5 Things I Liked about Living in Israel as an American (and 5 Other Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

70 years of Israel! Happy birthday!

There are so many choices for what I could write about for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). No doubt a lot of people would use this day as an opportunity to fortify their own political opinions.

As someone who has lived in five different countries and have been to nearly twenty others, I tend to see countries as “cultural canisters” more than political entities (especially given that I don’t do much work related to government or politics).

I’m not going to write about anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict this time. Today is a day to celebrate all that is Israel and I am very unequivocal about my hope for peace in the future (if not the present) and I don’t need today to prove that.

Today I’m going to open up about my experiences in the Holy Land as a human being, and someone who is very much intrigued, if not obsessed, with the differences between nations and cultures.

Here are some things that I liked and…didn’t like so much…about living in Israel. (I’ve been there three times, 2009, 2012 and 2015, the first time for half a year).

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Didn’t Like So Much: The Country Sometimes Feels like Jewish Teenager Disneyland

 

I can imagine pretty much every Israeli is nodding their head at this point. There is value in getting young people to experience places, especially ones with deep political stories and historical significance and no one can deny that.

With that said, while I have encountered groups of teenagers everywhere in my travels, especially in Western Europe, in Israel I feel that sometimes some of the tour operators may focus too much on “having a good time” perhaps at the expense of truly understanding what Israeli culture and the Israeli mind is all about.

Thankfully with the Paideia Institute I had not only responsible tour guides who asked and answered questions and shared their stories but also responsible tourists as peers—ones who made observations, listened, asked questions and realize that they are there to build bridges and create mutual understanding rather than party, hook up, have fun, etc.

Obviously not ALL of the tourist operators are like this at all, and I’ve had deep conversations with many tourists about their struggles, insights and hopes. But I found myself having to constantly apologize on behalf of my “American compatriots” based on the behavior I saw from other people who held the same passport as mine.

Perhaps this will change with time.

 

Liked: A Lot of Israelis are Very Curious About the World and Have Global Experiences

 

Mention the name of a country you’ve been to to most Israelis and chances are they’ve visited there or know someone who is a permanent resident there. Hebrew is a language I’ve heard spoken in every country I’ve visited so far except for Greenland (English and Polish are the only two I’ve heard spoken in all of them).

Thanks to the fact that “galuti” (exilic) isn’t really considered an insult anymore, many Israelis relish their heritage of being “out of many, one people” (like Jamaica, another place with an interesting Jewish backstory!). Tel-Aviv can feel so globalized to a degree that would put Manhattan to shame.

Also with many Israelis I’ve seen that many of them speak other languages very well not also to mention know tidbits of very surprising ones (e.g. Vietnamese, Finnish, Indonesian, etc.)

Mention your recent trip to and Israel and you’ll have a conversation topic for the next thirty minutes guaranteed. And in a good way.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some Olim Idolized the Idea of Israel to a Fault

To me, Israel was a country with deep Jewish heritage and holy sites and many layers of history. The various groups of Olim all made their mark on the country in addition to the Arab Citizens of Israel as well (not also to mention guest workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Romania, etc. and possibly anyone else I forgot)

It’s a fantastic place to experience, I love it very much and I love talking about it. And then there are some that see it as a glorified fortress to prevent the Jewish people from experiencing a second Holocaust and, sometimes…little beyond that. And sadly I’ve spoken to some staff members at Yad Vashem who see this as the primary function of the state.

As such, their devotion to it can seem a bit on the nationalistic side in which outsiders of any varieties are not only distrusted but also potential double-crossers, especially if they’re not Jewish. And sometimes not being Jewish in Israel, even as a tourist, can be a bit of a liability. (This is what some of my friends have told me. By contrast, my Judaism never really has been a liability in any of the places I’ve visited nor has being visibly foreign in places like Myanmar been a liability either.)

There are elements of some Israeli sub-cultures that can serve to blind people from dialogue, reason and mutual understanding and the fear of a second Holocaust, not also to mention the omnipresence of the Shoah in popular culture there, serves as an engine for it. But I can imagine that when peace comes to the region there won’t be a need for this anymore.

 

Liked: A Healthy Diet Can Usually Be the Path of Least Resistance

Yes, you can get more candy than you can know what to do with in Machaneh Yehuda, but also the omnipresence of vegan foods (Israel does have the highest percentage of vegans in the WORLD!) and chickpea specialties being good local favorites will help you tremendously towards whatever weight loss program you’ve been itching to try.

The falafel is Jerusalem is legendary and once you’ve had it, none other in the world will come close. Never, ever, ever.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: A Mutually-Enforced Barrier Between Israelis and Most Foreign-Born Residents, even Jews, even Olim, and Especially Americans and other Anglophones

 

Perhaps in part because of the “Disneyland for American Teenagers” trope I’ve discussed earlier, I’ve encountered many Israelis (including Yordim = Israelis living outside of “The Land) who somehow see Americans as almost a completely different species upon which they purport themselves the local experts. (To be fair, Israelis probably know American pop culture better than any nationality I’ve encountered, honorable mentions go to Germany and Iceland [both places with histories of American military presence, no big surprise]).

In Hebrew University many of my attempts to socialize were usually stuck among the Anglophones, even when I could manage Hebrew conversations just fine. And even then once or twice I got the line “we should continue in English because I’ve studied your language for more than you’ve studied mine” (I have literally got this treatment NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD!)

Thankfully the majority of Israelis have been encouraging of my Hebrew studies both within and without the Holy Land….as it has been for all of my languages.

 

Liked: Deep Conversations about Meaningful Topics, as opposed to small talk, are Common

 

Ah, yes. In the United States, sometimes conversations will go “so…what do you do…?” Three minutes of platitudes followed by “oh, it was nice meeting you”.

In Israel this NEVER HAPPENS. Whether it go into a direction about religion, politics, cultural differences, American sitcoms (which I know nothing about) or my personal favorite: teach me how to swear in (Yiddish / Swedish / Burmese etc.)

I’ve remember SO, SO many soundbites from Israeli conversations that I’ve literally cited conversations I’ve had with Israelis more than I have from any other nationality!

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Outward “Culture of Insensitivity” Can Be Off-Putting.

 

Yes, Americans care about their “feelings” and “smiling all the time” very often (at least this is what people who have “hyphenated American” identities have also told me and I’d have to agree as a TCK myself). That said, there is a certain outward machismo that not only took me time to get used to but was genuinely STRESSFUL during my first few weeks in Israel.

Usage of loud voices is an acquired taste not also to mention a culture in which confrontation is somewhat reveled in (in contrast to Sweden or Spain in which confrontation can cause people to freeze up in confusion).

Even some American students who have been studying in Israel for YEARS never fully adjust to this reality. It isn’t for everyone, and even some people who see Israel as the most beautiful place on earth where everything is perfect for Jews may encounter the fact that they may never fully grow used to this element of the culture.

 

Liked: The Educational Culture is Something to Marvel At.

 

Oh, yes. Israeli professors treat you like an equal, they respond on point and value every single one of your ideas. If they disagree with you, they do so respectfully. They’ll keep their politics a guarded secret (one friend told me that disclosing your politics as an Israeli professor means that you’ll get permanently banned from the profession, another friend laughed at the idea that any such policy could be meaningfully enforced).

In the United States, I’m sorry to say, a lot of professors sometimes have fragile egos in which they don’t want to consider their students viewpoints and often want to force their viewpoints on others. NEVER, EVER among Israeli professors have I encountered this, not even among Ulpan teachers.

The rest of the world needs to learn something from this idea of “learning as equals”.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: You May Sometimes Be Barely Able to Finish a Sentence in Conversing with Israelis.

 

When I was in Poland, I had tour groups from Britain / Chile / Norway / Iceland / the US / Canada (keep in mind that this was before my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 / 2013 and so in 2011 I was really capable of only giving tours in English and Yiddish and not much else. Okay, I could use some Hebrew, Spanish, Russian and Polish but sometimes I’d have to use English in between. )

British teenager groups -> tended to listen to what I said. A bit like me putting on a show for them with puppets.

Israeli family group -> if the British teenager group was like the puppet show, the Israeli family group was like if I would be tackled in the middle of the show, all of the puppets taken from me and then they start making their own show in which I have the occasional comment.

It’s really charming to reminisce on but again, like so many things Israeli, this is an acquired taste, one that many people, even Olim, never fully acquire.

 

Liked: Every Day in Israel Feels Like an Adventure.

 

Between the weather and the fact that few people treat you like strangers, and that people want to talk to you and get to know you, and ask you your opinions about honest topics even if they met you a few minutes ago, Israel feels like an RPG overworld in the best way.

There’s always something new to explore, a conversation to be had, a weather to marvel at, and a place and a people you never truly forget and that will always be in your hearts.

 

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Happy birthday, Israel!

The Finnish Cases, Explained

Today is Finnish Language Day! I’m going to make this a short post by virtue of the fact that, while I have seen a lot written about this topic, I usually haven’t seen it in “bite-sized” pieces.

So here we go!

First off: Finnish is a Finno-Ugric Language with close relatives in Estonian and, to a lesser degree, in the Sami Languages, and more distantly in Hungarian (not also to mention minority languages of the Russian Federation from which their original source likely was).

These languages have very high numbers of cases in comparison to the Germanic or Slavic Languages, but what few people will tell you is the fact that most of these cases are straight-up prepositions (this is true in all of the Finno-Ugric Languages which I have studied: Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and Northern Sami).

Let’s look at how the word “talo” (house) is declined:

 

talo

Wiktionary.org

 

This probably might not mean much to you if you’re an absolute beginner, so let’s help you. I’ll give the singular examples.

 

Nominative (talo) – use this if it is the SUBJECT of the sentence (so “the house is beautiful” = the house is what the sentence is about).

Accusative (talo) – use this if it is the OBJECT of the sentence (so “the dragon ate the house” = the house is what the primary doer of the sentence is doing the thing to, hence it is in the accusative)

Genitive (talon) – use this to indicate OWNERSHIP. The word “talon” by itself would mean “of the house” or “the house’s”.

Partitive (taloa) – used in a lot of ways, but use it with NUMBERS or to indicate SOME OF that thing. Taloja -> some houses (note that I used the plural form). The singular you can use with numbers, like with “lähes 400 taloa” -> “nearly four hundred houses” (400 – neljäsataa, which itself uses a partitive in the word “sataa” -> “hundreds” (in the singular because it, too, is preceded by a number)

 

This is where it gets easier:

Talossa – in the house

Talosta – from the house, about the house (as in “tell me more about yourself”)

Taloon – into the house

Talolla – on the house, upon the house (you also use this to indicate ownership, Finnish says “upon me there is” [minulla on] as opposed to “I have”)

Talolta – from upon the house to off the house (you also use this to indicate “from me” in “do you want something from me?”)

Talolle – to the house (you can also give things to people, hence “minulle” -> to me)

Talona – as a house (you may also see this ending to indicate at a time or date or in older words to indicate “in” hence “kotona” -> at home)

Taloksi – into a house (as in “I turned into a house yesterday”, not sure how that could happen). Like the one above except for this one normally highlights the presence of change or transformation.

Talotta – without a house.

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Any thoughts? Corrections? Requests for future content? Let me know!

What the Irish Language Revival Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some ideas:

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

 

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

 

  • A Richness of Music in Many Different Styles

 

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

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

  • Less Alarmism in Journalism Discussing the Irish Language

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

  • More Richness of Learning Materials

 

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

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

 

  • Fewer People Calling It “Useless”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ajoraluaqaaq! (Really Bad!) How My Greenlandic Mission for February 2018 Crashed and What I Need to Do

First off, I should say that 22 out of 30 days isn’t bad. The fact that I was capable of doing SOMETHING is indeed an accomplishment. But, it’s time for me to reflect on what I did wrong and how I can learn going forward.

For one, I should realize that there was possibly something outside of my control. The fact is, I got ill in the middle of February (right when the slump started happening) and I should learn to “have mercy” on myself accordingly.

Similar timetables in my life got scrambled as a result of that illness (e.g. for the video games I’m working on, etc.) Luckily now that it has been detected, I’m on an upwards trajectory and it shouldn’t last any more than a few days.

Anyhow, let’s go ahead and show you the video, which is almost half the size as the one I did for the November 2017 30-Day Challenge I did for Lao:

Some thoughts: I really start out enthusiastic but I lose steam very quickly. My recordings also tend to become shorter.

After having reached 22 out of 30 days, I decided that I’m going to “end this one early”.

Here are the probable reasons why I did this:

 

  • My illness.

 

No denying that and I should have taken it into account. Now that I’m almost recovered, I’m seven days into the Fijian challenge and it is going GREAT!

 

  • I needed the “Temple of Greenlandic” in my life in more earnest.

 

I spoke about the “Temple” theory with Ari in Beijing last year. The fact is, to learn a language, you need a dedicated “temple” to its usage within your time schedule. Not a physical one, mind you, but a time in your weekly tasks which you devote to either learning or using the language (depending on how fluent you are and / or how much you can understand).

Back in 2013 / 2014 when I began with Greenlandic, I found no shortage of music or TV shows that I liked. It was refreshingly new and it was like a first love, in a sense.

 

Now the relationship has aged and I need to somehow “spark it up” a bit.

 

I probably need new music, new shows and also a likely return to it on Memrise (Greenlandic and Finnish are the two languages that I’ve plugged the most time in on memrise, actually. I believe Greenlandic by itself accounts for several million points on my end. I’m not even joking!)

 

  • Between two languages, one seems to hog a lot of the spotlight.

 

And for February that was Fijian, which contained the spark of something new and a place I still have yet to explore. I still very much love Greenlandic. I have to be aware of this dynamic in the future and realize that MOST of my gains are going to be made with only one of the two languages I choose to focus on at the moment.

 

Part of me considered even using March for all-in Fijian, but I decided that I really, REALLY needed something Southeast Asian and that I would suffer without it (in a sense). So Lao got in, and I’ve been making SOME progress with Lao, but not as much as I have with Fijian.

 

  • Burnout / Maybe I need a break from active study

 

I noticed that with some languages, like Icelandic or Polish, that I studied actively on and off for a while, that when I returned to them intensely after “pauses” (in which I did maintain them but usually for a tiny bit each week), my knowledge of them was oddly…refreshed and somehow enhanced.

 

I hope that this month will be some helpful time for my Greenlandic to simmer as well. No doubt when Nanook’s new album comes out (likely later this year), I’ll want to turn to Greenlandic again. The same goes for the company joining the Kaverini team as soon as their current project is finished (their game, which I tested, is scheduled for a release later this month).

 

  • Exhaustion and Pressure

 

With this blog and with several interviews with me online, I now have the pressure to keep up and improve my languages like never before.

 

That, in addition to my Kaverini-related projects as well, not also to mention several of my YouTube series AND my freelancing.

 

It’s tough and I think the sheer weight of it can be stressful at times. This, on top of the sickness, was probably what dealt me a losing hand for this last month’s 30-Day Speaking Challenge.

 

Still, I’m glad I did it.

 

Every hour I plug into Greenlandic-related everything is true fulfillment in my life, given how much of my outlook, optimism, and warmth I owe to this culture of unbelievable fortitude and strength.

 

Perhaps it wasn’t a defeat after all.

Mother of the Sea and Me

 

YOU can try to the challenge for yourself come months in the future at the following link! http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/

 

Each of my Language Learning Journeys, Summarized Humorously in One Sentence Each

I’ll be posting something about my underaccomplishment with the 30-Day Challenge in Greenlandic in the coming days, but I thought it would be very humorous for me to try something else for a change.
By the way, my Fijian is getting FANTASTICALLY better with each coming day (I still have some blind spots that will be weeded out in the coming weeks, not also to mention the fact that I’ve been focusing mostly on speaking rather than listening or reading right now, given that I’ll be doing most of THAT when I’m in Fiji. Listening, reading and writing will no doubt follow, and I’m not even sure if writing exercises for Fijian would be effort ideally paid off because the only people I know who have lived in Fiji have been expats that only know a few words / sentences of Fijian.)

 

My list to be cleared with Fijian includes:

 

– numbers up until 1 billion

– FULLY mastering the complication plural pronouns (they come in four persons, singular, dual, paucal and plural — indicating 1, 2, a group and a BIG group)

– Family member words (significantly more complicated than in the languages of Western Europe)

– Grammatical kinks to be ironed out (especially politeness tiers and transitive suffixes on verbs).

 

Anyhow, you’ve come for humor so that’s what you’re getting. Please don’t take any of these too seriously 🙂

 

English – Even if you speak me natively, there will always be one proper noun that throws you off–so deal with it!

Ancient Hebrew – the closest a language ever got to resembling the mechanics of alphabet refrigerator magnets.

Bislama – Most people found out about this language through either a friend, a phrasebook or most likely of all…a Polandball meme!
Pijin – It’s Bislama without any French interjections. 🙂

Tok Pisin – What do you get when you cross Australian English with 800+ languages?

Trinidadian Creole English – Good luck trying to find written resources for this one.

German – The language that you realize is dangerously similar in many ways to Shakespeare’s English, but you only realize it if you’re beyond the intermediate stage.

Spanish – How many layers of slang would you like with your language? (I almost wrote “the language that people learn to say that they’re learning a language.”, but I decided against it. Or did I?)

Yiddish – you’d be surprised how much American English slang borrowed from me, but you’ll never know unless we spend quality time together.

Norwegian – exactly the linguistic kaleidoscope you would expect from a country that is 96% uninhabitable land.

Swedish – be prepared to learn EVERYTHING about syllable stress if you expect to be friends with me!

Danish – rumors of my difficulty have been very greatly exaggerated.

Icelandic – the language whose future everyone likes to freak out about.

Salone Krio – it’s like what American English would be if it were grammatically consistent, had regular spelling and made sense.

Hebrew – the language of the Bible, sprinkled with influence from French teachers, Russian emigres and American TV, among others.

Finnish – don’t let the big tables intimidate you, a lot of those forms you’ll almost never use in conversation.

Fijian – Wait, if there ARE enlongated vowels, how come they’re not written out? What do you mean, you’re just supposed to know? WHY?!!!?

Jamaican Patois – If you want to find out how open-minded someone REALLY is, mention the fact that you’re either learning this language or speak it fluently as an L2….be prepared!

Hungarian – Native speakers will love you for this…100% guarantee or your money back!

Polish – one of two langauges that caused me to nearly throw my computer in rage (the other one is below this one)

Greenlandic – How long do you like your words? 15 letter? 26 letters? 62 letters?

Lao – we disguised our Indo-European loan words really well. Come and find ’em!

Kiribati / Gilbertese – And you thought Dominican Spanish was fast.

Irish – Frightening learners with its orthography since time immemorial.

Myanmar / Burmese – There are four tones. Make that three tones. Make that two tones.

Tajik – Contrary to popular belief, Tajikistan is NOT a fictional country…Farsi’s little sibling lives there!

Palauan – Consonant jumble jamble!
Vincentian Creole English – I’m actually not a tonal language.

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Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

The Biggest Mistake People Make at Language Social Events

come back when you can put up a fight

I have been going to language exchange events for years now (although I’ve been showing up at them less frequently in 2018 due to reasons I cannot disclose quite yet). In some respects it actually teaches me more about human psychology than it does about languages in general.

(It reminds me of the fact that, when I play Interactive Online / .io games, I actually learn more about human psychology rather than strategy as well. I will also never forget the time that someone named his/her character “press ctrl-w to go faster”.)

I’m sorry to have to say this but it really needs to be said: more often than not, seeing people interact at Language Exchange events makes me understand that most people don’t really know how to learn languages very well, for multiple reasons. I’ll go into why shortly.

If you attend a language exchange social event, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor if you want to learn (1) the local language (e.g. if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have many opportunities to learn Icelandic with natives, given as they’ll be the most commonly represented demographic) and (2) English (even if it isn’t the local language).

But concerning someone who wants to learn Mandarin or French and only speak a little bit of that and nothing else but English? You’re going to need to read this…because otherwise you may leave that event broken and discouraged, not also to mention demotivated from ever returning.

Now, you’ve come here for the biggest mistake, so here it is:

The biggest mistake that people make at Language Social Events is not seeking to make gains with their languages when they interact with native speakers.

And EVEN if there are no native speakers of language you want to speak present, feel free to bring some small books along that you can use to play “show and tell”. I did this most recently at an event aimed primarily at learners of Asian Languages (I turned out, not surprisingly, being the only person representing any learner of Southeast Asian Languages. But hey, maybe a Burmese or Lao enthusiast would show and I needed to account for that chance. Besides, I could easily learn about other people’s cultures or even pick up words from languages I haven’t been actively learning).

I had some books on my person and one of them was a Jamaican Patois book. One of my friends who was a Mandarin native speaker didn’t speak Patois and didn’t have any interest in it, but I told him that Chinese languages influenced Jamaican culture in general, showed him the book, read him a few phrases and showed him pictures of Jamaica. That way, I made gains with a language that NO ONE there spoke. I also met someone at a party who was learning Malagasy and HE did very much the same thing to me (despite having no book). I really appreciated it because I have to say I don’t know much about Madagascar at all!

But if you meet native speakers of a language you are actively learning, let me tell you what I most often see versus what you should be doing:

What you should be doing: even if you’re not fluent, ask them to help you put together sentences or even form sentences in your target language while they “feed you words” (they’ll be happy to do this, I’ve done it with English and even with other languages I’m fluent in like Norwegian with other learners). Also ask them to provide details about their language as well as sentences or cultural tidbits that are likely to impress the NEXT native-speaker you meet.

What a lot of people do instead: ask small talk questions only using English. Use a handful of pre-programmed sentences in their target language(s) and spend most of the time using English instead. Use language exchange events as a means to flirt rather than to actually rehearse languages.

The primary key is that you leave having gained something. That something could be cultural know-how, phrases that will help you put together sentences better, or tips on improving your accent. You can even make gains with languages you aren’t actively learning! (I know because I’ve done this with languages like Japanese that I’m not learning at the moment nor do I have any plans to in the immediate future. I’ve also taught people basic phrases in languages like Burmese and Norwegian that they may never see themselves learning at all).

And now one thing I would consider: even if you intend to focus only on one language, I would recommend learning at least a LITTLE bit of a variety of other languages (feel free to do this even if you have no intention to learn them to fluency). This way, you’ll actually be able to start conversations more easily.

If you’re the only one who knows any Khmer, Oromo or Danish, you’ll have people asking you about it even if they have no intention to learn the language themselves. Even if you speak only a LITTLE bit, you can actually be the “local authority” on that language (as I’ve done WAAAAY too often).

You can even use this as a means to learn how to “teach” through an L2 you’ve been working on (and you may discover vocabulary gaps along the way). Most people who show up to these events are curious people and this is even MORE true if it’s a paid event.

A lot of people use English (or English + their native language) 5/6th of the time at language exchange events and wonder why they’re not making gains and why other learners are overtaking them. It isn’t about raw intelligence, it’s about the fact that language learners that put more in get more out. And you have to put effort in from EVERYWHERE in EVERY area of your life if you want the coveted prize of “near-native fluency” or even anything close to it.

Don’t enter without a plan as to what you want and how you’ll get it. Yes, I know you can’t control who will show up (maybe that Finnish speaker will be there, or maybe there won’t be anyone with whom to practice! Who knows?) But you should prepare for a wide range of situations based on what you’ve read about the event series and how you’ve experienced it before in the past.

For most language exchange events in New York City, I’ll expect to use the Romance Languages with regularity. Speakers of Chinese languages, especially Mandarin and Cantonese, will be present with consistency, alongside speakers of Russian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, languages from throughout South Asia and Arabic dialects that will usually lean towards Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Somewhat rarer than that but still frequent are Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Persian Languages. Rarer still but showing up about once every two months or so are speakers of Nordic Languages, Turkic Languages of Central Asia (such as Kazakh and Uyghur) and languages of Southeast Asia. The rarest that I’ve encountered are speakers of African Languages, usually from South Africa and Ethiopia. Only once or twice have I encountered speakers of native languages of the Americas. I have never encountered anyone from Oceania at any language exchange event to date.

So think about who you encounter frequently and develop plans for what languages you KNOW you will practice there, what languages you are LIKELY to, and which languages you will probably NOT practice, but would LIKE TO.

Tl;dr always make gains with your L2 whenever you speak to a native speaker. Even if you’re not fluent, you can make those gains. The key is to get SOME progress on your language-learning, and you can always do that.

Have a good weekend!