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

 

The Tuvaluan Language: A Beginner’s Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now what does this have to do with Tuvalu?

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

tuvalu yay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

 

2015-08-18 12.56.52

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.