How to Recover From an Embarrassing Defeat (In Language Learning)

Especially if you’re not a veteran language learner yourself, it may not be apparent to you, but the path to poylglottery (well, mine, because it is the one that I see best and, what’s more, in a “behind the scenes” manner) is littered with great pain alongside great mirth (but isn’t this true about acquiring any skill?

Let me tell you about some extremely embarrassing incidents that have taken place throughout the years:

  • Froze up in front of an Icelandic native speaker (last November)
  • Froze up in front of a novice Irish speaker, hadn’t practiced for weeks (earlier this month)
  • Had difficulty having an Ecuadorian visitor understand my Spanish (March of this year)
  • Struggled in giving a presentation in novice German so badly that one of my lecturers was visibly frustrated (February 2014)
  • Told off by some speakers of Hasidic Yiddish (twice this Spring / summer)
  • Crashed during a German conversation (earlier this month)
  • Pretty much every time I’ve been answered in English while ordering food in places like Israel and Sweden (in Israel it was more frequent, I’ve noticed that Swedish-speakers from immigrant background NEVER used English with me after I got the basics “down”) (2012 – 2013, and 2009 in the case of Hebrew only)
  • Having a Burmese taxi driver telling me that I needed to work on my tones (May of this year)
  • Having that same Burmese taxi driver telling me that I should learn languages from “people” rather than from “books” (he has a point, actually! But I didn’t have access to too many Burmese speakers in New York. Hoping this will change in the future!)
  • Having trouble understanding Burmese numbers at times (also May of this year)
  • Drawing blanks when trying to speak novice Vietnamese (July of this year)
  • Speaking super-slow Hungarian with iffy grammar with both native speakers and learners of all stripes (pretty much this whole summer)

A good deal of my languages from across levels are involved in this list, but interestingly some of my strongest languages (Danish, the one language that I have CONSISTENTLY been complimented the most by native speakers, as well as Norwegian and all English Creoles) are absent from this list. And those of you who know me well know that, very sadly, I keep a tally of pretty much every negative thing that has ever happened to me (hey, I’m working on improving it!)

It goes without saying that I’ve noticed patterns in my “defeats”:

  • Rusty practice (Irish and Icelandic have been subjected to this the most…)
  • Novice status (Burmese!)
  • Lack of deep cultural resonance (my mild antipathy towards global languages like Spanish or German is well-documented in this blog, I say that I “don’t love them any more than I have to”, and I’m under the impression that they’re not my strongest languages, nor will they ever be, barring circumstances like getting into a relationship with a native speaker)
  • Sometimes not feeling well (interestingly one time I showed up to Language Exchange NYC, met a Danish native speaker and managed an entire conversation with a native speaker without slipping up. I was on five hours of sleep and kept telling my friends that I “shouldn’t have gone” and that I “should have stayed in bed”)

The one important thing to do in situations like these is detach yourself from the situation. I don’t care if you’ve been interviewed by global news outlets or are revered as a global star of language learning, realize that you’re allowed to be defeated at times and that, at your core, you are someone who is (1) either on the way up or (2) very much on the top with well-deserved work.

Recognize the many times you’ve managed with languages that are not your native language(s), or without using your native language or English. Remember the many victories and compliments from native speakers, not also to mention the bridges that your languages have built, including those you’ve learned to fluency and those that you haven’t made fluent quite yet (I got free drinks out of Hebrew, I also got it out of French back when I was quite bad at it, and also with Burmese with three weeks of practice [at the Shwedagon Pagoda, no less! Relax, by “drinks” I mean “water bottles”! I wasn’t drinking beer at the Shwedagon Pagoda! I promise!])

If you’re still feeling pain so deep that you can’t bring those victories to mind, allow yourself to experience pain and just…wait. (thankfully I haven’t undergone anything like what Ziad Fazah underwent on Viva Lunes, nor has any friend I know—namely, being asked to speak a handful of languages and being unable to muster basic phrases in almost any of them. Oh, and I’m super-careful to ensure that what happened to him won’t happen to me in the slightest).

Come to the realization that it is through these defeats that you will find progress. Mr. Burmese Taxi Driver Who Said that Jared Needs to Improve His Tones served as a motivator for me to get better with the language, even though it doesn’t seem that I’m returning to Myanmar at any time in the near future (plenty of Burmese diaspora folks around many places, though!). Each of the embarrassing incidents above motivated me to get better. EVERY. ONE.

In the event that you weren’t feeling well that day, keep in mind that it doesn’t reflect on your true abilities. And in the event that you DID manage to speak a language very well when you were ill, give yourself applause. You deserve it!

Keep in mind two things:

  • Don’t compare your L2’s (or L3’s or any other languages beyond that) to a higher standard than your native languages. So, SO many English monoglots expect me to understand EVERYTHING that’s said in (Spanish / Hebrew / Yiddish / Swedish) all of the time. I don’t understand everything in ENGLISH a good deal of the time, so why would I expect it in any other language?
  • Don’t compare your L2’s to foreigners having learned English. English is like half-a-native-language to many people almost everywhere. In some places like the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or areas of the Pacific or Africa where English is an official language (and any other places besides these), it’s even more than half-a-native language. They’ve been encouraged to learn English their whole lives, you’ve probably received loads of discouragement, even from learning global languages like Spanish, and possibly even more for languages like Danish, and even MORE for endangered or minority languages.

Realize that every journey comes with slip-ups, regardless of HOW good you are with a language. Heck, I’ve even messed up English spectacularly on several occasions (and some HATERZ might like to think that it is because I’m a polyglot, but that’s not true because I’ve heard monoglot English speakers mess up their native language in similar ways).

Remember to give your “failure” some time, and then it will be something to laugh at. But it will become something to laugh at on one condition: if you rise above it and use it as a motivator to become even better at the language(s) involved!

I’m with you, encouraging you every step of the way! Don’t pay attention to discouragers or haterz! Get up and get going again! You’ll reach your goals before you know it!

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How to Choose Your Next Language: The Only Post You’ll Ever Need

The advice that I put in this article is literally found nowhere else and if you’ve come here for a list of eight languages you should consider studying, you’re not going to get that.

Too many people have asked exactly what sort of process I use in order to pick what language goes “next on my list” or which ones I’d like to learn manageably well (Breton) vs. professionally fluent (Danish).

Too many people embark on a language-learning journey and just say “I want to be fluent. Period.” But it requires more thought than this. (Learning English for communicating with customers vs. learning English for law school are going to be too very different things. And besides, not all of a language’s “realms” have been fully explored by native speakers. Far from it, in fact!)

The fluency that people like this probably have in mind is when the various “realms” of their target language pertaining to their life are filled up.

If you think I need to talk about music theory in Tok Pisin or Finnish, think again. While I do know that vocabulary in my native language, I barely use it. I could manage it if I want (although keep in mind, some languages don’t have all of these “realms” filled in, Estonian in particular prides itself in being the smallest language in the world with a very comprehensive scientific vocabulary!).

Anyhow, language choice.

 

Reasons that I would disregard when choosing a language

Too many people pick languages based on “how many native speakers it has”.

This is not a helpful metric, for a number of reasons.

For one, the one thing you should NEVER do with your life is entrust the choices in your life to other people. E-ver!

Obviously earlier in your life it may have been necessary but if you’re independent in any capacity I highly recommend anything that even contains a whiff of letting other people choose your destiny.

There are those that choose languages like Spanish and Chinese because they have a resonance with their friends from places where they are spoken. They have become attached to the music and to the literatures and the many cultural mentalities contained in such a place.

There are others that choose these languages because of cultural misunderstandings—perhaps they think that a fear of Mexico or China is just too much to bear in the United States and learning these languages will help serve as a protection against such a fear.

There are others still that encounter speakers of these languages with great regularity.

But choosing a language based on an abstract concept of “lots of people speak it” and very little else is pointless and ill-defined.

People who learn Spanish or French for reasons like this and little else barely get past the intermediate stage, don’t have the cultural resonance required for genuine fluency, and probably continue their learning for ill-defined “monetary benefits” or “understanding people” when just sticking to learning material aimed at foreigners year after year, being surpassed in progress by people who learned the language out of a genuine love for the culture and way of thinking.

(You CANNOT become fluent with just language-learning materials! You NEED material intended for native or fluent speakers!)

And never, ever, EVER ask ANYONE “what language should I learn next?”

Ask YOURSELF that question instead!

I’m sorry if my word choice is too harsh, but I’ve decided that in the coming year, I’m going to be a lot more uncensored in my opinions. It’s good for clickbait, after all!

Also peer pressure is not a good reason in the SLIGHTEST. Not for language, not for anything. “No French? No Turkish? No Chinese?” Got this year after year after year.

And the only thing that really got me interested in the French language to begin with wasn’t even France, it was West Africa and the Pacific Islands!

You are the boss of your life. Disregard the rest of people who want to pressure you or make you feel bad. Make decisions that you really want from the heart, and you’ll be a legend. Let other people make your choices, and you’ll end up burned out and full of regret. End of story.

Okay Jared, so HOW should I choose my language instead?

Step 1: Look at one of the following things:

 

  • A map of the world
  • The language index at omniglot.com
  • The register of flag emojis in your smartphone keyboard (if you have one)
  • A very vast collection of language-learning books
  • The travel section in a bookstore or library.

 

Feel free to use a combination of these elements.

What places or languages in that list stick out to you?

Which ones might you have been dreaming of seeing or knowing more about since you were a kid?

When the language is written on a page, does it feel like something you ABSOLUTELY must have in your life?

When you read about the language or the country where the language is spoken or visit online forums about the language or communities associated with it, do you feel a sense of wishing that you were a part of that? Do you feel a sense of wishing that you would like to communicate with these people and understand this culture?

When you listen to music sung in this language, how does it make you feel? Would you like more music of that sort in your life or not?

Also, another metric to consider using is to look at your own heritage.

What language(s) did your ancestors speak? Do you have relatives that speak it or otherwise are (or were) capable of understanding it? You’ll have the motivation to learn such languages because, whether you like it or not, they are a part of who you are.

I got very much attached to languages like Yiddish and Swedish precisely for this reason, and it seems that it will be that way with Hungarian, too.

It’s Okay to Learn a Language for Silly Reasons, Too

Sometimes a language jumps out at you and you don’t know why. Maybe it sounds cool. Maybe you like the writing system. Maybe you read something funny about the way the language is spoken (“Danish sounds like seal talk”) or written (“Greenlandic looks like a kid banging on a typewriter”)

You’re probably wondering, “Jared, did you just write that it wasn’t a good idea to choose a language based on number of speakers, but it is okay to choose a language because it ‘sounds cools’?”

Precisely.

Here’s the reason why.

When choosing to invest in a hobby or buying a product, it is primarily an emotional decision. Logical decisions can be used some of the time, but if you want a lasting attachment to your investment, choose something based on your emotions rather than what other people think might be good for you.

My choice to have learned Greenlandic was not a logical decision in the slightest. My choice to have taken the book out from the library, photographed the language section in the back, and put it on Memrise was all purely from an emotional standpoint.

Where exactly did it land me?

Well, I became attached to Greenlandic because I liked how it looked on paper and how it sounded. I also had a fascination with Greenland since my childhood.

Several years later, I’m going to Greenland to meet with some of the country’s biggest names in the arts and I’m developing a video game set in Nuuk. I was also interviewed by Greenlandic National Radio in December 2016!

This was all because I had an emotional attachment to my project.

And you need a project that you, similarly, are emotionally attached to.

The choice of language has to be YOURS.

It has to be one that you long for deeply, that you can think about with a smile and talk about with friends and show you true devotion to the culture and literature and idioms and everything that language is.

It can be any language in the world! It doesn’t matter if it is a global language or a small national language or a minority language or an endangered language or even an ancient tongue that is used only in writing.

You have to choose it because you genuinely love it!

Love conquers all, and this is doubly true for language learning.

many languages

This building from Antwerp has been featured in WAY too many foreign-language learning posts. I think I may be the one that started the trend!