How to Anchor Your Languages to Your “Mentors” So as to Avoid Mixing Them Up

A friend of mine, an English / German / Spanish / Japanese / possibly other languages I forgot / possibly I taught him a few words of Hebrew once asked me to write this post. Thank you, Mitch, with great wishes for your continued success!

Do YOU have a topic you’d like me to write on? Let me know!

I’m recovering from an illness so I hope that this will be good nonetheless.

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Many people have told me that they sometimes intend to say one thing in one language and end up saying something in another, or otherwise the general mix-up that many polyglots, even veterans, know all too well.

Believe me, even native speakers sometimes suffer from this. This is why code-switching is a thing, as well as the fact that many people from India / Oceania / Israel / Northern Europe / American Hispanics mix in English with their native languages. Even in the Arab world this is common with French words instead (in various Arabic varieties spoken in former French colonies, such as with Lebanese Arabic).

That said, there are some people who feel as though they have an “unhealthy dosage” of it, to the degree in which they want to speak Hebrew or Japanese and then Spanish comes out instead, not also to mention those who study similar languages may also suffer from this as well.

Here comes the solution:

Among “dialect continuum” areas (in which the boundaries between languages are unclear and there is a large amount of variance between a language as spoken in a particular country or geographical area), as well as areas of the Internet dedicated to the culture of these areas, you’ll notice something: some people flaunt their national flags with what could almost be described as aggression.

There’s a reason that Norwegian flags are commonly featured on clothing (especially coats and winterwear), and that’s to distinguish their wearers from Swedish or Danish people (the former of whose language closely resembles spoken Norwegian and the latter of which closely resembles the written variety).

In Crown Heights, which I believe is the largest Afro-Caribbean expatriate community in the world, I see Jamaican, Trinidadian, Grenadian and Barbadian flags (among others) VERY commonly. The reason why? So that people don’t mistake them for one from belonging to one of the other nations (despite the fact that many of them share many aspects of culture).

Listening to music from Melanesia, I’ve noticed that a lot of music from Vanuatu tends to show the Ni-Vanuatu Flag in the thumbnail and Solomon Islands music does the same. Bislama and Pijin (their national creoles) resemble each other very closely.

What’s the point I’m trying to make here?

The same way that these people anchor their native identity with imagery and mementos, YOU need to be doing that with the languages you speak as well.

The first time, which is the easiest one, is find “mentors” for each of your languages. No, I’m not saying “go find a private tutor for each one”, but rather a certain native speaker or a set of native speakers whose voice you tend to imitate most. These could be friends, radio hosts, YouTubers, or even voices from an online app.

Here are some of the “mentors” I’ve had:

  • The Irish Language Transparent Language Voice
  • My Welsh-Speaking Friend named Ivan
  • The Vincentian Creole Bible-Redux Narrator (from a set of mp3’s I got from a Bible site that one time. Yes, a lot of them mention Jesus; no, I am not Christian nor do I have any intention of being un-Jewish).
  • A number of Swedish-Language Let’s Play-ers who deserve an entire post written about them (coming soon! And no, PewDiePie is not one of them. I’m glad that he’s brought awareness about the Swedish language and culture to many fields of popular discussion but he crossed the line too many times last year. Also, he uses a lot more English than Swedish in his videos.)
  • Too many of my Yiddish-speaking friends to count, but if I had to pick one it would be Baruch, probably the one I spend the most time with (we attend a lot of the same events).

For your native language, you sort of don’t have any choice for your mentors—they were your parents or guardians. But for languages you learn in adulthood you’ll need to find “adoptive parents” for them.

Obviously if you have a LOT of friends who speak the language (as is the case with languages like Yiddish and Polish for me), your “mentor” will be sort of a blend of all of them although mostly the influence of one or two will overshadow all of them.

I couldn’t imagine Baruch speaking Vincentian Creole English (although maybe one day he’ll learn it, I have no idea). Similarly, I can’ t really imagine the “Vincy” narrator speaking Yiddish or even standard English for that matter (although the latter I would imagine he certainly would know).

Another thing that you very much can do is have different vowel and consonant textures for your languages. Once you get a mentor for any language and start imitating him or her, this will come naturally. Think about the automated voices in your language course—how do they pronounce “a” or “l” differently from the way you do in your native language? Investigate these feelings in detail and mimic them accordingly.

People who are often praised for their accent often do exactly this, and note the differences as to what they hear between speakers of various languages. Once you get good at it, you’ll even be able to keep extremely close languages separate. While I encounter with dogged consistency people who mix up Spanish and Portuguese way too often (precisely because they haven’t gone through this), I can keep straight German and Yiddish, the Scandinavian Languages, and very similar Creole languages—granted there are rare occasions in which I mix them up, but overall I’m in a good place because my “mental discipline” is very honed.

We all have separate identities. Jared the teacher is very flamboyant but he has to tone it down when he’s Jared the student. Similarly, you’ll have to do the same with your languages—allot each one a different set of feelings and a role, as well as, most importantly, ways of talking.

Happy learning!

My Biggest Strengths

Back in February I wrote a piece on my weaknesses, and at the request of the one-and-only Ari in Beijing, I’ve been asked to write what my biggest strengths are.

And he explicitly mentioned that I’m not allowed to generally list “language learning” as a strength.

But it really isn’t. It’s an activity. Your strengths are applied to activities. “Skiing” isn’t a strength, “being capable of sensing even slight tremors” is a strength.

My weaknesses in the article above are as follows and while I wrote the piece in February 2017 I think I haven’t vanquished any of them yet:

  1. I burn out easily
  2. I’m hypercompetitive
  3. I get nervous easily
  4. I dwell on past failures for far too long
  5. I put more stock in other people’s opinions of me, my progress and my work than I do in my own opinions thereof.

I think it only seems fair for me to write five strengths, and the first one I “teased” in the previous article:

  1. I can make connections between events, words and many other things with great ease.

If you have this mastered, your memory can be unstoppable (although not perfect, I would venture, but who knows? The human brain is always surprising me).

Word I need to remember? I can associate it with where I was when I first used it.

Name I need to remember? I can sometimes bring a mental image to mind, even when I’m not thinking about it, to tie it to that person’s name.

(I did this with the Jewish holidays when I was little. I associated each one with a particular character or image and that way I wouldn’t forget them. Fun times. P.S. I know I’m not the only one that did that)

It’s like an artificial form of synesthesia, in which you can use your various senses to tie together whatever needs to be remembered.

I’ll give an example of this. I needed to know the Burmese word for water (ye), and I associated it with the following: (1) where I was in the restaurant when I first used it (2) what the waiter looked like and (3) the way he was walking (4) the general setup of the restaurant and (5) a mental image of Sans (yes, the joke-cracking skeleton, that one) for some odd reason.

Now before you say that this is way too much mental effort and it would be a pain to undertake it, keep in mind that your brain is already taking in these details! Focus on the word or words you need to remember, and attach them to details you see around you. This will work wonders.

But one thing that also really helps jog my memory is being corrected by native speakers or otherwise messing up with them badly. True story!

(2) I bind myself to my most important commitment with oaths

June 2017: learning Krio was on the agenda, and I thought it was long overdue (and I’m finally conversational in it!)

Given that I felt I really needed to do it, I made a commitment, inspired by advice from Olly Richards (who I look forward to seeing again at the next Polyglot Conference!).

30 minutes of exposure everyday -> Progress

So what did I do?

I took an oath. I was to study 30 minutes of Krio every day for three weeks. If I didn’t study Krio on any one of the days, I would delete this blog. Permanently.

Now you’re probably gasping in horror, but I know that this actually works. And I made the Krio commitment and I became conversational during the three-week period, after having nearly started from scratch!

And I spoke Krio to my father (who worked in Sierra Leone) for the first time. His eyes perked up. He hadn’t heard the language since he left West Africa. And that was before I was born.

That wouldn’t have happened if not for my commitment.

My next goal is to learn Hungarian considerably well to very well before I meet my family members for the High Holidays. And luckily I know what to do.

And you know what to do to! Can you?

(3) I’m aggressively nonconformist and realize that a lot of messages found in many societies (and the U.S. in general) are intended to stifle hope and talent.

There have been few sadder things I have heard in conversation that people convincing themselves that they “don’t have talent” or that they’re “just average” and that they’re “okay with it”.

Between mass media culture in general as well as television in general (sorry to single it out), I feel that a lot of aspects of American popular culture are actually meant to hinder the road to extraordinary success rather than act as a key to it. I should also say that the US is far from the only country in which this is true.

Speaking to people I know I feel that a lot of people would really pursue extraordinary dreams and become the heroes of our time. I believe that almost all of us are capable of it in some measure. One thing that is holding them back is limiting beliefs, or even worse, their friend circles.

These friendship circles are a VERY powerful force in your life. Hone it correctly and it’s like having all the divine forces in the world on your side. Choose the wrong friends and you’ll be shackled to a life of wishing you were something more.

Think about what sort of messages you are giving and think about what they’re trying to do to you from a psychological standpoint. Some of these really open doors for you (make you want to explore the world, make you want to explore yourself, etc.). Many of these try to close doors for you (be needlessly afraid of things, keep you stuck in patterns of mediocrity, and somehow trick you into thinking that it doesn’t matter whether or not you put in a lot of effort into your dreams).

(4) I Have Musical Muscle-Memory and Perfect Pitch

Surprisingly this does count for a lot, in part because I can detect pitches of voices and other auditory things and “capture” them in my memory.

It’s like having a music and voice recorder in your brain and it works wonders.

This isn’t strictly related to language learning, and I don’t really know if I was “born with this” or not, but I discovered it in my AP Music Theory Class as a junior in high school. I did better on the auditory test than literally any other standardized test over the course of my whole life.

With language learning, it helps me pick up small textures of vowels and consonants not only specific to languages as a whole but also their regional variations. In learning some Polynesian languages in which resources are scarce, this is really helpful.

Tokelauan, for example, spoken on an island in the Pacific by about 3,000 or so native speakers…if you’ve seen “Moana” (Vaiana), you’ve heard this language before in some of the songs, and the band that performs in the film also has a lot of fantastic music. Te Vaka (The Canoe) is very much work checking out.

And when I didn’t get much of a Tokelauan pronunciation guide (besides “all Pacific languages’ vowels sound exactly the same), I actually had to pick up subtleties by listening to their songs!)

 

(5) I am determined to be a champion, no matter what.

Since I was seven years old, I’ve determined that there’s only one sin for me: living an ordinary life.

I’ve made too many sacrifices and committed too much time to my dreams. Losing is not a choice for me.

I realize I have one shot at life and that, no matter what, I have to be the best champion I can be.

I want to become the legend that many people dream of becoming, knowing or meeting even once.

And the hardest thing about it isn’t actually acquiring the skills. Put extraordinary amount of time into something you really like and you’ll become a star, put even more time and you’ll become a role model to those in your field. That’s fairly straightforward and it requires “not giving up”.

I’ll tell you what the hardest thing is: other people trying to make you feel bad about the fact that you’ve chosen to chase your dreams, to become the legend that you secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) dream of becoming. They’ll somehow try to convince you that the problem is you, that maybe if you’d only “be like everyone else” than you’ll live a fulfilled life.

That’s a lie.

You’re welcome to do that if you want, you’re welcome to be more conformist, but it’s your deathbed regrets you’re bargaining with, not mine.

I KNOW that’s not what you want.

So here I am, telling you that you deserve the best. Onwards, champion!

Yes, I know I’ve posted this song on the blog before. Yes, it’s in Finnish. Yes, the lyrics are online in both Finnish and English.

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The One Thing You Need to Get Fluent in a Language

This may be one of the most important things about language learning you may ever read, so I’m going to be as blunt as I can:

“BAD WITH LANGUAGES” DOES NOT EXIST.

It just doesn’t.

What there is, however, is not having the one thing you need to get fluent in a language.

And that is…

 

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No, it isn’t comic books…necessarily…although it can be!

It is finding a way to have fun with the languages in your life.

What you should be looking for in addition to books / programs etc. is a way to use your target language in your life in a way that you enjoy doing it.

Think about what you do for fun.

Think about the sort of ways you can have fun in your other languages.

There is a REASON a lot of endangered languages have to have programming to make them viable. Because if not for them, prospective learners would associate the languages only with classroom learning and nothing else!

And if you associate your language only with classroom learning, then you ARE going to burn out very quickly!

And this is why there are so many students who say “I’ve took (language commonly studied) for four years and I still can’t speak any of it”.

I can GUARANTEE you that if they had found a method towards applying that language in their life in a way that they would genuinely enjoy doing so, they would never say that.

This can include:

  • Socializing
  • Forums
  • Online videos of any variety
  • Podcasts
  • Books (or any type)
  • Music
  • Films

And think about how many non-native English speakers you have met throughout your life who have spoken impressive English. Ask them about how they learned it. They will NOT answer “I took it for years in school” (although many of them do and it helps!), they will, GUARANTEED, say something like “I really liked British comedies” or “I had a Texan roommate”.

Back when I believed that I would never get fluent in another language as an adult (which I rate as one of the Top 5 most destructive beliefs of my life), I was in the Yiddish Farm summer program and realizing that the various songs, artistry and the like that I partook of would make my Yiddish better, bit-by-bit.

When I was in Poland and living with students in Spain, I genuinely felt more comfortable conversing in Castilian Spanish with them, surrounded by bottles and makeshift ping-pong tables, than I ever did in a classroom.

Even with languages that I still struggle with, such as Greenlandic and Russian, I came to put on very good accents and came off convincingly to many—by virtue of the fact that I had Greenlandic- and Russian-Language “programming” in my life!

And so one thing you should be doing is in addition to asking, “where can I study this language?” is “where can I have fun with this language?” And if you can’t answer that second question, you’ll give up and/or burn out!

I know because it has happened to me!

But let me be clear on this:

 

Don’t expect to get fluent with the “fun time” alone.

Well…I’ve done it, actually, but only with languages very close to ones I already knew. (As I did with Danish after Norwegian, and Bislama / Solomon Islands Pijin after Tok Pisin)

Think of it this way:

The various applications of the languages in your life are your chess pawns.

They will not win the game by themselves, but winning without them (and playing without them) is impossible.

 

And by extension, allow me to be clear on this also:

Don’t choose a language based on any supposed professional benefit it will bring you, choose a language based on recreational value to you.

I know, right? Sounds counter-intuitive, but when I hear someone say “I’m learning this language for an advantage at my job” or “I’m learning this language because so many people speak it” something like that, my heart tells me “chances are, unless you find some way to have fun with that language really soon, you’re going to burn out. Mark my words”.

I would say that the vast majority of failed language experiments didn’t take this into account.

I know, because I’ve done that with some other languages throughout the years.

But the good news is that for almost all learnable languages out there, there is a way to engage with them in a fun way using the method I listed above!

Not only that, but the methods will continue to grow as technology marches on!

So if you may be struggling to find almost anything fun to do in your target language…wait a bit, maybe even a few months or a year, even! You’d be surprised what’ll come out when you’re not looking…

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Wrapping it up, so that I don’t cause any misunderstanding, I will say this:

There is no bad with languages. Period. There is only a misunderstanding that doesn’t take into account that fluency requires (1) dedication (2) perseverance (3) feeling stupid sometimes and, most importantly (4) being able to include each language in a fuzzy place in your life where you play with it rather than work with it.

So get playing!

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