On Having Had Bad Experiences with a Language

 Interestingly, the Queens Library System has proclaimed this week “Broken Heart Week”.

Also interestingly: Finland’s Valentine’s Day is actually called “Ystävänpäivä”, or “friend day”.

(One could imagine the conversation. “I’m sorry”, said Finland to 14 February, “but I don’t see it like that…”)

Anyhow, this article is about something tangentially related…and it is one that a lot of my language-learning blogger friends haven’t touched on, namely…

What if, for whatever reason, you may feel emotionally weighed down by the thought of a certain language, even if part of you wants to learn it (or re-learn it)?

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This can come in many forms:

  • General negativity associated based on past experiences. Some of you know that I had a very stringent Jewish education in my teenage years (not from my parents). While I am grateful for a significant amount of knowledge given by this experience, in the long run, especially emotionally, it caused a significant amount of harm in too many ways to count. Luckily, I am repairing my relationship with my Jewish roots not only with Yiddish and Hebrew but also with various events in New York and beyond catered to curious open-minded young people like myself. Sometimes I couldn’t read certain Hebrew texts without being vexed or irritated.
  • Cultural dissonance. My relationship with American culture has been difficult, given as due to the fact that I never really understood it from the inside. I deliberately avoid a lot of contact with English-Language entertainment and news and, as a result, my accent has sometimes shifted to a hodge-podge of everywhere that I’ve lived, not also to mention the many languages I’ve studied.
  • Being bullied by speakers of a certain language at one point.
  • Having gotten out of a relationship with a speaker of that language and having the end go badly.
  • Having studied that language at school and having had bad experiences learning it there (everything from discouraging teacher to having done poorly in the class or on a standardized test.)
  • Having been discouraged by other learners or native speakers along the way. Spanish and Swedish were among the worst for me in this regard, with some speakers telling off my efforts as well as, in the case of some Swedish speakers, either refusing to use the language or belittling my efforts. Thankfully, and I should make it clear, these are a minority among human beings! I want to let you know that anyone who treats you this way in regards to language learning is painfully insecure about his or her own goals!

 

In my polyglot journey, I’ve felt all of these at one point or another. These feelings are difficult, ones that almost administer an electric shock whenever you want to somehow cure them or even look at the problem.

Here are some possible things to keep in mind:

 

  1. Sometimes you need to take a break.

Perhaps you may need some time apart from the language or culture that you may have had bad experiences with. Recognize these feelings, and then consider separating.

It doesn’t have to be forever! You can easily come back to it when you “calmed down” significantly, when time has healed you a little bit (or a lot) more.

During this time (and I should know, given how many languages I’ve learned to high levels and then forgotten), you may have memories pop up now and again about the times you had together.

Perhaps one of these memories may be strong or meaningful enough so that you may want to come back. And coming back is always an option when you feel up to it.

 

  1. Learning a language to a level lower than sturdy fluency is okay.

 

I play favorites. Back when I was a less seasoned polyglot I tried to pretend as though I couldn’t, and let me tell you that any polyglot who says that he or she doesn’t play favorites is almost definitely lying.

I like Scandinavian and Celtic Languages a lot better than a lot of popular global languages. That’s okay.

I feel that I may not know Spanish to the same degree that I know Yiddish or Bislama or Swedish because of the pain of a significant amount of discouragement form learning throughout the years. And that’s okay. Who knows? Maybe it will be my favorite language one day…

I may have been attached to Russian culture in the past and have moved onto new horizons. My Russian is nowhere near as good as it was and now it’s quite pathetic. But that’s okay as well.

 

  1. Each Culture has many cultures within it, and one of them will fit you somehow.

 

This also ties into another issue I didn’t mention before, which is “I can’t speak or learn language X because of historical baggage Y”.

This also ties into the other unmentioned issue which is “I can’t have a resonance with language X because of the actions of a certain government or political figure”.

Within any culture, no matter how small, there are many more subcultures than the ones seen in guidebooks or in the history books.

If the issue of cultural resonance is lacking, look for another culture or subculture associated with that language.

This may serve to change your view of that language completely.

 

 

  1. School Performance and Grades have constantly diminishing importance as you get older.

 

The sort of bad performance that brought me to tears a decade ago would be something I would laugh at now.

If you so will it, you can change your view of the world, so that the tests means nothing, the negative feedback of any of your peers mean nothing, and that the only thing that really does matter is whether or not you are on the path to acquiring the dreams you want.

 

  1. You’ll show them one day!

 

That one time that was told my “Norwegian accent was awful”?

That one time I was told that I spoke “a bit of Swedish” when I was putting together complete sentences?

That one time I was told “you obviously don’t know any Spanish, she told me you couldn’t be understood?”

And the many, many times I got answered to in English?

I just turned around, with some bitterness, and I said, “I’ll show them”

And that is what I did.

And that is what you will do as well.

And you know that if you encounter those people again, with your hyper-leveled up skills, they will not treat you the same way they did before.

 

  1. You don’t need discouraging influence in your life, much less have it affect you in the long wrong.

Here is something I want you to read carefully, okay? Can you remember it?

The people who discourage you from language learning of any sort are always wrong.

There.

Okay.

No more worries about that.

There may be the time in which they may genuinely want to help you, in which case that is okay and they will make it clear from the outset that that is what they are doing. But as to mean behavior, belittling your skills, they’re wrong. And this is Jared telling you to let you know that they’re wrong.

And that your dreams are right.

Overmorrow is Coming

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For nearly a month I’ve neglected a lot of my blogs, but this is in part due to holidays, my game design, and also quite a lot of study.

This weekend marks two important events for me. For one, the Polyglot Conference, in which I and many others will meet in person many of the authors and luminaries who inspired us to go on our many language journeys.

Second, October 10th and 11th marks four years to the day that I began my three years abroad right after college, which began in Krakow and then ended up in too many other places to count. Alas, I seem to have forgotten all but the most basic Polish, but another task will soon come to me before this academic year is out, one that will require me to re-learn a lot of it!

Through the study of a lot of my languages, I’ve had to re-evaluate some of them both down and up in the past month (The Celtic Languages I was a lot weaker in than I thought, and  the Finnic languages were stronger).

In the past month, I also made the difficult decision to drop Greenlandic from my repertoire for the time being, although it is truly impossible to forget a language entirely. Given how much I have already devoted to Greenlandic already, it seems that this is merely a pause.

But I also remember that Icelandic and Danish I first struggled with a lot at first, and then, upon becoming more hearty a “language hacker”, I wasn’t nearly intimidated by them.

The past few weeks have been replete with virtually non-stop study, putting my work for my game and even my MA final examination on hold (I was told by my MA examiners that I should use my language abilities in my reading list, but there is only so much you can do with a something like Icelandic in a final exam about Jewish History).

I do not say this lightly: there were also times in which I was absolutely frozen and unable to continue with studying, perhaps worried that, despite the endless hours I had thrown into lots of languages, that I somehow “wasn’t good enough”.

But above all, language learning is not a contest. Not particularly a sport, either. It isn’t an issue of who speaks language X the best being the winner, it isn’t about who speaks the most languages being the winner, it is a process of exploration, in the same way that hiking really isn’t a competitive sport.

To make this point, my biggest shame in my language learning experience, followed by my biggest mirth.

Heidelberg, Germany. February 2014. I was asked to give a “Referat” (something like a class presentation / teaching the class for one day). Obviously, the class was held in German, but I remember using so much Yiddish, Hebrew and English in between (the topic was Jewish studies) that one of the co-teachers actually shook her head in despair, wondering how a “stupid American” ever made it into this program to begin with.

That semester was actually quite replete with similar incidents like that, my journey through the German language, more than that of any other, being one of “tripping and falling”. The fact that I had Yiddish and Scandinavian languages under my belt at that point didn’t help much—I thought that my truest attempts at “High German” would always be tainted.

But as it turns out, in the last few months (June – July) my fears evaporated. Sometimes I still think of that semester and cringe. But I suppose I would cringe even more had I chosen to try even less than I did.

Now the biggest pride:

April 2015, Ben-Gurion Airport. On the way back from Israel, visiting my family members, with my Anglophone parents on the way back to the U.S. Given as I am the spokesman, the security staff, without my knowledge, puts me in the line for people who have Israeli passports (he mistook me for one of his own, and Israelis have possibly the most refined American-radars on the planet, blame Birthright).

Upon reaching the security staff at the end of the line, we were told that we should be in the line for foreign passports and that we had no business being in that line whatsoever.

And then of course there is the honorable mention of passing as a local in a place rumored by some to be the hardest to get the locals to speak to you in the local language.

Well, whatever becomes of this conference, it will definitely be fun, no doubt!

Looking forward to meeting my fellow hikers,

Jared

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Polyglot Report Card, March 2015 Edition, and Diagnoses (Part 1)

With the constant notion that the Polyglot Conference is coming up in October, I have to be mindful of how I focus my energies with my projects from now until then.

Having a routine is good. Keeping the routine is better. So I published this post to reflect, as well as to “poke” me into following that routine.

English: I have to get that true American accent back. Somehow. Right now it sounds like a “mixture”, and almost everyone I know has remarked on that fact. People that knew me from before my big trips abroad and met me afterwards have noticed that my voice has changed. But can I change it back?

That’s worthy of another blog post in its own right…

Hebrew: Thanks largely to a lot of classes, I feel very confident. It seriously slipped when I was living in Germany, but thanks to the JTS folks I feel good about it again…

What I need to do: just browse the dictionary at points. I’ve had enough exposure to the language that I should be able to think of contexts without trouble…

Yiddish: Almost the exact same situation, except for the fact that on very rare occasions I worry about mixing up German and Yiddish, although it almost never happens now. (A friend of mine said that his professor said that when he wanted to speak German, he just used Yiddish with a British accent…hmmm…)

So what I also need to do for Yiddish is browse dictionaries and keep a good exposure with books and texts. The fact that I’m enrolled in an Advanced Yiddish texts class right now ensures that I have that.

With German, it is pretty much the exact same thing.

And now comes Spanish, the language that I feel I screwed up on more occasions than any other. As a very sensitive person, I have difficulty separating it from some of my failures involving it (not passing an AP exam during my senior year of high school has been a sort of never-live-it-down moment).

Right now, I know what I need:  my passive understanding is very good, and so I can watch television without problems. I need to convert that into active understanding by ensuring that I watch that television more often. Oh, and somehow divorce the negative experiences I’ve had with the language. Otherwise I’ll never get good at it…

Danish, in part because of my obsession with Greenland, has surged with progress ever since I got back to the United States. I never thought that I would get this good at the language while I was living in Sweden! I’ve had enough exposure via television that watching Danish TV now seems like as much of a waste of time as watching TV in English.

Now I’ll need to turn my attention to reading. And not on the computer! Print the articles or find books and get readin’ em.

Norwegian is a bit similar, although I’m not really as confident with it. I don’t believe that Norwegian TV is as much of a “waste of time” as watching English TV, so I still have to get to that ultra-confident point yet. In the meantime, using the same strategy as I have for Danish (getting articles) isn’t going to hurt at all.

Swedish has weakened. Significantly. I’ve just been lazy. On a side note, I do encounter a LOT of Swedes in New York City. I can’t really say that I can be proud of my progress in that language. And my accent still needs improvement…

My core vocabulary is strong, however. A lot better than it ever has been, especially when I was living in the country…I need to watch a lot of television in Swedish, and then, when I feel as good about it as I do with Danish, then I get more reading practice. I remember buying a Swedish-language book about seals when I was there. It is probably somewhere in that book stash in Connecticut…that would be just what I may need!

Dutch. Neglected. I almost considered forgetting it altogether. But the fact that it is similar to German and Yiddish ensured that it was pretty much a non-option. If I want to get better, then I know what I need to do: get a dictionary, and browse it. And watch TV in Dutch.

I only have one real problem with Greenlandic at this point: I need a stronger vocabulary than what I have. My accent is really good, I can get the flow and I’ve had a bit too much exposure to the language. I found the vocabulary for this language the hardest to acquire out of any of I’ve studied. I’m going to have to break out comprehensive vocabulary lists and start putting them into Memrise!

Northern Sami: I’m not as used to the flow of this language as I am with Greenlandic. My grammar could also use some brushing up (the cases I’m good with, I don’t even need to worry about consonant gradation anymore…if you want to know what that is, just go to the tag categories and click “Northern Sami” and read until you encounter something about it. Or ask me in the comments). My vocabulary could use some strengthening, primarily by…exposure to more Northern Sami language media.

I just turned on NRK Sápmi as I’m writing this. I could read vocabulary lists, but it would be BETTER if I were to expose my brain to the language more often.

And one last language for the time being, Faroese. Grammar is my biggest issue. And sometimes listening comprehension. I have more reading practice than I know what to do with. Listen, listen, listen…and find those scholarly works on Faroese grammar and know it as well as you can.

To be continued in Part 2

kegn dem shtrom

The Hardest Thing: Doing what You ACTUALLY Want

Now I stand in a position that I never thought I would see.

As it turns out, the hardest thing in my language learning journey isn’t about putting in the effort or about actually learning or applying usage of the languages.

At this point, I can have almost any language I want as long as I put in the effort (as a matter of fact, so can anyone, even though I believe that most people would rather not know that).

The hardest thing is learning when I have to give up some of my languages in the event that I don’t feel enchanted by them the way that I used to.

There have been some languages that have continuously kept their appeal for me (the Scandinavian trifecta). There have been others that I have been a bit “force-fed” (Hebrew, of course, but also Spanish and German).

And then there are others, I feel, that I used to like but then, for some reason, starved them. Back in August I felt very comfortable conversing in Portuguese, but now I can’t bring myself to speak even simple sentences.

Two years ago, I was very enthusiastic about acquiring an entire collection of languages. Now, it seems, that the novelty has worn off…or so it seems.

I have to infuse my projects with new relationship energies. I have to ask myself what I genuinely want from my languages, and always ask if I really want to learn that language or if I feel peer-pressured into it.

Back in July I made the commitment to learning both French (the European variety) and Faroese. A half-a-year later and can read KVF and Röddin without problems and the pronunciation and grammar are non-issues. And French? Ummm….Duolingo snail progress, although I can muster some phrases. Goes without saying that I’m 30x better at Faroese than I am at French.

foroyar

What happened? I just simply followed what I wanted to.

And now I have to ask that question again: what do I want? And to learn the languages that I really want to, that sometimes mean detaching myself from old prospects. Whenever that happens, I usually feel that the language is begging for me to not let it go (even though it never goes completely), but then my time budgeting ensures that it happens anyway.

I know that I have been a comfort to readers as a language blogger who specializes in very rare specimens indeed. That is what I hope to continue doing, as I feel that the blind spot of too many other language bloggers is that they ignore the many little worlds that are to be found in places many people don’t even know exist.

So this means: I am going to abandon some of my other languages in favor of those that I am currently learning or possibly even others. There will be a revolution.

I pledge to keep bringing those little worlds to you. And to whomever else wants.

What Good Does a Forgotten Language Do?

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Milwaukee, WI

Everywhere I have been I have encountered people who learned a language to a certain degree and then forgot it. This occurred with languages learned in adulthood as well as those learned in childhood at any stage.

Forgetting a language, in my opinion, seems to pose a bit of a “half-life” scenario, in which knowledge not sustained tends to decrease over time by “halves”.

I have a handful of languages that I have forgotten and cannot form sentences in. French, which I learned as a child, slight amounts of Japanese, Chinese, and also having majored in Classics in college gave me Classical Greek and Latin, both of which have fallen out of use in favor of…ummm…other languages that I would rather devote my time to.

Estonian and Polish have also gone that way for me, although of the forgotten languages that I have, these ones are definitely the strongest (and I didn’t really feel strong in Polish at any point, despite having lived in the country…shame, shame, shame on me…)

Well, good news for those of you who have forgotten languages: there are still some benefits to be had with having learned it.

For one, there are friends made with any language journey that takes place in a public setting. Even in a private setting, there are songs and stories and cultural tidbits that are encountered. Even if the entire language fades, many of these remain, and you would be surprised about how much you may be capable of remembering.

There is a certain discipline that comes with the experience as well, and it is worth to glimpse a culture, however weakly.

I remember one time in the Heidelberg Sprachcafe in which I encountered a Spanish-speaker who had a good friend from Finland and then proceeded to give me basic phrases in Finnish with a very heavily intoned Spanish accent. I was amused and delighted, and you have the power to amuse and delight people just the same with whatever knowledge you may have left.

With a culture also comes a set of texts that you may have been able to read at one point, but can no longer. Even if you can’t read the text any more, the morals of the stories stay with you, as some may some obscure details about the language contained within the texts.

This may also manifest in the form of song lyrics or a tune of a certain song that became popular in your group or study session. Even when I had forgotten virtually all of the Russian that I knew, I did have certain tunes spring to mind from Kino, Mumij Troll, or the Cheburashka short films. With my steadily weakening Estonian, I still have Ott Lepland on my hard drive and those tunes don’t go away as easily!

Learning patterns and discipline and grammar in any form is helpful skill-building. In my Classical Greek classes, I remembered a lot of grammatical terms that became helpful when learning live languages further down the road. They helped me think about these languages more easily.

The fact is, it is a well-known fact that most students in foreign language classes tend to forget the languages due to disuse. But there is a reason that these classes exist to begin with! And you should realize that if you undertook this journey in the past, you still have something of that journey.

And if you undertake this journey in the future, remember that, should you forget it all, you will still have pieces as well.

And those pieces will glitter brightly. More than you think…

To Continue or Not to Continue?

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The end of the semester is upon me and many other students in the U.S.

I look back at the past year and I see the projects that I started, the languages that I forgot as well as those which I fortified.

Earlier this year I thought that I would be learning Romansh (a minority language in Switzerland) and while I did make progress I found myself disenchanted and chasing other things.

On the other hand, my growing obsession with the Greenlandic is something that really caused me to think about what makes me continue a project, as opposed to starving it.

This needs to be said: I am still frustrated by the fact that I don’t consider myself fluent in Greenlandic yet, despite listening to the music and the news every day, and speaking exercises (especially for people who want to hear what the language sounds like).

Back when I was in college, I had an obsession with Slavic Languages (although I still believed the lie that fluency wouldn’t be possible to achieve an adult, a falsehood that deserves to “go its way” for good [to use a Norwegian idiom]).

However, in the past few years my Russian has been turned on / off, but remains very weak, and I seem to have forgotten almost everything in Polish (which I never knew to a good conversational degree anyway, despite having lived in the country).

I remember one vivid incident from someone’s birthday party (in Germany) in which I tried to speak Russian with someone who proceeded to tell me that “you do not speak language of empire! You speak language of empire with Polish mistake!

That was probably the least provocative thing I heard that evening…from him, at least.

When people ask me why I forgot pretty much all of the Russian that I knew, I usually point to this incident. (Thanks to a few encouraging people, I have managed to dredge a bit of what I have, but it is a far cry from any sort of fluency…you know who you are. Большое спасибо!).

I remember a number of times in the past year when I walked away from an interaction saying, “That’s it! I’m going to give up (Language x) forever!

However, looking back, I realize that it takes a long time to seriously forget a language almost completely (and forgetting a language completely is impossible!)

Looking more realistically at the situation, it seems that the main reason that I forget languages is merely because I want to devote time to other ones.

It isn’t really that I lose interest in the language or culture, but rather than another language or culture waltzes in, enchants me, and demands more and more of my time.

But what exactly is this “enchanting me” thing about?

Rarely if ever is it about the actual sound of the language (I consider Norwegian to be one noteworthy exception in this regard).

If a language enchants me enough to demand more and more of my time, it is usually for the following reasons:

  • Positive reinforcement from peers. I get asked lots of questions about Greenland and Greenlandic by virtually everyone. People of all ages are very intrigued by my interest in the language and culture and want to know how exactly I got into it. I associate this knowledge with very positive feelings and a sense of belonging, probably more than knowledge of any other language.

 

  • Media. What really gets me hooked on a certain language project after I learn a bit of it is the music, the news, the revival efforts, the podcasts. If I find shows and songs that I really, really like, this also acts as positive reinforcement. At some point the language ceases to be about vocabulary lists and exists in your mind only as an incarnation of materials for native speakers. Those materials, as well as people to whom you speak, are the real reason that I or anyone else undertakes these projects to begin with.

 

  • Cultural Mentality. This is definitely difficult to explain. It is puzzling to understand why a certain sense of humor or body language associated with various cultures would appeal to you, but with the language comes that side to yourself that is created, and supplants itself in your identity sphere, most markedly in your dealings in your native language. Among all language learners I have seen that the languages that they commit themselves to are carried with a desire to be initiated into the cultural mentalities of their respective cultures.

 

You may not be able to get a foreign passport with ease from any country, but this is just as good, and while it may take a lot of work it is a lot easier than many of you may believe it to be.

 

And now for something exciting…

 

It seems that some languages of mine are on their way out, but I have been enchanted by a new language that I will begin to study and continue to study over the break.

 

I bet that none of you will possibly guess what it is…

 

Post on it soon!

A Step-by-Step Guide to Learning the Language YOU WANT to a Level You Can be Proud of!

(Yesterday marks the half-a-year birthday of this blog)

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  1. A desire to learn a language cannot be forced. It must land on you, and it can land on you for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the professionally pragmatic to just plain silly.

 

Don’t force this desire to learn something and, when you get this desire or find yourself wishing that you knew Language X, proceed to the next step without hesitation!

 

  1. If it is a language whose sounds are familiar to you, proceed to Step 3.

 

If not, go online, find media, and familiarize yourself with the sounds of the language.

 

Entertain the thought that, one day in the future, you will be able to speak and understand this language to the degree that you can understand some or all of what is being said to you.

 

Throughout the entire learning process, get some music in your target language and play it regularly.

 

You won’t understand almost any of it at the beginning, but you will ease into it and your desire to learn the lyrics to your new favorite song in the target language will be a powerful motivator.

 

  1. Find out if the pronunciation of the language is fairly regular and intuitive (Finno-Ugric Languages and Esperanto are the easiest, some like Spanish and Dutch may be a tad harder) or has more “historical” pronunciation (English is the biggest offender, but any language with short/long vowels [Russian, Latvian, Cornish] or complicated but vaguely regular pronunciation rules [Danish, Irish, Faroese] may qualify).

 

If it is in the former category, find a pronunciation guide (online) and familiarize yourself with the sounds. Then, find an online phrasebook for free (Omniglot, Wikitravel, and their ilk) and practice saying these things out loud.

 

If it is in the latter category, find an audio phrase book or one with phonetic pronunciation. Recite things out loud and get used to some of the patterns. Remember, if your language is in this category, the pronunciation will grow on you as a result of the immersion which you will encounter later.

 

YouTube tutorials are also tremendously helpful at this stage, if they exist for your language.

 

For languages that have new characters, or have a set of characters that is impressively large (Chinese Character, Japanese Kanji…), use the same principles to ease into the new system, one letter or character at a time.

 

  1. Now what you want to do is build basic vocabulary. Flashcards can do, Anki, Memrise and DuoLingo are good candidates. I would suggest using a combination of these methods.

 

Your primary goal is to ensure that you can engage with material for native speakers as soon as possible.

 

Throughout this step, regularly check on native-language material (preferably for younger age groups) and see how you engage with it. Keep on building your vocabulary to a degree that you can understand some of it.

 

In the event that there is a certain film or show that you know so well that you practically know all of the lines by heart, even better. Use this to augment your vocabulary.

 

Don’t expect to understand everything.

 

  1. Once you have some passive understanding of the language, your goal is twofold:

 

5a. Gain an active rather than just a passive understanding of the language (by means of writing and speaking). Say things out loud to yourself, find a friend and write messages to him/her in your target language, set up a meet with said friend if possible.

 

Don’t be ashamed to use translation services—these are “training wheels” of sorts (and even when you speak a language fluently enough so that you can teach college-level classes in it, expect to use a dictionary / online translation sometimes!).

 

5b. The grammar…familiarize yourself with the verb forms via the programs listed in Step 4. Adjectives, verbs, declensions…know them to a degree to which you feel comfortable with, but don’t obsess.

 

My Finnish textbook has 34 different paradigms for nouns in declining. Greenlandic has 10. Don’t let it scare you, just note basic patterns and then, when you feel more comfortable with your abilities, return to the tables and the like and polish them.

 

  1. Now that you have both some active and passive understanding of the language, your goal is to perfect grammar even more sharply and to keep on using the language.

 

Keep on collecting words, keep on collecting idioms, keep on collecting songs, make the language a part of your life. Sideline a bit of your Native-Language entertainment / free time with that of your target language…

 

Keep on using your language to build friendships and maintain connections.

 

At this stage, expect embarrassment, mistakes, and sometimes even explicit discouragement (although hopefully you will encounter this one rarely).

 

You will note that others will respect you and your efforts and some may even show more than a hint of jealousy, but let no emotions dissuade you from doing anything further.

 

This is the step that actually never ends, and there is only one alternative: to forget the language by means of disuse.

 

But even if you do, the passive knowledge remains within you somewhere, waiting for you to come back to it. The verb forms are still there, you still have an anecdote or a song or a cool fact here and there…but, remember, the entirety of this project depends on Step 1: having that desire. If you don’t have it anymore, that’s okay. Don’t force it. Follow your heart and let it lead you somewhere else.

 

Whenever you think to yourself “it would be cool if I could learn language X”, think of this list, and return to it. Think of what acting on that thought could do, and think of what you will gain.

 

I haven’t regretting studying any language at all during my entire life. Chances are that you won’t either.

 

Good luck!

5775: Where I Am, Where I Was, and Where I Want to Be

Two nights hence Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins. It is a time for me, and all others of my faith (heritage?) to reflect and consider the year to come.

This post will just be about my language acquisition/maintenance life, so don’t expect anything else besides.

For one, I think about where I was earlier this year, I feel that I have changed in the following regards:

  • Especially when in the United States, I don’t feel insulted anymore when someone chooses to speak English with me over another language that I know.

 

Earlier this year I used to take it as a personal insult to my skills if someone didn’t want to speak anything in English with me.

 

Luckily, thanks largely to the polyglot bar, this has changed. Even with many of my friendships, I balance the various languages used to all degrees so that “everyone is happy”.

 

It is true. There are some friendships that begin in something other than English and then it just feels awkward using any other language that the one I first used (Yiddish, German, Scandinavian Languages, mostly). But regarding ones began in English (let’s say, back when I began living in Sweden and really struggled with the Swedish Language), I didn’t have a hard time breaking out of English when I proved my skills in the language well enough (forming sentences without flinching is usually the best way to do this, as is a healthy degree of colloquialisms)

 

Maybe it is living New York, but there are plenty of polyglots to go around. I heard more Danish spoken in the past few weeks than I ever had heard by pedestrians in Heidelberg in over a year. Even in Paris I encountered Danes, Swedes, Israelis, Finns, Germans, Dutch, Flemings, Brazilians, and too many more to list.

 

I’m confident enough in my abilities now that I don’t take it as an insult. I used to be insecure, but after starting this blog and seeing my true potential in this American Metropolis, I don’t need to feel insecure anymore.

 

Now the real test is if I can keep that security when I leave this country…

 

…I expect that a year from now, I won’t even need to ask it or even consider it.

 

  • I felt afraid of judgment from people who spoke certain languages. I was actually afraid of the day that I would meet a real live Dane because I was certain that my pronunciation would never be good enough.

 

As it turns out, this past year I met both Danes and Danish learners from elsewhere in the world, and there wasn’t a hint of being judgmental from any of them.

 

And even when I met Finns back when I wasn’t particularly good with Finnish, they genuinely appreciated my efforts, perhaps sometimes with a laugh and always asking a question beginning with “miksi” (why) and another with “miten” (how)

 

And my funniest story with Finnish (back when I visited the country and knew it to a rudimentary degree, but impressive for a beginner):

 

“Wow, you really know a lot about the Finnish Language. When did you get here?”

 

“…just a couple of hours ago…””

 

I may have encountered some degree of judgment, but literally never from any native speakers over the course of the past year. Before that, I might have, but that was a different Jared who definitely wasn’t as confident as he is now.

 

  • I learned to stop thinking that everyone saw me as a “stupid American” by default. When I shed this attitude (although sometimes it came back at unpredictable moments), then it worked wonders for my German conversational ability. Back when I had it, it hindered me every step of the way, and sometimes it was so bad that I felt that I couldn’t even hold any basic…anything…

 

I broke out of this almost near the very end of my stay in Heidelberg, although sometimes I used English in messages with bureaucrats because some of my friends, local and otherwise, told me that would be a good idea. But even then, the fact that I did that doesn’t say anything about the skills I may or may not have.

 

Those are the three major problems I had over the course of the past. I can say that, while some shred of these problems exists, I have sent them on their way.

Now for my own desires for the next year:

  • Stop worrying about what other people think is possible.

 

I worry that if my multilingual adventures reach a certain level, then people will cast doubt on my ability to have learned anything (although you are more than welcome to go ahead and test me in the comments).

 

With my current collection of languages, I’ve encountered people wondering “HOW THE HECK DO YOU DO THAT?!!?” and assume that I’m some variety of superhuman genius. Here’s the thing: I may forget a handful of my languages that I have now, but I’m not stopping learning new ones, certainly not now.

 

(Note to world: I really dislike it when you put me on a pedestal. Please, any of you can learn 15+ languages, too. Flash cards, Phrasebook [especially for a very rarely spoken language] and media intake, you know the drill…so what are you waiting for?)

 

What will my employers think? What will the folks on the “How to Learn Any Language” Forum think? What will my friends think…? (Well…actually, my friends are always very supportive of me…thanks, friends!)

 

What will everyone think?

 

As we say in Greenland, sussat! It doesn’t matter to me.

 

  • I Have to Follow my Desires

 

How did I learn Greenlandic, people ask me?

 

Simple: I had a desire. I acted on it.

 

The act of learning Greenlandic (or any language) is never complete. There may be a finite amount of words in the language (billions of them, actually), and, on a more realistic note for a human to learn, there are a finite amount of word pieces in the language (Oqaasileriffik lists 20162, to be precise).

 

I have plenty of other desires to act on as well. I don’t want my life to be complete without learning a bunch of other languages, most of which I haven’t even listed on my list in the “flirting” category (a reference to the aforementioned “How to Learn Any Language” forum).

 

Again, I didn’t care what people thought when I was learning stuff like Faroese or Greenlandic or Northern Sami. Now that I feel that I might have a bit “too much on my plate”, even with closely related languages, I’m beginning to rethink the “there’s always room for one more”.

 

But you know what? Sussat! There IS always room for one more! And even if one has to go for whatever reason, my passive understanding of it isn’t gone.

 

Only earlier today was I watching an episode of Pokémon in Polish and I understood a lot more than I knew I had active control over (and my active control of Polish may be enough to impress my Polish friends, but I deem it quite pathetic, especially in comparison to the languages I know well).

 

 The same occurred for the songs in my Russian music collection.

 

Now, I could convert that passive understanding to an active one just by virtue of switching my media input. I don’t need to relearn the grammar. I can recognize the parts of speech on sight or just by hearing the words.

 

But even if I have to forget some languages, I can rest assured that my passive understanding will remain strong, even through years of disuse, provided I gave it enough nurturing.

 

In Conclusion: right now I am living the polyglot life that I’ve been dreaming of since I was a kid. It will only get better from here. Even with my best languages (English included!) there is a lot more for me to always learn, but I have to savor the fact that I’ve come a long way, one with discouragement, despair, and doubt.

 

And now I’m here.

 

But the journey doesn’t end.

 

The journey will continue, until the end of 5774 and well beyond it!

 

L’shana tovah!

The Polyglot Barrrrr!

Good thing I forgot to write this yesterday, otherwise I would have realized the wonderful title opportunity too late. (Happy International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day! Arr! True story: I first heard about International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day through a Playbill for the New York City Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance)

The second time at the NYC Polyglot Bar didn’t nearly have as many Yiddish speakers, with German- and Spanish-speakers dominating instead (although Yiddish did have a significant presence).

Apparently there was someone who interviewed me for a story. More on that later, because this post is about my reflections from Wednesday Night:

  • I remember Ernest Hemingway having noted that in every port of the world there are at least two Estonians.

 

No Estonians were present at this gathering, and I was the only Estonian-speaker present, but there were at least six other people who said that they knew/lived with/met with one Estonian (or more).

 

Some things don’t change…

 

  • This time I wasn’t the only speaker of a Native American Language present (there was a Quechua speaker who was very intrigued by Greenlandic. True story: if I were on the 2013 Peru trip with my family instead of in a German Village, I probably would speak Quechua very well by now. But I didn’t, so I had other interests. Maybe one day…who knows?)

 

  • Nor was I the only speaker of a Scandinavian Language present. There was a fellow Danish-speaker present as well. Fairly interesting: he found Swedish and Norwegian quite elusive (given as he didn’t study either of them), despite the fact that these languages are so similar. So similar, in fact, that I made a discovery this week that the singing voice of “The Little Mermaid” was done by the same person (Sissel Kyrkjebø, a Norwegian singer) in the Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish dubs.

 

  • While on the topic of Scandinavian Languages, I had my tag on and I was speaking in Hebrew with a colleague on the subway on the way back. Apparently I got asked by someone leaving the subway if I spoke all of those languages. That someone was a Swede, who was extraordinarily overjoyed that her mother tongue was on my tag. And you can probably guess what language the remainder of that conversation was in (hint: not English)

 

  • My command of Danish and German I felt was strong, I wasn’t grasping for words although I might have slipped up some grammar points (did that in English, too). Yiddish was slightly weaker but still good (despite one time in which I misheard something and answered a completely irrelevant question). My Spanish and Hebrew leave a lot to be desired. Specifically, I felt myself pausing too often and making grammatical mistakes more than I would in any of my comfortable languages. Confidence, too, was an issue. My ability to understand everything in all four of these languages was perfect, however. There were at most three words that I missed between the four as far as the conversations went.

 

  • One nickname I got was “the guy with the Faroese book”. It made its appearance when people asked me how I learned the language. Obviously the book wasn’t the only thing.

 

  • The Northern Sami phrasebook also seemed to be quite popular. Interestingly, nobody asked me to speak any of it. The one language I get most commonly asked to speak for people to hear is, obviously, Greenlandic.

 

  • Apparently someone told me that spoken Dutch sounds like someone talking with a potato stuffed in his or her mouth. Any Scandinavian will definitely recognize this idea as having been applied one-too-many-times to refer to the Danish Language. Asked to say something about Danish, I recalled the not particularly politically correct observation of one of my German colleagues that “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

 

  • Portuguese and Dutch were a lot better off than Spanish and Hebrew. I made significant progress with both ever since I got back to the United States. I’m at a point where if I don’t have enough media of both in my life, however, my knowledge of both will lapse significantly. I was told with both that my accent is really good (heard the same for Yiddish).

 

  • I was asked what my favorite language is. I gave an answer in multiple capacities. That is a post for another time.

 

  • Got asked my favorite language for cursing. This one I can give: Finnish. Without a doubt. I’m not going to teach you any Finnish bad words here. Send me a private message or, better yet, meet me at a polyglot event. But if you know me in person and spent any time around me, you’ll definitely recognize a few (unfortunately, I tend to use them quite frequently when agitated).

 

  • Now here’s the biggest improvement: I wasn’t mixing up any German and Yiddish this time! Boom! But while German/Yiddish and Swedish/Norwegian are out of the picture, now I have a new culprit: Spanish and Portuguese. Who knew?

 

There were some people who took my picture / interviewed me / asked me questions etc. Quite exciting! If anything comes of such things, they will make their way to this blog in due time.

 

Anyhow, a diagnostic on what I need to do from this time until the next:

 

  • Make Spanish and Hebrew television a part of my life, and keep it that way until I feel that I get good with both. I did this with the Scandinavian Languages for the past year and I don’t regret it one bit. Now I have to do the same for the languages I learned in school.

 

  • To a lesser extent, given as I have only recently gotten quite good with both Dutch and Portuguese, I need to cement their “entrance into the echelons” with media as well, and training myself to think in these languages in all situations.

 

 

  • My skills in Russian, Polish and Northern Sami really, REALLY leave a lot of room for improvement. I’m not even close to conversational anymore, and a lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve neglected them for other buddies. Plan 1: Ođđasat (the News in Northern Sami) every day. Plan 2: Bring back the Russian and Polish Music. Plan 3: Don’t skim the Russian and Polish posts on Facebook. Plan 4: don’t shy away form Slavic YouTubing. Plan 5: Don’t neglect my Nothern Sami Notes (from Gulahalan, etc).

 

  • Now it comes for a time for me to really wonder: how many languages do I actually have time for? Do I have time for learning a new one? Can I actually maintain close to twenty languages and be ready to converse in them readily on a casual level? Will people even believe me? Will people doubt my resume?

 

My local friends (and many others) tell me that I can definitely manage this, and already I seem to have skewed the odds in my favor by choosing languages in various family groups (Scandinavian / West Germanic / Finnic / Romance Languages).

 

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll know when it will be time to drop one of my language projects when I fall out in love with it.

 

For now, however, I won’t stop my new acquisitions. And if the day comes in which I lose my attachment to one of my projects, then I will find no major problem with letting them go (I could relearn them whenever I want, and a “good head start” will certainly be useful should I choose that path).

 

But I’ve noticed that one video a day in various languages is usually enough for me to ensure that I don’t forget anything (or…as much). And the journey of learning new vocabulary never stops…not even for my native language…

 

For that matter, my journey of peering into new worlds won’t stop either…

Polyglot Report Card for September 2014 (Part 3)

Part 2 is here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/polyglot-report-card-for-september-2014-part-2/

I had felt my interest for Northern Sami crash ever since I moved into New York about a week ago. That isn’t to say that I intend on forgetting everything, but that I am allocating my energy towards other projects at the moment.

There are a number of reasons for this. For one, I am quite irritated by Ođđasat’s excessive use of subtitles in languages other than Sami, although maybe there are shows in which it would be toned down. On the other hand, the relatively low number of speakers could also be a thing. Maybe I’ll get lucky in New York City and meet someone who speaks the language (not entirely unthinkable). Maybe one day I’ll get to Samiland (also possible).

For now, it seems that my goal with Northern Sami was to realize its connections to its culture and the other Nordic Languages.

sapmi

I feel that I have accomplished that, although it will definitely slip away without practice and I may find myself enchanted by the prospect of learning it very intensely yet again, as I had over the course over the past few months.

In contrast to Nothern Sami is Estonian, the rising star among my weakest languages.

eesti

I’m struggling with getting the past tense down, but certainly the idea that there is no true future tense in Estonian (or in any of the Finno-Ugric Languages) is a relief.

I expected the cases to be really easy after my Finnish venture had required me to master those ones, but “easy” barely exists in regards to learning any language at all. The plural declensions really trip me up, even now. On the plus side, I know that with enough flash cards and enough immersion these problems can go away.

Only during my last few days in Connecticut did I really master the “õ” sound, and if it weren’t for the songs in “Lumekuninganna ja Igavene Talv” (The Snow Queen and the Eternal Winter”…oh, what on earth could THAT be?), then I think I’d still have an issue with it.

Luckily it occurred to me that the sound wasn’t quite as nasal as I thought it was…

Listen for the words “Kas kõik on korras?” (is everything okay?) at around 1:17 to sample this mystifying phoneme:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-62nRWxOi0

Speaking of nasal vowels, it occurs to me that, thanks largely to Facebook and the time I spent in the country, my ability to forget elementary Polish leaves a lot to be desired (Saturday I went to the Columbia bookstore to browse and, of course, there was Polish spoken by a family there…)

polska polska

What also leaves a lot to be desired is my ability to improve. The reason? Because I’ve obviously been focusing on everything else. The only reason I haven’t forgotten absolutely everything (and I really wasn’t that good to begin with) is because of music, social media, and memories.

russkij flag

I literally have the exact same situation with Russian as well, which I considered forgotten until a friend of mine required some help in reading the Russian alphabet and some basics. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t forgotten nearly as much as I had thought. But I don’t think I speak either of these remotely well, but maybe one day the passion will come back.

rf

French and Italian are going by well in Duolingo land, and I feel that I am on the cusp of getting basic conversational skills in Italian, but I’m nowhere near where I am with Brazilian Portuguese (whose tree I intend to finish first).

 

italia

On the other hand, I have been committing lots of time to learning Faroese vocabulary, but the accent still remains a bit of a problem, although the pronunciation less so. It feels like all of the Scandinavian Languages’ accents were thrown in a blender and out came a Faroese accent…no, really!

foroyar

There’s literally one thing that is holding me back from becoming conversational: the grammar. Right now I’m focusing on vocabulary, but once I get down the silliness with nouns and verbs, I may make extraordinary progress with Faroese and may quickly have it in the category of my linguistic “best buddies”. Once I reach that point, Icelandic won’t be too far behind. You can take my word for it!

Last but not least, Romansh. I’ve been pumping words into my brain with spaced repetition, and because of its similarity to the Romance Languages, this is easy for me. Putting together sentences? Getting the pronunciation perfect? I may need to buy a book for that…or, if I’m feeling particularly lazy, I could always visit www.rtr.ch

switzerland

True story: Romansh came up in a discussion I had this past Friday evening. And not at my own doing.

Anyhow, there may be languages learned, languages forgotten, and stasis in learning.

There will be mirth. There will be disappointments. There will be times when I feel very proud, and other times when I am tempted to throw phrasebooks or notebooks out the window (and not just notebooks with pages…).

But despite the pain, the self-consciousness, and the struggles, I’m glad I take these journeys. There are so many worlds opened to me as a result of them.

The report card is done!

So what am I waiting for?

Let new adventures begin!