for Tuvaluan) listed thus far (okay, I had a phase with Tongan about a year ago but didn’t get too far with it).

Truth be told, the languages of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia are, together with languages like Malay, Indonesian, various languages of the Philippines and even Malagasy, classed under the “Austronesian Language Family”, or the languages of the isles of the south. Much like the Indo-European Languages can be classed into several families (e.g. Germanic, Celtic, Slavic), so too can the Austronesian Languages. As with human family members, language family members share characteristics amongst themselves and are also affected by “friendships” with other members outside the group. (An example would include Bantu and French loan words in Malagasy as well as English loan words in languages like Fijian or Kiribati).

Now what does this have to do with Tuvalu?

The language has acted a bit like a sponge, in a sense, being influenced by other languages both close to it (such as Samoan due to influence from Christian preachers from Samoan), Kiribati (due to cultural exchange between Tuvaluans and the Gilbertese-speakers) and English (due to being a former British colony. And Tuvalu has a central location:

tuvalu yay

What this has to do with language learning is the fact that Tuvaluan meshes a lot of characteristics in it that make it a befitting “gateway” to any of the other Polynesian Languages. (My understanding is that it would be similar to, let’s say, Slovak among the Slavic Languages—that due to its central location, it is the Slavic Language that represents most of the qualities of the family as a whole).

Tuvalu is a small country of around 11,000 inhabitants and the third smallest by population. You’re probably curious as to why such an investment would be a wise idea to begin with.

The fact is, due to a lot of music production and expatriate communities in New Zealand and elsewhere, not also to mention their “global” outlook within the Pacific, Tuvaluan music and culture has extended well beyond its borders, although on a small scale.

Or IS it so small? I once told a friend of mine (and Facebook) that my knowledge of Tuvaluan had caused me to “understand things like Pokémon Games and Disney Movies on a deeper level”

And the thing is, I wasn’t joking. Pokémon Sun and Moon takes place in Alola (a Hawaii-inspired region) and featured snippets of Hawaiian place names that I could understand via Tuvaluan cognates. Moana also featured Tokelauan songs—which is very close to Tuvaluan.

True to any small language that I’ve learned so far, the Tuvaluan community does offer “insider privileges” and respect to those who learn the language to any degree. In fact, the word for foreigners in Tuvaluan is “fakaalofa” which actually refers to “people who need love” (also a greeting in Niuean, but I digress).

Also a lot of the materials are very clearly written, although rare. For one, this grammar page is extremely thorough: http://www.tuvaluislands.com/lang-tv.htm

In addition to that, Geoffrey and Jenny Jackson’s Tuvaluan Dictionary is available at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. It also features a lot of sample sentences that are actually more useful than meets the eye. The dictionary is extremely good, and if it has one flaw, it is the fact that profanity isn’t covered (it is written by missionaries, so fair enough). But even “You Swear Dot Com” doesn’t even feature Tuvaluan profanity so as of now a definitive guide doesn’t exist anywhere (as far as I know).  I have heard that the Jacksons also wrote a textbook but it wasn’t stocked at the USP bookstore (there are excerpts on it on Google Books and it is VERY good…what I can see of it, that is.)

Glosbe also features cross-translated sentences in Tuvaluan from its translation memory—these are godsends from anyone learning rare languages anywhere.

Lastly, check out and subscribe to the MusicTuvalu channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOvs1-AGk-idOZhScjEu3qQ As well as the Memrise Courses that are incomplete but very well done regardless.

Speaking of which, I’m going to record myself speaking some Tuvaluan right now!

8 Lessons I Learned from My Fijian / Fiji Hindi On-Location Immersion for Two Weeks

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It has been a while!

Here I am, back in the United States after my venture in Fiji was completed about a week or two ago!

Above all, my experience with Fijian was a great success. More often than not I was capable of forming sentences as necessary and expressing my thoughts in Fijian. Sometimes I had trouble understanding things, as well as the fact that I almost had no opportunities to use Fiji Hindi at all (ah well).

That said, I will continue to maintain my Fijian in the future and look forward to the fostering my connection to this wonderful place and the continent of Oceania.

I learned some very important things during my visit. Let me share them with you.

 

  • You have to forgive yourself OFTEN and realize that you’re not supposed to be perfect all the time.

 

Steve Kaufmann’s fantastic mantra of “fluency, not perfection” is very helpful in language immersion of all sorts.

 

Online you can feel as though any usage of any language will be under EXTREME scrutiny, but real life is very different and you should realize that most people in real life are going to (1) want to help you and (2) will not think of you any less for making mistakes (if anything, many would actually think MORE of you).

 

  • Don’t judge yourself too harshly.

 

Sometimes I felt tempted to “beat myself up” because I messed up a word or if I flubbed Fijian’s legendarily mean pronoun system (Fijian has singular, dual, paucal and plural forms, as well as inclusive and exclusive forms for all forms of “we”).

 

I’ve been learning Fijian since January so it makes no sense that I should compare it to languages that I’ve had years of practice for.

 

As long as you use any variety of slip-up as a ladder with which to climb harder, you are doing the right thing.

 

  • Not looking like a “typical native speaker “(e.g. in Asia, Africa or Oceania) may be a disadvantage but it is mostly surmountable.

 

There were some Fijians that were tempted to use only English with me given the fact that I’m white. In some areas of the world there may be widespread beliefs that westerners “cannot learn” the local language.

However, if I put sentences together with consistency and showed a depth of vocabulary that showed commitment, then any variety of reservation that may have been there previously evaporated.

After all, missionaries of all races go to Fiji and learn Fijian, not also to mention the fact that Fiji is the most racially diverse country in Melanesia.

I understand that in Japan there may be some issues involving saving face and honor that may actually hinder possibilities for you to use Japanese while in the country, but I think scenarios like that are not typical on a global scale. If you have had an experience like that, PLEASE share it!

 

  • Your preparation beforehand should be balanced across the skills you’ll be needing.

 

I over-prepared writing and I under-prepared listening comprehension. I somehow thought that more writing would enable me to use more vocabulary more easily. And it did. But sometimes I had trouble understanding sentences of deep complexity. It wasn’t a consistent problem, however.

 

Perhaps what I should have done would be to listen to the Bible in Fijian with a text following along in English or another language I understand. That way I could fully soak in the possibility of me understanding the language very quickly, even if my being Jewish meant that I would hear nothing about Jesus during my whole trip.

 

  • Those who are secure in their English abilities won’t shove their English-as-a-Second-Language on you or make you feel that learning their language is a waste.

 

Unlike in many areas of Europe, in Fiji almost all signs are not in people’s mother tongue. English dominates on signage but Fijian dominates spoken conversations. As a result of English being  an official language of Fiji, many Fijians had very good command of English.

 

But unlike some European nations that had similar English proficiency, Fijians never “imposed” English on me. And if they were to use English, then they would say everything in Fijian as well. Not ONCE did I feel unappreciated or snubbed the way that I had in some other countries, mostly in Europe, for having used their language.

 

The Fijians know English very well and they didn’t need to prove it to themselves or anyone else. As a result, they didn’t take usage of their mother tongue(s) as demeaning or condescending and went OUT OF THEIR WAY to show that every effort to speak their mother tongue was very deeply appreciated (e.g. with compliments or with thoughtfully worded questions).

 

In Suva, which has a feeling of a “capital of the Pacific” present throughout, English dominated even in some conversations between the locals. This was not a dynamic present in the countryside (e.g. in Taveuni or Rakiraki).

 

This goes to my next point…

  • If you’re getting consistently responded to in English in certain situations, there may be a historical backstory you’re missing.

 

I remember one time when I was reading Fluent in 3 Months there was a guest poster who wondered why she was in Brittany (the region in France) and wondering why people would only answer her in English rather than French.

 

Not a SINGLE mention was made of the fact that French government policy saw fit to weaken the Breton language to a shocking degree—a campaign that sadly was largely successful.

 

Given that in the 19th century 90% of Bretons spoke Breton as their mother tongue and the reality that now I have still yet to meet a younger Breton with deep knowledge of it—well, no wonder they won’t use French with you if you have an accent.

 

In some taxis in Suva, I somehow felt as though my knowledge of Fijian was not acknowledged. But then it occurred to me that many of these drivers were likely Indo-Fijians (I was proven right on several occasions in this respect) who may have had significantly better command of English than Fijian and really didn’t see Fijian as “their” language.

 

In Greenland once or twice my choice to use Greenlandic or Danish got met with English in response. This was likely for a similar reason (e.g. a bartender with scant knowledge of Greenlandic).

 

  • Resist the need to destructively over-analyze your word choice, progress or anything else.

 

Do NOT dwell on your errors. Just because you make a mistake doesn’t make you any less of a polyglot. In fact, you’re probably MORE of a polyglot because of your errors, to be honest.

 

  • Native speakers will be forgiving of your mistakes, especially if their language is barely ever learned by visitors or foreigners.

I made some really silly mistakes (e.g. complicated family terms involving siblings had frequent mix-ups. You use a term to refer to siblings that are the same gender as you are, and other terms to refer to your opposite-gendered siblings).

That said, either my native speaker friends or taxi drivers or tour guides would politely correct me and tell me to keep up the good work, or I was understood regardless.

 

I should also say this: the Fijians I met during my travel showed a deep pride in their culture and a desire to share it with other people. They made sure that every effort to know about them and their language was appreciated. Discounting Suva, this was the case virtually without exception.

I think that in Europe there is a growing trend in which people “hate” their native languages and see them as “useless” (in some areas of the Americas as well this is also present).

We need to learn to love who we are and to hold onto the traditions of our ancestors whenever possible. There might be those who use a lot of American words so as to somewhat convey “I wish I were American instead of my actual nationality”, and this is a deep shame in my opinion because we cannot lose our human diversity. It is one thing that makes greed and conformity a lot less possible.

I’ve said it to many people: Fiji left me changed on every level of my being. I look forward to an eventual return.

I’m on a Break in Fiji (August 2018)

Well here I am. A throwaway comment from my parents saying that they were thinking about taking me to Fiji later this year has blossomed until TWO full language learning missions about to reach wondrous heights in the coming two weeks.

vosa vakaviti

I took a break from both Fijian and Fiji Hindi the last few weeks due to burnout, but after having completed and PUBLISHED my Fijian Memrise Course (which involved HOURS of copying the entire glossary to the Lonely Planet Fijian guide, which I finished later today) I feel renewed and determined.
Aside from a conversation with a Samoan on VR Chat that I had once (!) as well as meeting with Australians, New Zealanders, and Hawaiians, I have NOT had any voice-to-voice or even person-to-person conversations with anyone from Oceania, even though I have received support from throughout the continent to continue with my love of Pacific Languages and to continue writing about them.
I have no idea what to expect, except for what the guidebooks tell me. (The Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook says that even using a simple phrase to a Fijian speaker will result in you being told that you speak the language “perfectly”).
I remember this uncertainly before. Last year I went to Greenland for the first time and, while I experienced the country and the language online, I hadn’t met any real-life Greenlanders until minutes before getting on the plane.
I was met with unbelievable support for my Greenlandic studies every step of the journey when I was in Nuuk, from virtually everyone (not also to mention that my very good Danish was also appreciated and used as well). Not ONCE did I hear anything like “why not spend your time doing something more useful?”. If anything, I got free drinks, cemented friendships and as much help as I wanted.
I should expect something similar in Fiji from both the iTaukei and the Indo-Fijians (sadly my Rotuman studies fell by the wayside because of burnout but there may come a day in which I’ll return with Rotuma in mind in particular).
My language missions for the two weeks:
(1) My Hungarian studies have been going SUPER successfully. I can nearly taste low-level fluency by 2019. I’ll be suspending my studies of the language until the trip is over.
(2) Fijian and Fiji Hindi are my first priorities.
(3) I will also be rehearsing other languages of Oceania via Memrise as well.
(4) If there is time, I will also put effort into filming something for the Langfest Challenge, for which I have chosen Irish, Lao and Tajik.
For the next two weeks I’ll be in Fiji and NOT writing blogposts, but I WILL write posts about my Fijian and Fiji Hindi language experiences upon my return, complete with newfound wisdom and the feeling that I am a more full human because of it.
See you in August!