5 Things About Language Learning I Learned from Norwegian

Gratulerer med dagen! (Congratulations with the day!)

While Norwegians and their various expatriate / heritage communities the world over celebrate today (May 17th, the Norwegian Constitution Day) with parades, traditional costumes, hot dogs and ice cream (and much more!), here I am in rainy Brooklyn wondering how I can bring (1) exciting new motivation to learners of Norwegian and (2) an interesting perspective as an outsider that will be insightful to native speakers.

Norwegian was actually the first major European Language that I became fluent in and still is my favorite European Language. Contrary to what you may hear, there are VOLUMES of resources to learn it and even MORE to engage with the language even if you’re nowhere near Norway or any native speakers at all.

17 May 2018

 

(1) Norwegian Taught Me to Reflect on What English Was Throughout the Ages (And What It is Now)

 

With some noteworthy exceptions, English’s sentence structure is Norse in origin. One of those noteworthy exceptions is the fact that Norwegian (like almost all of the Germanic Languages) has verb-second construction. (To explain this: if a sentence begins with something indicating time, manner or place, put the verb right afterwards. In English you would say “today I will play a game” but in almost all of the other Germanic Languages you would say “today will I play a game”. Same if it were “Slowly” or “in Oslo” at the beginning of a sentence instead of “Today”).

In teaching languages of Scandinavia, I have to teach students how to recognize words from English as well as how to piece together words from pieces they already know. “Gjenskinn”  may not be familiar to you without this training, but once you learn to recognize it as “(a)gain + shine”, you can piece it to mean “reflection”.

Other Norwegian words use pieces of words that have fallen out of usage in English but survived in compound words. “Homestead” and “instead” use the word “stead” (which is a direct relative of the Norwegian word “sted” meaning a place).

«Å skade» means «to hurt» or «to damage», which you may recognize from the English word «unscathed».

The most common question I ask when going over a Norwegian text is “do you know what this looks like in English?”. Once you see exactly how similar the two are, it doesn’t become scary at all. In fact, Norwegian (and its relatives) are a lot less scary than the Romance Languages are (in my opinion). Consistently I have seen English native speakers of Norwegian as a second language be SIGNIFICANTLY more confident that English native speakers of Spanish as a second language. Yes, the pronunciation in Norwegian is harder to master, but the grammar is simpler and even the complicated aspects thereof feel intuitive for an English native speaker.

Norwegian is an excellent first choice for your first foreign language if your only language (right now) is English.

 

(2) Norwegian Gave Me a Glimpse Into the Reality of Heritage Speakers

Many a Midwesterner has had Norwegian-speaking grandparents who didn’t pass on the language to their children. As a Jew I hear often stories of Yiddish-speaking grandparents who did the exact same thing.

Especially in the United States, cultural erasure happens but sometimes the erasure only happens for one or two generations (with one of the future generations seeking to re-attach themselves to their roots).

In comparison to many people who I’ve met who learn languages to, in vague terms, “speak with many people”, the heritage speakers I’ve encountered approach language learning with an almost holy determination. Many of them see the Norwegian-American experience as truly incomplete without a language component, others want to communicate with their distant relatives from the small village from which their ancestors immigrated.

These people make me think about what motivation can do and how a genuine desire to become an “honorary” member of a community can make the heaviest obstacles in language learning seem passable.

Several of my students said that learning Norwegian enabled them to experience an alternate universe version of themselves in which their ancestors didn’t immigrate and / or passed down the language rather than replacing it only with English. With my heritage languages I would say that it is very much the same.

 

(3) Once You Learn a Smaller Language, You Actually See Its Influence in Contemporary Popular Culture Everywhere

American folk music has been deeply influenced by Norwegian airs. If you listen to Norwegian party songs like those written by Robin and Bugge or Staysman & Lazz, you’ll notice a clear similarity to American country music. Obviously the influence also happens in the other direction as well (as Americanization is something I’ve noticed in literally every country I’ve ever been in, although it was probably the weakest in Jordan).

Norwegian songs that have become ultra-famous in the greater world, like “Take On Me” and “What Does the Fox Say?” (despite both being songs in English), do have a distinctly Norwegian touch to them.

The city layouts of the Midwestern United States will give you a heavy dosage of “déjà vu” if you been to anywhere in Scandinavia at all.

Product names and idiomatic similarities are also some added bonuses you’ll get to recognize.

 

(4) The Norwegian Language Has Layers, as Do Many Languages Throughout the World.

At its base, Norwegian has Old Norse as its ancestor and primary influence. However, later on, there were other influences that entered the picture. The Denmark-Norway Union changed the language significantly. French and German influence also contributed loads of vocabulary to the language, not also to mention Latinate loanwords that Icelandic does not have. These layers also influenced regional accents. Now there are English loanwords as well and more of them entering the language by the year.

Do keep in mind that, with some exceptions, most languages are layered in a similar fashion. To be an adept language learner, be aware of the various influences in your target language and learn to tease them apart and note if you see any patterns as to where you see French loan words / Latinate words / German words etc. It will also show you that a language is a history map, something you can’t unlearn (in the best of ways).

 

(5) The Norwegian-Speaking Community Has Been Firmly Supportive of My Efforts and Those of my Friends

You’re welcome to share your stories to the contrary (and some of my students did have one or two people saying “I’m really impressed, but to be honest, why bother?”), but Norwegian speakers have been nothing but supportive of my journey and those of my friends. This was true even when I was an ABSOLUTE BEGINNER.

They provided honest and meaningful constructive criticism and made it very clear that they were happy with my efforts and curious to hear why I fell in love with this musical language. At no point did I feel that they were deliberately intending to show off their English skills at the expense of learners (as many people, regardless of native language, can tend to do).

Norway sadly has a reputation for legendarily unfriendly in some circles, but with the Norwegian language you’ll experience this culture in a way that you can deeply connect with it. And believe me, Scandinavians are not unfriendly—they’re just different from what you may be used to in regards to social norms.

 

NOTE: When I refer to “the Norwegian Language” in this piece, I am strictly referring to Norsk Bokmål. I have not studied Nynorsk yet but my reading skills in it are good.

Have YOU had any experiences learning Norwegian? How will YOU celebrate May 17th? Let us know!

The Key to English Language Immersion: An Outsider’s Perspective

May the Fourth be With You!

Okay, this isn’t a post about Star Wars. Not at all. But a friend of mine (actually, several friends of mine) wanted me to write about various roadblocks / sticking points in English-Language immersion and how to overcome them.

Often when I try to bring up these techniques in groups, sometimes there is the occasional voice that just says “HIRE A PROFESSIONAL TEACHER AND THAT WILL SOLVE EVERYTHING!”

In order to truly bring something into your life, it has to be all-encompassing. No one solution will solve everything concerning language learning sticking points, which is why part of me is vexed by the “how do you learn languages?” question. This is because people expect one or two routes to fluency when there are HUNDREDS of possible ones that intertwine various methods.

English, especially the American variety, is intimidating. The r is difficult for speakers of many languages, a lot of the vowels are perplexing for native speakers of almost anything, and an idiomatic depth that seems unparalleled given that English, in the words of one Tumblr user, is “three languages wearing a trenchcoat”.

But the English learner has one advantage that is UNPARALLELED:

Imagine if four out of every five companies on the planet had a name in your target language. Imagine if loan words in your target language were commonly used in almost all languages on the planet. Imagine if your target language was the most studied language of all time as well as, arguably, the most powerful in world history.

Perhaps the closest things that could come to it would be, French, Spanish, German, and possibly a case could be made for Mandarin Chinese or Japanese or maybe Italian even. But very little else. Finnish has five words that found their way into English (“sauna” would be one you would probably recognize), Greenlandic also has a few (igloo, anorak) and Fijian had one that comes to mind (tabu = taboo). By contrast, English loan words have been in literally EVERY language I’ve ever studied.

The key to learning a language is to engage with it, and with English it is literally more possible to engage with it than any other language on the planet, given how coveted and “necessary” it is.

There is one BIG advantage to the English learner, however, and it is something I’ve seen over and over again.

Let me put it this way:

In Sweden, there was pressure on me to have a good accent. If I didn’t, that meant that people might answer me in English without a second thought. That accent could be anywhere in the Swedish-speaking world (or even plausibly anything Scandinavian—like that one time I accidentally addressed a Swedish staff member in Danish and he responded in Swedish without flinching). Luckily I think that many Americans can manage, if not a Stockholm or Gothenburg accent, something from either Finland (as in sounding plausibly Finland-Swedish) or southern Sweden without issues.

In Myanmar, I had to get my tones right. The fact that I was white didn’t help matters at all. I also had to answer on point all of the time. Otherwise, it was a one-way ticket to English-town (or German-town, even).

In the United States, if someone has a mediocre or even bad accent in English, unless he or she is in an ethnic community (e.g. Hispanics, Mandarin-speakers, Polish speakers, etc.) they don’t run the risk of getting answered in their native language.

Learning English with foreign accents can be seen as cute, learning many other languages with foreign accents, especially Anglophone ones, can be a liability. (The only place I can think of where English-native accents could be passable was Israel, and even then it could be an issue more often than not).

There are several nodes that advanced English learners struggle with, and I’ll identify them right now:

 

  • The Finer Points of Pronunciation
  • Idiomatic Expressions
  • Irregular verbs
  • Germanic-cum-French Sentence Structure

 

The key to solving all of them is twofold: (1) make lots of mistakes and (2) imitate native speakers to the best of your ability. Pretend you are American / British / Australian / etc. Fall in love with the cultures and find things to link about them.

Let’s go into each of the nodes in detail:

 

  • Pronunciation

 

The short vowel sounds are a big issue for a lot of learners (if you need help with these sounds, put the words on the right side into Google Translate and have them read out loud):

 

Short a -> bat

Short e – > bet

Short i -> bit

Short o -> bot

Short u -> but

 

You CANNOT sound like a native English speaker without having mastered these sounds, and you’ll notice that a lot of English learners can bypass them entirely (pronouncing words like “bitch” and “beach” identically).

American English in particular has a lazy feel to it that has “legato” (or notes / sounds being drawn out). Some languages have a bit more of a “staccato” (=short quick notes / sounds) feel to it (languages like Fijian and Solomon Islands Pijin come to mind, even though they are spoken in places where English is an official language. In such countries in Oceania, you’ll notice that English speakers mimic Australian speech very well but have traces of their native accent, too).

Think about WHAT makes the sound of English different from your native language or languages you already know. Mimic the differences accordingly. That mimicry will eventually turn into a believable accent.

 

  • Idiomatic Expressions

 

This is an issue in all languages and even English speakers can be confronted with difficulties with varieties of English they’re not familiar with—even within the same country!

The key with idioms like these is to “hook” them on various memorable elements – like a product, movie scene or advertisement.

The more of these you have, the better, but keep in mind that even native speakers may not have a perfect knowledge of idioms all throughout the English speaking world and even some non-natives have introduced me to British ones I haven’t heard before!

 

  • Irregular Verbs

 

Looking at a table is, in all likelihood, not going to help you. Clozemaster in the upper levels definitely will, but exposure and immersion (or using the language in your daily life as much as you can, or in your entertainment / recreational life if you use other languages at your job) will help you.

 

Keep in mind that there are some irregular verbs that can be inconsistent across generations. One example is the English verb “to sneak”. Older people will say “sneaked” (for the past tense) but younger people will opt for “snuck”.

 

  • Germanic-cum-French Sentence Structure

 

There is a clear difference between an English non-native speaker who says “do you know what is this?” vs. “do you know what this is?”

 

This is BY FAR the trickiest thing about learning English, in my opinion. Surprisingly I also think that if some English learners took on a study or two of another language they would get a lot better at this aspect (and not necessarily if it is a one related to English via the Germanic or Romance family trees).

 

Auxiliary verbs can also be tricky. Perhaps in mimicking very informal English some learners may ask “you have a book?” rather than the more formal “do you have a book?”

 

How to get over this? Well, the first thing is to not be scared. You CAN do it and there have been a few people in my life who have been so good at English that I have mistaken them for native speakers (and they’re not all from one area of the world, mind you).

 

The second thing is to PAY ATTENTION TO THE DIFFERENCES between your native language and English. (Also pay attention to the differences between all languages you learn, it’s good discipline and it really helps in creating good grammar).

 

 

Conclusion:

 

The biggest thing that prevents people from being satisfied with their English level is the idea that they can’t get better or that it is “too much work”. You don’t work more on English, instead you work smarter. Work on English in a way that makes you happy to work with it (e.g. with material that you genuinely like). Make the presence of English in your life a source for positive feelings. That way, you will find yourself sounding like an American (or any other English-speaking nationality) before you know it!

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Things I’ve Learned from Making Online Videos Since my First Polyglot Video Last Year

 One year ago today I filmed  my first polyglot video of me narrating my life in 31 languages (and I uploaded it the following day). In my opinion now, it isn’t the best video, but still an accomplishment nonetheless give that I was fairly new to video-making and was still (at that point) too nervous to even film a Let’s Play Video, yet along a Polyglot Video.

I’ve gained not only wisdom, several newspaper articles written about me, and many interviews and friends since then, but also things I need to know about making videos in the future.

For one, a lot of people aren’t going to really know about what makes a video good or not, even if they’ve filmed something viral themselves. The algorithms continue to not only confound me but also change regularly.

However, one thing I’ve consistently gotten feedback on in the fact that more emotion and voice musicality is good, not also to mention sound quality. Sometimes I’ve been capable of delivering this, other times I haven’t.

Also keep in mind that no matter what you do, people are going to accuse you of being fake somehow. Believe me, this happens to ALL of the online polyglots (some do a significantly better job at hiding it that others). One viral video had several nasty comments accusing the speaker of using Google Translate (something that I literally COULDN’T have done with my most recent Valentine to Oceania video from February 2018, given that literally none of the languages in the video were in Google Translate at the time of filming [and still aren’t, as of the time of writing]).

I know I’m genuine. Sometimes I have bad moments, sometimes I “knock it out of the park”, but most of the time I’m good if not great. This isn’t up for debate, because otherwise I wouldn’t be friends with well-known polyglots and have conversations with them in their various languages. No amount of Internet hate can take that away from me, and it shouldn’t take it away from you either.

I wasn’t reading from a script in any of my polyglot videos (although I did outline beforehand “things to talk about”, for example, and go through a practice run of talking about those things with recording software to see if my accent[s] sounded good enough). Nonetheless, given that I didn’t show emotion in my video (due to fear) I got that accusation leveled against me by multiple people.

Even if you have difficulty showing emotion, I would recommend trying to smile (even though yes, this is something I’m trying to work on myself). Also I think that while short videos can be helpful if you’re trying to get some feedback on your accent (which was one point of the Oceania video from last month AND the Jared Gimbel Story from last year), keep in mind that many people may be looking for a solid 30 seconds – 1 minute per language you speak.

But again, feel free to experiment with the formula (very much like I have).

If I had to prepare another video tomorrow, here’s what I would do:

  • Each language I’d like to feature, 30 seconds each MINIMUM.
  • Multiple takes is okay with good editing.
  • You could have a thread that ties all of the narratives spoken in each language together or just simply say “I learned language X. I liked it because XYZ”. Either way, there are going to be some “haterz” angry with you regardless of which you picked. (The former may accuse you of being scripted, the latter may say “why do you just say the same thing over and over again?” You can’t win with some people)
  • Announce a plan to my friends beforehand (on Facebook) to give me positive feelings going in.
  • Set aside a good hour to rehearse speaking beforehand (that is to say, good diction, eye contact, etc.)
  • Film with the best device I have (smartphone is good).
  • Use languages I really like.
  • Do some recording practice beforehand for some self-assessment
  • Give it a title that doesn’t mention you by name but DOES mention you by name in the description or video itself.

 

Some Miscellaneous Thoughts

 

One neutral, and one thought that may vex some of you.

Let’s start with the neutral one.

The fact that I focus on lesser-known languages is likely to work against me in the algorithms, if it hasn’t already. Someone speaking Romance languages from Western Europe may be more likely to get millions of views than my videos featuring languages from the Pacific (despite the fact that my Oceania video was actually the first-ever of its kind!)

I’m okay with that because it is true to who I am, and who knows? Maybe a video featuring me and my rarer languages WILL actually go viral, contrary to my expectation now.

Lastly, I’m not going to lie, I feel as though the online polyglot community needs to diversify away from the official languages of the U.N and the “Duolingo Five” (of Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Italian). It’s okay if you like them, it’s GREAT if you like them, even. I may even choose to focus on one of them in the future in more depth than I already have if the need comes up (Spanish and German I have well enough already, but I don’t really “love” them the way I do languages like Greenlandic or Fijian).

To that end, I will be omitting languages like Spanish, French, German and even ENGLISH from my polyglot videos until I feel as though the YouTube collection of polyglot videos diversifies considerably beyond that.  If you speak one of these as a native language, please do not construe this as me holding your culture is less regard, because we ALL have value. This is just my way to ensure that this world gets “spiced up a bit” (and also to see how people react when I have Kiribati and Lao in my video and no Spanish. It should be an important lesson on how most people ACTUALLY value linguistic diversity)

I need to set an example. I think that a lot of people are focusing on very powerful languages with very little motivation without realizing that so many cultures need to be explored. That’s why I do what I do. And it is okay if you disagree with me, because communities are all about mature disagreement.

I have to use my position of power and influence to create a world I need to see. And that world includes linguistic diversity from ALL of our cultures, not just the ones that were and are dominating the globe.

 

I’d like to thank all of my watchers and readers for the support that I’ve had since my first polyglot video was filmed. I truly appreciate it and it is because of you that I continue to work!

Lao 30 Day Wow wow wow

I’m running out of pictures and I should probably upload new ones. Sometimes I can’t believe how shamefully open / honest I am. 

On to your dreams!

The Polyglot’s Guide to Dealing with In-Person Haters

I’m pleased to announce that my post about how to deal with online hate (again, NOT criticism, as some people may incorrectly call it) was EXTREMELY well-received, and many language enthusiasts all over the world confided in me that having that in writing had a therapeutic effect.

Here’s a significantly smaller problem, however. You develop a reputation for being able to speak many languages and sometimes some people may not choose to believe you for a number of different reasons.

The more your reputation as a polyglot grows, the more you constantly feel under pressure to perform–in a sense, it feels like permanent stage fright, especially if you come from a place where not a lot of people speak many languages (the United States would definitely qualify, and this also has a negative effect on people who DO speak more than one language natively because they don’t expect you to be good AND will probably judge you to very high standards, especially if the language is commonly offered in schools)

Again, hate is not criticism. Criticism is done lightly and with a hope that you’ll improve. Hate is a desire to knock other people down.

Here’s one type of hate that can be sometimes innocent but sometimes harsh:

 

“There’s no way you speak all of those”

Obviously more common online, this is a relatively easy fix because usually a lot of people who say these tend to not speak many languages.

They may ask you to translate random things in the room (that you may not even know the name of in your NATIVE LANGUAGES), but don’t feel as you’re struticized very much. If someone is “testing” you, you need to deliver your sentences with confidence and with a believable accent and you’re good. Believe me, they probably won’t be judging you or remembering everything you say or secretly recording it. Ordinary people aren’t spies.

Also keep in mind that some people may not actually mean ill when they say this, they really want you to show what you’re capable of, especially if you know languages that a lot of people have never heard of before (God knows how many times I’ve been asked to speak some Greenlandic, Icelandic, or heck, even languages from Oceania).

Especially with Americans, you’re more likely to impress them as long as you have a relaxed a smooth feel to your sentences.

If you do get asked to speak a more commonly spoken language that American students usually study at one point in their lives (e.g. Spanish), be prepared to use something more idiomatic. I save my imitation of El Rubius OMG for occasions such as that, but given how commonly Spanish is learned in comparison to Fijian, you can guess which one people ask me to speak more often.

 

Getting the Native Speaker to Test You

One of my personal favorites (especially since a lot of “in-person haters” usually choose Swedish people for this expecting it to be one of my weaker languages when it is one of my strongest).

There’s no way around this, you need to have something prepared for this. But fear not, even if you’re an absolute beginner, you can pull it off:

For beginners: song lyrics, simple phrases, pickup lines (if you’re feeling bold), jokes, Bible verses (if you’re feeling EXTREMELY bold), tongue twisters, or saying “I love (insert language or country)!” and / or “I want to speak (language) better!”

For intermediate learners: mention names of bands or songs or YouTube channels you like (or even places in their home country that you liked). Ask your native speaker friend for recommendations.

For advanced learners, this is an non-issue but whatever you do, DO NOT OVERANALYZE IT. You’d be surprising how forgiving a lot of native speakers really are, especially if they come from places where there are many immigrants that learn the language (e.g. Sweden, Israel, Germany, etc.)

Given as most human beings (in-person, at least) are actually decent human beings, you’re probably not going to hear your skills insulted, yet alone insulted harshly.

 

The Native Speaker Who Only Wants to Use English

 

This is a toughie. It just simply shows an extreme sense of insecurity on their part. It also shows close-mindedness and an unwillingness to experience new things or help people. Not much I can say. Move on and realize that this is most likely a reflection on THEMSELVES, not on you (same way that people writing nasty comments about you [or me, or anyone else] online is ALSO a reflection of their toxic mindsets).

 

The Person Who Insults Your Language Choice

 

I like Fijian (the language I’m focusing on right now, in fact). French, not so much. Not right now, at least, but who knows what I’ll like in the future? Maybe if I end up in Polynesia I’ll be crash-studying it again.

God knows how many people I’ve encountered asking me why I choose to focus more on languages from Scandinavia and Oceania rather than Romance Languages or Chinese Languages. I don’t have a good answer, except for the fact that I like what I like and I’m not ashamed of it. What’s more, I’ve had contact with local celebrities from small countries because of these choices, not also to mention the fantastic red carpet treatment I get (in both Sweden and Iceland I was told that I spoke the language better than most immigrants, especially recent immigrants. I’m a lot better now in both).

I explain the reasons why I learn languages from these places (I’ve had a childhood fascination with the Pacific, I have Swedish ancestry myself that I wanted to connect to, etc.). Most people will usually understand that reason. Or, at least, they will pretend that they do.

 

The Person Who Insults You For Not Focusing On Their Language

 

I get this almost exclusively from French and Spanish speakers (sorry…)

Same as the above. By doing so, you’ll have people realize that being a good example is the best way to get someone interested in your language (Danish was a language I chose to learn because I had positive interactions with native speakers, even before I knew Danish. I’ll say this: it is easier to use Danish with them than you think, don’t believe the hype on the Internet that says “Oh! They’ll use only English no matter what!” Trust me, it isn’t true.)

I’ve also met mature speakers of these languages who also realize that, ask questions and general don’t have any INCH of this language chauvinism.

 

The Person Who Thinks that His or Her Native Language is Useless and That You Shouldn’t Be Learning It

 

Probably the rarest of them all.

Example: Swedish person in Sweden tells me that I didn’t really need to know Swedish because yada yada high English proficiency rates. (This was before I was “any good at it”)

My response was pretty much (a politely version of): “Oh, yeah? Well, I have letters written in Swedish written by my DEAD FAMILY MEMBERS. And those letters aren’t going to translate themselves”.

After something like this, they almost invariably keep quiet about it permanently.

Again, this is a RARITY (and in some cases, a test. They may want to find what it is that you like about their culture. Any reason is good enough. It doesn’t matter if it is heritage reasons or becuase you like watching Let’s Play videos in your target language, as long as you show an appreciation of some sort, you’re good).

 

Conclusion: Haters exist because a lot of the world is hurting.

The contemporary world in the west thrives on making people feel insecure. One result of this is that a lot of people walk about the world dejected and desperate.

You, oh Polyglot hero(ine), are not one of those people. But on going through a great journey, you’ll encounter many people. Some of them may be wise and want to help you and gain your wisdom, others will seek to put you down in order to make them feel good about themselves. Don’t blame them, they’re victims of a system that most are truly unaware of.

But there’s a clear way to win. And that’s to move forward to your dreams, come what may.

Happy dreaming!

 

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Everything You Know About “How Many Languages Can a Human Learn and Maintain?” is WRONG. Here’s Why…

Possibly one of the emotionally charged topics in the language learning world (and one that no one has good answers to, myself included) is the topic about how many languages a human being can learn.

We will never know the answer to that questions for way too many reasons. Here are some of them:

  • While most language enthusiasts haven’t thought about it (or have been put in a position to think about it), the language vs. dialect debate is getting increasingly muddy. Should the Caribbean English Creoles count as separate languages? The ISO 639-3 codes seem to think so. But would governments think so? How about universities? And obviously different areas where this question is more relevant will approach it differently (such as Jamaica and Italy, two completely different countries).

 

  • There is no definite way to quantify or even qualify proficiencies (except for, maybe, extended interviews on tape or eyewitness accounts of polyglots at conferences or gatherings). Even test results aren’t safe, given how many people may pass them and proceed to forget everything. (And if people can forget their native language, this is certainly also a possibility).

 

  • Human history and, by extension, history of human languages, is too long and too varied to take all the variables into account. I may have said this before in another one of my articles, but in some places like Western Africa or Melanesia, speaking ten languages is seen as normal. In many areas of the west, especially former British colonies, ten languages is seen as nearly superhuman if not in fact outright disbelieved by some people. This is despite the fact that there is no dearth of polyglot videos on the internet.

 

  • In addition to that, different areas of the world and different time periods would measure fluency differently. Mezzofanti, considered by some the greatest polyglot of all time, obviously had no usage for words pertaining to computers in any of his languages given as they did not exist when he was alive. He probably didn’t need to discuss complicated matters of science, either. Also (and this is another thing a lot of languages gurus don’t even realize because the languages they tend to choose) not all languages on the planet have that vocabulary. (In the event that you would talk about it, you would possibly use loanwords, primarily from a colonial language, or even switch into English or another colonial language periodically. However yes, there are some languages that have that vocabulary even though you think they might actually not.)

 

We will never know the answer to how many languages a human being can possibly know, and I highly encourage you to distrust ANYONE who tries to come up with an answer to the question. Because in attacking the question, they get the methodology wrong for all sorts of reasons.

 

Here are some of them:

 

  • Only taking into account their language experiences and those of their friend circle, which tend to be overwhelmingly skewed mostly towards politically powerful languages of Europe and sometimes Asia. Dialect continuums are not accounted for. If you think that Italian and Spanish are the equivalent of closest languages there are, give it some more thought. The Persian Languages are even closer, as are the “BCS” languages (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbia) not also to mention my own pet languages, the Melanesian Creoles (of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama). Not all language counts are created equal, and this point alone would be capable of disqualifying the question altogether, but I’ll go on.

 

  • Not realizing that technology has changed and will continue to change. Mezzofanti didn’t have Memrise and many of the memory tools that I use on a daily basis. Technology has the capability of turning us into superhuman versions of our ancestors. An average person who has trained with contemporary first-person shooter games (which I never play, by the way) would have significantly better reflexes and hand-eye coordination than pretty much ANY soldier that fought in the Second World War. They would be considered SUPER SOLDIERS back then (this was a factoid I picked up from the 2016 Games for Change Conference). But for some reason almost no one considers that a similar thing is also happening for language learning and skill acquisition.

 

  • Using Ziad Fazah’s “Viva el Lunes” performance in order to automatically disqualify anyone who claims to speak 50+ languages. For those unaware, I’ll summarize it in one sentence. Liberian/Lebanese Polyglot who won Guinness Book of World Record’s title for most multilingual person goes on Chilean television, is tested and struggles even with basic sentences in most of his languages. But to dismiss any claims of that nature just because of ONE incident is a logical fallacy, and while I haven’t met anyone who has significantly pulled off that number, I wouldn’t automatically revert to skepticism. Just because of one person who may have likely overestimated his abilities doesn’t mean that we as a species should hold ourselves back. Who knows? There may be someone who may actually speak 59+ languages and who actually CAN show the skills. You never know!

 

I get it. A lot of people have deep insecurities, including many in the polyglot community. The temptation to knock others down or be dismissive only shows defensiveness and maybe a poor attempt to hide your own imposter syndrome. This is why I’m willing to consider anyone’s language proficiency based on claims alone (note I said “CONSIDER” not “definitively judge”, because there is no way to really do that.)

 

  • Using data about famous polyglots that have been dead for centuries (or even those that are STILL ALIVE) in order to draw conclusions as to what human beings in the 21st century can do. Really? In the case of the ones that have been dead for hundreds of years, they’re not relevant to our brains and our technology and our learning abilities NOW. Maybe they could be used in order to speculate about limits before the technological revolutions that happened during my lifetime, but we’re changing now and most people who answer the “how many languages is it possible to know?” question don’t acknowledge how contemporary technology sets our time period apart.

 

  • Different vocabulary thresholds for different languages. One person whose opinion I very much value said that a vocabulary of about 16000 words were required to reach a C2 level (the highest possible level, considered equivalent to a highly educated native speaker) in a language. But here’s the thing: in Bislama (an English Creole that is the primary language of Vanuatu), there are literally about 4,000 words (excluding proper nouns, which would bring the count up to 7,000) IN THE ENTIRE LANGUAGE. So if you speak with one-quarter of that amount with some languages, you get a near-native vocabulary, an advantage not afforded to languages like French and Swedish with significantly larger vocabulary lists (Swedish’s list of loan words from English ALONE is likely larger than the comprehensive vocabularies of the Melanesian Creoles COMBINED). And before you say “well, that’s just concerning Creole languages”, the same variety of comprehensive word counts can also be found the further away you get from the developed world AND the further you delve into languages without as much political support.

 

If there is a definitive limit for amount of languages learned, even to a high level, we will never know what it is, in part because of all of the factors that I lay out here.

 

It’s an interesting mental exercise that, let’s be honest, is usually used to discourage people and create skepticism so that some people can have their egos buttressed, but it’s one with no definitive answer (in the Talmud, we end such debates with the word “teyku”, meaning “let it remain unresolved”. And that’s what we’re going to have to go with this debate as well.)

 

What do I intend to do? Well, for one, I’m going to try my best and learn many languages, some to fluency, others to degrees of curiosity, and I fulfill MY vision. Because if you constantly live in the fear of judgment of others, you’ll never live your full life.

 

And that’s something you deserve to do! Don’t let ANY discouragement get you down!

come back when you can put up a fight

I really need to start using new pictures of myself.

Fijian Mission After 1 Month: Progress Report

30 minutes every day devoted to Fijian every day of February (although I skipped one day due to illness). One phrasebook. One free dictionary. Many songs. Lots of struggles. How are things?

Well, for one I’ve mastered all of the basics although there are two areas that I’m still rusty on and don’t get consistently correct:

(1) Numbers.

dailyfijian blogspot snippet

If you know I know Finnish, you can probably guess which one I had the easiest time remembering. (For those unaware: one of them dangerously resembles a well-known profanity in Finnish)

(2) Plural pronouns (note: in Fijian all personal pronouns serve as relative pronouns as well. Instead of saying “The person who came here” you would literally say “the person he came here”)

But plural pronouns get mighty interesting in Fijian because they work like this. Prepare yourself:

wiktionary fijian personal pronouns

Singular – one thing
dual – two of something
paucal – a group of something
plural – a big group of, all of the, speaking about a group in general (e.g. in the phrase “woodchucks would really like the food you give them” = this phrase applies to all woodchucks in the species, hence the plural is used).

Aside from these, which need some brushing up on, I have succesfully assembled the puzzle frame of the Fijian language!

I want, I have (oh yeah, another confusing thing involving different types posession! Things to be eaten or things to be drunk, dranken, drunken, whatever or things you have in a more permanent capacity — well, they have their own posession categories in Fijian) I must, negation (like French or Breton, you use two words to indicate negation), the Omniglot phrase list (although there may be some things I’m missing on that) and tenses. And many more! I’ve done a lot in this month and I think I should be proud of myself.

Obviously concerning the issues of pronouns and numbers I’m going to need to harden my memory of them. I have some plans involving memory devices and the nuclear option: an abandonware edutainment game called “Super Solvers Spellbound!” that you can also use as a language learning tool with devestating efficiency.

To conclude, three good things about how my Fijian has gone so far and three bad things.

Bad first:

(1) I feel for some odd reason that my accent doesn’t sound as good. I’ve listened to various radio broadcasts to imitate the accent (a lot of Fijian singers tend to rely on autotune so music doesn’t always help then. Also listening to Fijians speaking English doesn’t really help in part because of the deep Australian English influence not also to mention that many may speak Fiji Hindi as a first language instead. With many European languages I perfected the accent by listening to native speakers speaking English [e.g. with Polish, Swedish, German, etc.]. In places that are language salad bowls and / or have English as an official language, that can’t always be relied upon.). One thing I’ve tried to do is pronounce Fijian closer to the back of my throat and intone it similar to the way I do Tok Pisin (a language that gave me HUGE advantages in studying Fijian, given the grammatical similarities and yes, cognates between the two languages.)

(2) I haven’t had as much speaking practice as I would like. This will change because I’m doing the Huggins International 30-Day Speaking Challenge with Fijian next month (March 2018). I barely feel motivated to complete the February Greenlandic one for some odd reason, and this is coming from someone who deeply loves the Greenlandic language. Can’t say why. Maybe I need a break from active study.

(3) In listening to radio broadcasts I can almost always pick out the general meaning but sometimes I’m reduced to “word hunting” (e.g. listening to it and see how many words I can understand). With songs I’m even more out of luck. But again, autotune. But Fijian Lyrics are readily available online (the only smaller languages with lyrics equally as available were Icelandic and Faroese, unsurprisingly.)

 

Good:

(1) I’m really picking up what variety of words in Fijian are English loan words AND also how to English code-switch (which is something Fijian speakers do readily).

(2) The morphology is a puzzle that I’m getting better at by the day. Suffixes are becoming more intuitive. I keep in mind a piece of advice (I think from a guest post on Fluent in 3 Months) that with languages that are not closely related to English you have to draw connections INTERNALLY between the vocabulary. moce -> sleep. imocemoce -> bed. katakata -> warm. vakakatakatataka -> to make something warm (because of climate change this is a word commonly heard. If you’re having trouble pronouncing it, pronounce it as “vakakatkatataka”. Fijian has been the easiest language for me that is very dissimilar to English (yeah yeah, I know that there’s a mountain of English loan words in Fijian, but still). Back when I started it my first impression was that it was moderate difficulty among the languages that I’ve learned but now it seems that it is on the easier end.

(3) I met someone who lived in Fiji at one point and she was extremely impressed. (Her Fijian was limited to a few words but she said I sounded great!) 🙂

 

Now for March, my focus will be

Fijian (Month 2) and a return to Lao!

For April, it seems likely although not certain that I will begin Fiji Hindi in earnest!

Have YOU ever learned Fijian or any language from Oceania? Let me know about your experiences with it in the comments!

vosa vakaviti

 

What Criteria Do I Consider When Choosing a New Language?

First off, let’s start by listing the variety of things I do NOT consider. And you can probably already guess what the first one is:

(1) Number of native speakers. Doesn’t mean anything, isn’t necessary in building an emotional connection to the culture. All languages have their worth and it shouldn’t be measured depending on how many people on this planet speak it. Sure, it might be easier for you to find people to practice with, but in the age of the Internet, does finding people to practice with, even in person, really matter?

(2) Lists of Articles on Publications Like Business Insider Telling Me That It’s a Good Idea. I don’t outsource my decisions to giant publications and I don’t think you should, either.

(3) Any charts that point to a language or a series of languages being “the most lucrative” or “the best to learn”. Especially in the United States where most people don’t learn ANY language (interestingly among Jews this really isn’t the case given how many of us have some passive knowledge of Hebrew at the VERY least), ANY language is a boon and it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Palauan. Come to think of it, given that 60% of high school students study Spanish, maybe just MAYBE Palauan and Spanish might be fairly equally waited. Again, do which one you like the most.

(4) What other languages people are learning. The world doesn’t need more followers. Nu uh. The world follows the lead of the leaders. And leaders do what is different and unexpected. (Again, don’t take this as discouragement from wanting to study a language like French, just don’t consider the crowd as the sole deciding factor or even ONE of the deciding factors.)

So here’s what I consider:

(1) Am I Healing the World by Choosing to Engage In This Culture? One thing that I’ve used to decide several of my languages in the past year (such as Gilbertese or Lao) is the fact that I realize that I can use my language to bring about healing.

With Kiribati, looming climate change and rising sea levels is something that defines the cutlure at the moment, and by choosing to learn Gilbertese I have committed to keeping their culture alive AND letting other people know about the realities of these threatened areas.

With Lao, I got to glimpse a country (that I haven’t visited yet) with extreme poverty that also has the distinction of being the most bombed country in all of human history. (More bombs were dropped on Laos by Nixon and Kissinger than all of the bombs by all sides in WWII everywhere COMBINED).

With a language like German, Polish or Hungarian, all associated by some more close-minded Jews as “languages of people who have anti-Semitism in their blood” (saying that hatred is embedded in someone’s culture is extremely offensive, in my opinion), I actually realized how many Jews (past, present and future) strongly identified with these cultures, and how much they’ve influenced the Judaism I’ve known for my whole life.

Thankfully German-Jewish relations have drastically improved during my lifetime, and I’m doing work to help Jewish relations in both directions with the other two (and many others!)

(2) Do I Have Music or Other Media that I Deeply Like in This Language? I fell in love with Greenlandic music and it became a motivating factor in wanting to studying it more. With music in other languages like Tok Pisin and Burmese, I found a lot of songs that I really liked and it caused me to have not only motivation to learn the language but also positive feelings when learning it.

Some languages, like Tajik and Lao, I haven’t found REALLY good music that I like. Yet. But with Icelandic I also remember having that struggle for months, and eventually I found Icelandic music that I really, REALLY liked. Or, if you know anything about this, you could give me recommendations, maybe!

(3) Will Engaging with This Language Make Me More Knowledgeable about a Culture I Don’t Know a Lot About?

Some languages, like Finnish or Palauan, I learned as exploratory journeys into “places” that I didn’t know very much about at all. I’ve never regretted learning a language for this reason.

(4) Is this language spoken in my immediate neighborhood? Hence the reason I learned Jamaican Patois ‘n friends. In Crown Heights it genuinely feels like a pan-Caribbean neighborhood, and especially given our zeitgeist of cultures distrusting each other, I felt as though “being a good citizen” involved me learning Patois. So glad I did!

(5) Did my ancestors speak this language? Hungarian and Swedish were both on the agenda precisely because I had great-grandparents who spoke both as their mother tongue (on opposite sides of my family)

(6) Do I need it for business, travel or romance? I think this is fairly clear. Sometimes (like my travels to Italy in 2014 and in Jordan in 2015) I felt as though I was half-hearted in my attempts to learn the local language and my trip felt genuinely lacking in comparison to when I did know more of it (such as, most notably, my recent trips to Greenland and Iceland). This is the reason I’m learning Fijian right now (and Fiji Hindi is also on the agenda in a month or two, and preparations for it were underway for a while).

(7) Have I dreamed of finding out what this country or culture was like since childhood?

Some places, like Greenland, Laos, Burkina Faso or Ireland, are places that I’ve wondered about since early childhood sometimes for silly, sentimental reasons. Somehow within my unconscious I feel as though places like these would be “good fits” for me. And I’m almost always right.

Between these seven reasons, a combination of all of them dictates which languages I choose to have in my life and which ones I devote time to. Feel free to share some of YOUR motivating factors below!

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