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

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

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 17

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

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

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

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

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

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Conversation Between Richard Howeson and Jared Gimbel

 October 23, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

J: Yes.

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

J: Hmmm…

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

J: I did too, actually!

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

J: Indeed.

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

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

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

J: Yes.

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

J: Yes.

R: And the language comes from…

J: Fantastically put!

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

J: Agreed.

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

J: “Női” and “férfi”?

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

J: Very true.

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

J: Indeed.

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

J: (In a Danish voice) Ja!

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

J: Yup!

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

J: (Gasps) Very well done.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 25

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

J: Yes

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

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

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

J: That’s fantastically put!

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

J: Indeed. Very well.

R: From friends like yourself as well!

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

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

J: Good!

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

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

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

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

R: Was I on a bicycle?

J: Yes, it was a bicycle. Yes.

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

J: Aha!

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

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

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

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

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

J: Yes. And you’ve done that.

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

J: Yup.

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

J: YES!

R: Do you utilize that or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

J: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J: Yes

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

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

R: No Internet down there!

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

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

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

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

J: Tell me.

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

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

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

J: GOOD POINTS!

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

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

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

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

J: Wow.

R: Including from Mandarin and Arabic.

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

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

J: I saw your photo ops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother of the Sea and Me

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

 Greece

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

 

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

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It has been a while!

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Don’t judge yourself too harshly.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This goes to my next point…

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I Want to Learn Jamaican Patois…But HOW?

 

First off, anyone wanting to learning Jamaica Patois is a brave fellow (or fellowette?) and deserves praise. Because trust me, even in the language-learning world, there are NOT a lot of people that look kindly on it.

First off, what exactly is Jamaican Patois? Let’s turn to Wikipedia…IN Jamaican Patois!

(from jam.wikipedia.org)

 

“Wi a-chrai mek Patwa wan a ‘i Wikipidia languijdem. No Jamiekan Ingglish, Patwa. Nof a ‘i piejdem we rait aredi de ina Jamiekan Ingglish, a no Patwa. Jamiekan Ingglish a we muos a wi chat ebi die. Patwa a ‘i raa baan ting we unu griet gran muma did chat, we tiicha did biit unu fa ah se “Speak Properly!”. Wah nex ting tu, a nof dayalek de ina Jumieka. Rait aatikl ina fi yu dayalek. Piipl wi andastan an iwi ton standad suun. Dis ya we mi a-rait a ‘i Wesmolan dayalek.”

 

Jamaican English is an everyday language that stands in stark contrast to the “raa baan ting” (raw born thing). In this paragraph you can see that it is associated with ancestry (“griet gran muma did chat” = “great-grandmother spoke”) and shame (tiicha did biit unu fa ah se “Speak Properly!” = teacher beat all of you saying “Speak Properly!” unu -> all of you).

Even today, Creole languages, especially English creoles, suffer from undeserved derision, despite the fact that music in these languages is popular in every corner of the globe and many cultures associated with these places have influenced Anglophone culture on a very deep level. Virtually every American knows something about Jamaica in particular, much like many of them would know something about Japan or France.

The journey with Carribean Creoles for me is an interesting one and one that really shows to test how open-minded people really are.

Some language-learning events, especially free ones, have a problem. There are language enthusiasts (like me and my friends) and there are also people who happen to be bilingual or speak multiple languages on account of their UPBRINGING rather than their hobby. Most of the former tend to be open-minded explorers who share stories, the latter aren’t too different from the general population (in the respect that all levels of curiosity and open-mindedness, or lack thereof, exist among them. The nastiest things I’ve heard about my choice of languages have actually come from bilingual and “polyglot wannabes”.)

And no language in my repertoire gets a mixture of either scorn or admiration as much as Jamaican Patois does.

 

Anyhow, inspired by my followers (as I often am), I opened up for questions about how I learned Jamaican Patois and how I’m continuing with it.

For one, a multitude of free apps exist which can help for building vocabulary in a small sense but they are NOT substitutes for learning how to speak.

That would largely go to this book, which I know isn’t accessible to everyone, but when I showed it to a friend who had no knowledge of German she actually found it astonishingly useful regardless:

20171006_153211

You can purchase this book on Amazon and find it in bookstores around the German-speaking world, I also think that sellers in areas of the UK and US may also have it.

Another thing that I should also mention is the fact that having learned Krio of Sierra Leone beforehand definitely helped. Krio is further away from Standard English than Jamaican Patois is, and it also really helped me realize what sort of differences would exist in usage between Jamaican and English.

Let’s give some examples:

 

“we” is an all-purpose relative pronoun, “that”, “who” or “which”

Juwish piipl frahn Spien ahn Puotyugal we a ron frahn di “Ingkwizishan,”

Jewish people from Spain and Portugal WHO ran from the Inquisition.

 

You can use “fi” in order to indicate ownership. Works similar to the English word “for”

“mi” can mean “my” but also “fimi” can mean “mine” or “belonging to me”

 

Plurals are different:

Wan bwai -> tuu bwai

(One boy -> two boys)

OR

Di bwai dem (the boys, literally “the boys them”)

 

“Se” is used like “that” in English, as in “I said that you are doing a good job”. Krio and Bislama share the exact same usage.

Also, given the dialectical fragmentation of Jamaican Patois (note that the paragraph above mentions it!), no rule is absolute, and you’ll dance between standard English and Patois forms with regularity depending on who you’re talking with. It’s very much something you’ll need to get a sense for but your best bet is to imitate native speakers. Features present in some communities’ Patois may not be present in others.

Also, Wikipedia and various missionary translations into Jamaican Patois have also helped to significant degrees. It’s telling that religious organizations pay more attention to many languages that most global corporations don’t even give a second thought to.

There is Swiftkey Keyboard in Jamaican Patois as well, but its predictive text function, as of the time of writing, is off.

Omniglot.com also has useful websites in many regards including a newly-added phrase page for Jamaican Patois.

What’s more, a bit of a warning: there is no standardized form of Jamaican Patois (as noted in the first instance of the language at the top of the page) so you’ll need significant exposure to a handful of sources in order to get a good grounding in something consistent.

 

And here also comes another important question: how do you get native speakers to speak it with you?

For one, contrary to popular belief, the Carribean Islanders I have encountered have been VERY thrilled to hear me “chat Patwa” (full disclosure: I’m visibly white, but there are also white and Asian Jamaicans as well who speak fluent Patois from birth. The “out of many, one people” motto is important to Jamaican national identity and virtually every Jamaican knows many aspects of their quilt-history which ties together elements from all corners of the globe).

One issue is the fact that often I encounter people who are second-generation and, as a result, their knowledge of Patois is confined to something more passive. But that’s okay. This is not your fault, this is a fault of creole-shaming present in this world at large in general and I think, to some degree, it’s also found in a lot of these island countries as well (not just in places like the U.S. and Canada).

Obviously one thing you really can do in order to build your “cred” in order to fully feel like a “yardie” would be to (1) use proverbs you’ve heard (Carribean Islanders, much like Slavs, very much value proverbs and sayings and use them in their speech. Each of the nations has their own collection that is very foreign to the other islands. That is to say, Vincentians or Trinidadians may not understand Jamaican proverbs, and vice-versa). (2) If you don’t have proverbs, look online or ask your Jamaican friends for some. Even if they don’t have proverbs, they may actually have SOMETHING to share with you.

Especially with Jamaican Patois, a key element is to think in phrases, not individual words. If you are a native speaker of English, you have a HUGE advantage because you already think in “chunks” in English rather than individual words and you can transmute that way of thinking into your newly forming Jamaican Patois as well.

Much like the struggle I had with Solomon Islands Pijin, in which Pijin and English are juggled in a lot of content produced in the Solomon Islands, Jamaica has an interesting situation as well. Except for even more so, because with the English Creoles of the Carribean some people will change registers IN THE MIDDLE OF SPEAKING. It’s a bit like speaking TWO LANGUAGES AT ONCE and it takes time getting used to. (The fact that this happens so much gives fuel to the dialect side of the dialect-versus-language debate, but I think that the dialect side really only serves no purpose other than to discourage study of these cultures so I’ll put that out there plainly).

Also, don’t worry that you’re “making fun” of their language at all. I hear Jamaican Patois more often on the streets of New York than Japanese or Italian. Also friends of Jamaicans pick up Patois as well (and this should be no surprise to anyone. A lot of these “why speak their language? Won’t they just make fun of me or use English?” are…limiting beliefs that deserve to be pushed out. A lot of it is in your head.

Have YOU learn Jamaican Patois or another Carribean Creole at any point? How did that go for you? Let me know!

”How Do You Know So Much About Everything?”, or How to Build an Encyclopedic Memory

 

Too often throughout my life have people tried to convince me that somehow my mind was “special” and that I was “gifted”.

Later on in life, it occurred to me that the only thing that really made me different was the fact that I “tripped” on some successful formulae on how to memorize things and that I applied them with consistency.

If you’ve had a conversation with me in real life, you’ll definitely know that I am an experience collector that draws in a lot of different histories and cultural experiences from throughout the globe and draws them together in ways that are inspiring at best, intimidating at worst.

Today I decided that I’m going to let loose some of my secret as to how I developed the memory and how you can develop an encyclopedic knowledge of anything of your choice!

You already have an encyclopedic knowledge of SOMETHING

That’s one important thing to keep in mind. Even if it is very simple details about your life, your family or your work sphere, there is something that you know very well in detail.

How exactly did you remember it? I’ll give you some clues.

For one, you associated the various facts and faces and stimuli used for recognition with multiple elements. Some of them were:

  • Feelings
  • Incidents associated with certain feelings (e.g. funny stories, awkward stories)
  • Places (we’ll get to the memory palace in a bit, which is probably the world’s most tested-and-true memory technique)
  • Your senses (you may associate smells or sounds or melodies with them)

Another thing you also did in order to remember these details about your life is the fact that your brain has been convinced (and rightly so) that learning these details is actually essential to your survival. (If you can trick your brain that learning something is essential to your survival, your brain is going to learn it whether you like it or not. Humans are the most successful species this planet has ever seen and your brain is, by extension, served as the key to that success. Trust it).

In places like Germany and Myanmar where I could not always rely on people speaking English or other languages I knew, my brain kicked into second-gear when I needed to learn phrases of the local language, especially ones that would be useful in emergency situations. Even in places like Sweden and Iceland knowledge of the local language could be a survival advantage and …

(I was writing this in Grand Central Station and a fire alarm went off. Despite the fact that the announcement was in English I literally couldn’t understand a single word. Serves to show you that sometimes even “your language” can be completely unintelligible to you and you don’t give it a second thought or become insecure about it!)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

I was having a conversation about multilingualism at (one of) my rabbi’s classes last night. Interestingly I said that a lot of people memorize other things with great success (e.g. names of sports teams and what years they won, names of Pokémon, video games, video game levels, TV shows, episodes and seasons, books you’ve read, names of your teachers throughout your life, etc.) One reason for that is that they associate it with places, feelings and stimuli.

Take the example of sports games. I’ve lived with a lot of students from Spain when I was in Poland (to whom I owe the fact that I talk Spanish like an Iberian). They went to sports bars very frequently and no doubt they associate each game with a different place and a different set of emotions, not also to mention the sort of things that their friends or other company said or did during the game or afterwards. In so doing, they have an advantage in memorizing a “timeline” in their head given that they associate each incident with stimuli that serve to enforce the memory.

Or take video games. I can literally draw of map of the Kanto Region (from the original Pokémon games) from memory. I can tell you where in Kanto to find any of the individual species in the Red Version (I started with a Bulbasaur, for those curious). I can even hum the music from any of the routes or the cities (although this is probably due to my musical memory in general, which is something I may write about another time). What’s more, I KNOW I am not the only person who can do that.

I associated each place not only with the melody but also the type of Pokémon that were found there, in addition to places in real life where I was when I beat certain gym leaders in the game. (I beat Brock in Hamden, Connecticut outside of a place called Wentworth’s Ice Cream store, for example).

Now how exactly can you apply this to ACADEMIC knowledge?

For one, since I was very young, I associate particular places with other stimuli (they were usually visual or musical). I also associate places with individual customs or landmarks. Flags, obviously, became a big help as well.

This was something that I may have picked up later in in my childhood from edutainment games. Take, for example, the 1990’s versions of “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” (I’ll have you know that they depicted some places I’ve been to in real life, including Yafo in Israel, Gamla Stan in Stockholm, and the Old Town in Heidelberg with not a hint of inaccuracy in the SLIGHTEST. Okay, they probably copied the details from panoramic photos, but whatever). In the games, you not only associate the places with hints that the characters give to you but also the landscapes and the musical pieces that echo the “mood” of whatever place you’re in. (Yafo is going to be very different from San Francisco, and Mount Kilimanjaro is going to be very different from either of those).

The places no longer became lists of places I’ve never heard of, they became places of living people, real places and a culture that I tasted, to whatever small a degree, with the game’s soundtrack (I would say that Israel, Iran, Iceland, Zaire (as it was called then), France and Germany probably have the most memorable musical pieces in that game).

Or let’s take verb conjugations, for example.

For Finnish, I associated them with particular sentences that I heard in songs and spoken by characters in dubs of animated movies or cartoons. In so doing, the grammatical “pains” of Finnish (such as conjugations of verbs, conjugations of the “no” verb [in Finnish, “no” is a verb and you have to conjugate it and pair it with the stem of another verb afterwards], or the relative pronouns [don’t get me started on these!]) weren’t so painful anymore.

In Hungarian, I’m doing something slightly different, in which I’m associating them with sentences from my Anki deck, all of which seem to tell a story by themselves (okay, let’s open up the deck right now and see what I get. Okay…the sentence is … “apám jól van, mint mindig” [Father is well, as usual]. Doesn’t that sentence tell a story by itself? Doesn’t it cause some emotion of sorts to stir up in your heart? When you hear the sentence, you may associate it with a particular “taste” captured in the sentence. Remember that.) No doubt I’m going to head onto what I did with Finnish-dubbed cartoons as well, probably later on down the line…

Here’s probably another point you need to take away: just reading stuff off a page over and over again is NOT LIKELY TO WORK. You have to pay attention to how each element you’re supposed to be memorizing makes you feel.

What words in it resemble things or words in other languages you already know? What sort of story is the word telling? (In many Germanic languages [Yiddish, German, mainland Scandinavian] you “over-set” something to translate it, but in Finnish and Tok Pisin you “turn” it).

Are you learning it with a friend or eating something you really like (or really don’t like) while you’re learning it?

Did a native speaker correct your pronunciation and did you feel embarrassed? Did a native speaker compliment you and make you feel good about it?

These emotional turns are going to cause your memory to go into Jedi mode, which is why immersion in another country (or another area of the country or the city that you’re living in that you haven’t explored), which is very likely to create emotions of all sorts, is such a good idea, regardless of whether you’re a beginner (like I was with Burmese in Myanmar back in May), on the intermediate plateau (like where I sort of am with Greenlandic right now concerning my Greenland mission in October) or fluent (like with Danish in Greenland).

You can also use music to create emotions as well, which is why learning from a song (and a song text) is a fantastic idea as well, even though it may not assist you in conversation at the absolute beginner stage (although no doubt it will help you up your vocabulary count in the intermediate stage and beyond!)

In summary:

  • To develop an encyclopedic memory, know that it is possible. You already have a very good knowledge of at least something, no matter who you are.
  • Associate what you want to learn with “hooks”. They can be anything that evokes an emotion or a visual that may assist with it. Pay attention to what “connections” you can make between what you want to learn and what you already know. Your knowledge base is like a Lego Castle and the more you build on it the more opportunities you’ll have to link things.
  • Use hooks of all sorts.
  • If something’s not sticking, feel free to expose yourself to it multiple times and your brain may come up with a hook eventually. If not, you can stare at the what you want to learn (e.g. a word, a conjugation) and make something silly so that you remember it.
  • Associate pictures or other sentences or tunes with what sort of words you want to learn.
  • Most importantly, realize that ALL humans are capable of this, and you don’t need a “certain type of brain” in order to get an encyclopedic knowledge of things. Just keep working on the hooks and you’ll get asked what I get very frequently in no time. “How on earth to you manage to KEEP SO MUCH STUFF in your BRAIN?!!?”

 

Happy hooking!

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How to Perfect your Accent in English

It isn’t often that I find myself writing about my native language! Actually, I think this is literally the FIRST time I’ve ever done that!

I’ve been an English-language tutor for nearly two years now, and one thing I’ve really noticed is that, thanks to my time in Poland at a reception desk (among many other jobs that included “Yiddish translator” and “guy who sings children’s songs for…well…children”), I’ve gained the uncanny ability to actually zone in on people’s English-language errors and peculiarities.

This article isn’t about grammar in the slightest (but if you’re curious I would think that the biggest mistakes made by far would actually be related to sentence structure and article usage [when do I use “a”? when do I use “the”?]).

Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to knowing how to perfect your accent. And English is tricky!

grand central

You, one day, knowing that your English skills are in the top 0.01% of all non-native speakers! 

Some languages, like Finnish or Hebrew, are pronounced the way they are written with mathematical precision!

English, especially the trickier American variety, is anything but that.

Without having to read any of my extended memoirs any more, let’s get into the details.

The most common pronunciation errors made by my students would include:

  • Not using the Schwa sound

American English has a very lazy sound indeed that a lot of languages don’t have. If you are a native speaker of American English, say the word “the” …note that it is a low sound that almost comes from your chin!

Instead, they will pronounce the words “the” and “thee” indentically. You don’t want to do that.

Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use the schwa sound are…well, there are no rules.

Because the schwa can literally be represented by a, e, i, o, u OR y!

Wikipedia, as of the time of writing, gives the following examples: about (first syllable), taken (last syllable), pencil (last syllable), memory (second syllable), supply (first syllable), sibyl (last syllable).

So what you need to do is two things:

  • Master the sound (the wikipedia article on Schwa that I just mentioned has a recording you can use!)
  • Find patterns in the way that it is used by English speakers and imitate them. If you find this hard to do, go to tatoeba.org and find English sentences read out loud by native speakers. In this way, you can learn to imitate a sentence exactly as a native speaker would! (Thanks to Ari in Beijing for this tip!)

 

  • English vowels, especially in “American”, are “Lazy”.

 

When I hear heavily accented English a lot of the time, and this is true for people from all continents, I usually hear a precision in the vowels.

In many types of accented English, the vowels are pronounced with emphasis and are strongly highlighted. You can do this and sound like a native speaker of American English…from the 1940’s, that is.

But contemporary English has a gliding quality to its vowels that almost none of the other languages that I have studied have.

American English uses a “legato” (and for those of you who speak Italian, note how differently an American would say the word versus the way an Italian would say it and you’ll illustrate my point exactly!). The vowels slither from one end of the mouth to the other. The primary focus of that back-and-forth swaying should be the back half of your tongue!

Instead, what many speakers do is that they pronounce the vowels statically. What this means is that the vowels, instead of moving throughout your mouth the way they do in “American”, stay put.

I don’t blame a lot of non-native speakers. Most languages in the world do this.

Those of you who know me in person know that my accent is a mixture of those from the many countries I’ve lived in. I have no problem putting on a flawless American accent, but it takes effort for me, because the lazy sounding of the vowel is something that, looking at it honestly, actually requires effort to execute.

Again, imitation of native speakers will assist you in learning how to do this. Pay attention to the small details of people’s speech (by the way, that’s what I did in my Learn Palauan Video Series that’s still ongoing). That way, you can pick up an accent.

What’s different from the way the native speaker is saying it in comparison to the way you would say it? Pay attention to EVERY. SMALL. DETAIL.

  • Not Pronouncing the R correctly

 

And this is especially  a problem from places like Thailand in which the L and the R sound are almost mixed (I bet you’re probably thinking about politically incorrect accent imitations from cartoons, aren’t you?)

One of my students practiced this sound by imitating my pronunciation of the phrase “rare occurrences”, which many non-native English speakers struggle with.

Your tongue should be curved upwards slightly, or flat, and then retreated. It should sound almost like a lazy dog’s growl (and I think it was a comment on Fluent in 3 Months or something like that that I took it from).

For those of you who speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the phrase 好好 (or “very good” = Hǎohǎo) is actually pronounced something closer to having an “r” sound in the middle of it. That’s how I got native Mandarin speakers from Beijing to pronounce the R sound flawlessly. Surprisingly that r actually resembles the American R to an astonishing degree.

  • Having various pronunciation “ticks” from their native language seep in.

Now this is one that I considered omitting by virtue of the fact that there are some native speakers of English that do this (e.g. some Irish people don’t pronounce the “th” sound, Trinidadian native speakers of Standard English may pronounce the word “ask” as “aks”, etc. And no, this isn’t the time for me to get into a debate about whether or not the English Creoles of the Caribbean are separate languages or not. Post for another time!)

This can take extraordinary training and most people are satisfied with their English accent enough to the degree that they don’t deem it necessary.

Take Sweden, for example, a place with a very high rate of English proficiency. Despite that, you’ll hear people pronounce the “ch” sound like a “sh” sound, or the “j” sound like a “y” sound at times. (“A box of shocolates” … “you yust need to understand…”)

Thanks to my experience with Scandinavian tongues, I speak like that too, at times. (Keep in mind that many Swedish young people will throw in English phrases and sentences even when speaking Swedish among themselves).

You don’t understand the degree to which the things you expose yourself to can affect you. It’s very, very powerful.

These things can be trained away with effort, but given that a lot of people want a “good accent” and not a “they can’t tell the difference between me and an American” accent, a lot of people don’t go this far. But I think that the various English pronunciation ticks of many nationalities are well-documented and you just need to be aware enough to avoid them.

And sometimes speaking exercises and tongue twisters may train things away.

Again, maybe these ticks are actually something that you like (as conversation starters, for example). But I got news for you: you can easily turn such things like that “on” and “off”.

Some examples of these ticks:

  • Swedes, Norwegians, French people pronouncing “ch” as “sh”.
  • Polish and Portuguese speakers overusing nasal vowels in English.
  • Hungarians speaking English with the first-syllable-is-always-stressed rule (English does, as a general rule, do this, but not with the consistency of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • Greenlanders pronouncing the “ti” combination as “tsi” rather than “tea” (e.g. “Arctsic Winter Games”)

This is very much a perfectionist point. Which brings me to the one thing that almost ALL English learners struggle with.

  • Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language

The most common roadblock for developing a good accent in English!

Your native language may have a set amount of vowels. English is almost certainly very likely to have more.

Often some speakers will just read and speak English using the vowels of their native language, rather than learning in detail the way that the English language uses vowels.

As an English native speaker, I have to be careful about my accent. If I don’t do a good job, I may get answered in English, especially if my accent impedes my understanding.

You, as an English learner, don’t really need to get worried about being answered in your native tongue when you try to speak English, and NOWHERE NEAR with as much consistency. This is especially true in English-speaking countries.

As a result, I’m not surprised by the fact that most people don’t want to hone their accent and only want to make it “borderline understandable”. And this is true even in places that score “very high” on English proficiency tests.

To some degree, I understand this because humans are, generally speaking, lazy creatures.

So what you’ll need to do is learn how to pronounce the vowels in English while successfully shutting out the sounds of your native tongue.

Imagine that you had no knowledge of your other languages in the slightest, and just needed to imitate the sounds based on what you heard, without overlaying the vowel sounds of your native language on it. That’s what you need to be doing.

Simply put: don’t read English vowels the way as if they were the same exact vowels in your native tongue. Use a new system.

 

BONUS: Another thing you could do to help you in English is…learn a little bit of another language!

 

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Especially in places where it is commonly believed “don’t learn too many languages because you can’t master them all. Focus on a handful of them!” (just wait till I and the rest of the polyglots get validated by furthered informational and memory technology! Hoo hah!)

But if you choose to do this, you’ll actually acquire skills from your other language to help you with English and everything that it entails.

You’ll also learn about how to approach learning from a different angle, and what makes English (and the process of learning English) different from whatever other languages you may be learning.

As a hyperpolyglot myself, I’ve honed the many processes of learning and maintaining my many other languages by means of collecting experiences on each journey and sharing them with each other.

This is one well-known fix that very, VERY few people try, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it already.

Granted, English may actually be your third, fourth, fifth, etc. language, in which case you just may need a little bit of thought, investigation and a few diary entries in order to see what you could do to fix it.

 

Yes, I have, on a handful of occasions, met non-bilingual folks whom I mistook for Americans because they spoke English so well (and my accent radar is EXTREMELY well-honed).

It. Is. Possible!

That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!

Have fun on the journey!

8 Important Lessons I Learned Speaking Elementary Burmese in Myanmar for 2 ½ Weeks

My goal: learn Burmese well enough to get by. Did I succeed? Yes I did! Did I leave fluent in Burmese and being able to talk about philosophy and politics? No, but that’s okay.

More importantly, I did pick up some very important lessons.

Shortly before taking off, I got a message from one of my friends who is a native speaker of another East Asian Language, saying “now we’ll see how our Western polyglot fares with our Eastern languages!”

(Full disclosure: my only other Asian Language up until that point was Hebrew. Even then, there are those that would consider the languages of the Middle East, Central Asia or even most Indo-Aryan Languages as “Western”)

Burmese was VERY different from every other language I’ve studied (although interesting it had grammatical similarities to the Melanesian Creoles like Tok Pisin [of all things], which gave me an advantage, as well as odd similarities to many other languages I can speak as well). It was a challenge. Obviously I would have fared better with languages more similar to those I knew already, but it is what it is and I’m glad that I did it.

 

20170525_165915

Victory. Is my Destiny.

 

It seems that, after this enchanting experience, I’m likely to want to pick up more languages from outside Europe in the future. That is…if I could even manage the whole maintenance thing or have the heart to actually abandon some of my previous languages…

Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!

 

  1. Just because English isn’t widely spoken where you are, doesn’t mean that your chances of being answered in English are any lower. Actually, you’re probably MORE likely to get answered in English in such a country!

 

“Burmese people speak terrible English”. That’s what I read once on a Swedish-language travel site. Part of me was surprised (former British colony? Bad English? Really?), part of me wasn’t (all that isolation is probably responsible for that). But I thought, “I don’t need to worry about getting answered in English at all! Yippi”

WRONG!

Actually, looking at it neutrally (and this is taking into account the fact that I am a white person who would, under almost all circumstances, not be mistaken for a Myanmar local), I got answered in English more frequently in Myanmar than in SWEDEN.

(And, looking back on in, Sweden wasn’t really all that bad in that regard, unless I hesitated / made a grievous grammar mistake / did something very un-Swedish. Even with my English-speaking family members nearby and even when I handed the cashier my American passport at Systembolaget, I still got answered in Swedish!)

I did encounter fluent English speakers in Myanmar, but only near high-end places in Yangon (and these were the richest areas of the whole country).

With most Burmese (including these fluent speakers as well as those what spoke elementary English), it seems that they wanted to prove that they knew English (to whatever degree they did). In a place like Sweden or Iceland, with heaps of hackneyed articles being written on why they speak English so well, it seems that most feel no need to prove it.

In Italy and in France (back when my Italian and French was even worse than my Burmese was when I took off), the situation was very comparable to that of Myanmar, with the English of the locals usually being a lot higher than most areas of East Asia.

That said, all hope is not lost, because…

 

  1. With the exception of places where global / popular languages are spoken, few foreigners will even attempt the local language. This, already, makes you stand out.

 

In Myanmar, it is common for local to greet tourists with “Mingalarbar”(မင်္ဂလာပါ).

Some tourists respond in kind (and only once did I hear a group of tourists profess any knowledge of Burmese beyond that, my only interaction with expatriates [who , according to my knowledge, spoke Burmese about as well as I did], was at the “Myanmar Shalom” Expatriate Shabbat. Yes, there are Jews living in Myanmar! More on that some other day.)

But I noticed something whenever I would interact with restaurant staff or locals on the street and there were other tourists nearby. Often they would stare at me with amazement. Locals would also react differently to me, even though I was travelling with people who didn’t even know a lick of Burmese. Even if I had trouble understanding what was spoken back to me, or even if I got answered in English, I still got complimented very heavily.

In Iceland, I also had a very similar reception as well when I spoke Icelandic to locals. This is what knowing the local language does (even if you speak a little bit, which would mean “I can order food in this language and ask how much things costs or ask for directions”). It gives you an aura of enchantment that those who don’t make the attempt and even those who have been speaking the language since birth. This is even truer with languages that are more rarely studied.

 

  1. Your Skills Fluctuate as a result of Travel, as well as of the Learning Process

 

At some points during my Myanmar trip, I was “on a roll”, I was getting all of the tones right, I was not making pronunciation errors, no hesitation and sometimes didn’t even need to peek in my books for a vocabulary refresher!

Sometimes I was too tired and “wasn’t feeling up to it”, and therefore wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic, able or confident. But interestingly, if I had to interact in a language I was consistently good with (like those that I teach), I wouldn’t have had an issue even if I was tired or sick or being eaten by bugs (this didn’t happen to me, thankfully).

Only once or twice was I so “out of it” that I defaulted to English.

But only a few hours later did I use my Burmese skills that actually resulted in me getting free water bottles! (This was at Shwedagon Pagoda, no less!)

You are learning. Until you are consistently good, your skills are going to fluctuate wildly. And even with your native language, your ability to apply grammar or come up with meaningful expressions is going to fluctuate (to a lesser degree). And this is true even if you are a monoglot who only speaks your native language.

 

  1. Use What Resources You Have. Obviously for Less Politically Powerful Languages, You’ll Have Less. But Take Your Disadvantages into Account in the Learning Process.

 

I looked at the Google Translate App in frustration, wondering why on earth I wasn’t able to download the Myanmar / Burmese translation package (the way I was capable of doing with Icelandic).

If I were headed to somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, I would have had my work cut out for me more easily, with more books, more tips and more technological resources to deploy.

My books for learning Burmese, however, weren’t nothing (and I had two that I carried on my person at all times).

One thing I learned to do within the first few days was keep a ready mental note to use the index if I saw a certain situation was coming up. For the Lonely Planet book, this was easier. But for the Kauderwelsch book, I often had to remember page numbers where I encountered certain phrases or use the mini-images at the top of the page in order to serve as a guide to when I would need to use what.

And speaking of books…

 

  1. Use your books or your tech resources during your downtime (at the hotel, waiting for a meal, etc.)

Something to note: as of the time of writing there are a lot of people, especially older folk, that will get visibly irritated if you use your phone excessively. Interestingly, they will have no such reaction to you referencing a book (unless you are really engrossed in it).

That said, keep in mind that whenever you are having an “I’m bored” moment, get out your book and look at something you think you may need or otherwise look at something related to a consistent weak point.

For Burmese, one consistent weak point I had was numerical classifiers (fail to use these well enough and this means you’ll get answered in English in a yap). For those who don’t know what a classifier is (they exist in a lot of East Asian Languages across the board), it is a word used to indicate a number of a measurement of something. That something comes in various “flavors”, and you choose what “flavor” depending on what class of thing you are talking about.

So when I was in a hotel or waiting for a meal, and it seemed that conversation was slow or that there was an aura of laziness in the air, I would take out my book, review classifiers, and do so until circumstances required me to do something else.

But just reading the words off the page isn’t going to do much…so you’ll need…

 

  1. Memory Devices are your Best Friends. I used (1) similarity to words I already knew in other languages and (2) using the memory palace technique in order to mentally “place” the word where I knew I would use it.

 

 

Let’s look at the Burmese classifier list on Wikipedia, shall we? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_numerical_classifiers)

Now, how exactly would I remember the first entry in the list (ကောင် / kàuɴ), a classifer used for animals?

Well, it sounds like “cow” and I would remember a cow falling, but there’s also an “င်” at the end which is pronounced like an “ng” sound. I kept in mind “kong” (whether exactly you may be thinking of King Kong of Hollywood Fame or the Kong Family of the Nintendo Franchise is entirely up to you)

Then, of course, there were my first evenings in a restaurant where I was required to remember words for what I wanted to order. I took in the surroundings and I “placed” the various words on the tables in my mental space. That did the trick.

 

  1. Discouragement and “Why Did I Even Try This?” May Come. Resist these feelings and don’t dwell on your mistakes.

 

You are almost certainly going to be making mistakes on your immersion journey. Back when I was in various European countries from 2011 until 2014, I sometimes dwelled on my mistakes too often. Now I’ve known better.

Misunderstood? Eh.

Answered in English? Bleh.

Didn’t know how to respond in a conversation? Meh.

I usually don’t get too vexed when I’m playing a video game and I lose a life. I expect losing lives to be the natural course of playing a video game. Similarly, I don’t think I should overreact when the same thing happens in language learning.

And this leads to my final lesson…

 

 

  1. Be easy on yourself and take what you can get.

 

I didn’t leave fluent in Burmese. That’ll take a while yet. What I did get, however, was motivation, practice, and tips for the road forward.

Knowing that one day I will look back on these days when I was making mistakes more frequently, knowing that I would remember “back when I couldn’t speak Burmese all that well”, and that I would probably laugh at it with a smile…fills me with determination.

2016-10-31-19-21-52

I know. I said I would knock off the Undertale Jokes. Come to think of it, I think I made the exact same joke some twenty-odd posts ago?

It’s easy to compare yourself to other learners, including those who have lived in the country for a brief while and left fluent (I can only think of a handful of instances, I think Benny Lewis in Brazil was one such occurrence, but obviously learning Portuguese as a Native English speaker is going to be nothing like learning Burmese as a native speaker of … any European Language, actually).

Take what you can. You have plenty of time to get to the rest later (and “the rest” is actually of infinite volume, and this is true for any language). And even if you don’t return, you’ll have the chance to interact with native speakers, wherever you meet them, for the rest of your life.

myanmarsaga

I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.

Myanmar Saga: Burmese after 1 Month

Once upon a time I went to a bookstore and I was chanted by the fact that guides to Southeast Asia seemed to be everywhere. In libraries all around Manhattan, as well as in too many store shelves to list, it seems that the region is headed in the same way that Iceland is: the travel destination(s) that everyone talks about and almost everyone dreams of visiting.

(This is true about all of the countries in the region)

That was late 2014, shortly after returning from Germany to the United States.

Years since the day that I saw a Lonely Planet guide on a library shelf, I am pleased to announce that in less than one month I will be setting foot on the Golden Land after a very long journey from…the other Golden Land.

(Fun fact: Yiddish speakers called the United States “Di Goldene Medine” [the Golden Land], which is also a title used for Myanmar/Burma/”That Southeast Asian Country”)

The last few times I tried to play “language tourist” in France (seeing how far I could get with Duolingo alone…hint…DON’T DO THAT!) and Jordan (didn’t put almost any effort into it at all due to things I was going through with school), I failed extraordinarily.

I won’t let it happen this time.

And, of course, I am reminded of the time that my father expected me to know a lot of Spanish as a result of being halfway through Spanish II in high school. On a trip to various cities in Spain, he used my floundering as a validation for “Language learning for adults is impossible” hypothesis. Thanks to what happened in Iceland, he adjusted the goalposts (saying that I was capable of my okay Icelandic because I was exposed to French and Hebrew as a child), and I guess the goalposts are sorta…stuck there for the time being.

ANYHOW. BURMESE.

 

Burmy

If you can get this, then you should be my best friend. Obviously not my picture.

 

SUCCESSES:

Here’s what I’ve mastered so far:

  • Thanks to the “Burmese by Ear” course, the tones are not a problem for me (although when listening to them in singing they become an issue)
  • I can ask for the hotel and I can say that I want things and that I want to do things.
  • I can address a lot of tourist functions, including asking for food, how much something costs, and, of course, essentials such as basic greetings.
  • I got used to the sentence structure (particles at the end indicate grammatical context, such as whether it is a question with or without a question word, or what tense it is)

 

FAILURES:

 

I feel that my burnout and my laziness are intensifying with age, as is fear. One result of this is that my knowledge of reading the Burmese characters is not as strong as I would like. And I haven’t even got around to the confusion of the various words in Pali that can sometimes be spelled differently in Burmese.

What is Pali?

It’s the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, a bit like the Ancient Hebrew / Quranic Arabic / Biblical Greek of the Buddhists of Southeast Asia (this branch is dominant in Myanmar / Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia).

Liturgical language influences are common to many of the world’s languages, and, as with Yiddish, this phenomenon in Burmese actually creates words that do not conform to normal pronunciation rules.

I’m going to have to read a lot of signs in Burmese and I have less than a month to fully get to reading them well.

Here are my other blindspots:

  • Numbers (a bad blindspot to have! Very bad!)
  • Understanding of politeness systems.
  • Understanding of colloquial vs. formal speech (although I understand this at some level).
  • I don’t feel that I can put together very complicated sentences.
  • Listening to Burmese music and radio is a complete joke, I can barely understand any of it.

 

HOPES:

 

If I were a weaker person, I would chalk up my failures to the fact that “Burmese doesn’t have a lot of learning materials” (in comparison to the most popular languages of that region, which would probably be Thai and Vietnamese).

I won’t do that.

Yes, it might be harder for me on the short term (and that’s where I am headed at the moment), but I can always do something. And something is better than nothing.

I have my work cut out for me at the moment:

  • Be able to read signs (esp. street signs. This is important because the transliteration systems are inconsistent across guidebooks and tourist materials!)
  • To that end, possibly make cartoons and other drawings, like “Chineasy”, to help OTHER people do the same.
  • Know your numbers.
  • Rehearse and role-play various situations more often.
  • Read more about people like me learning Burmese online, whether for scholarly purposes or travel.

Who knows? Maybe Burmese will end up being one of my favorite languages down the line!

Any advice is highly appreciated!

Have you studied any language for travel purposes? Success stories about that? Share them in the comments!

grand central

Definitely not Southeast Asia here