What I Had to Give Up to Become a Hyperpolyglot

Well I’m going to make a number of announcements now.

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While my Slovak studies have been continuing due to the fact that I will be presenting at the Bratislava Polyglot Gathering in 2019 (one presentation in Yiddish on Kiribati and another presentation in Swedish about Niue), I am probably going to retire from my hyperpolyglot life once that spiel is over in June.

I need to be clear about something: I will NOT return to speaking just English, given that my livelihood depends on my knowledge of Nordic languages and Yiddish (as well as, to a lesser extent, languages of South Pacific).

I just feel as though I had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to become that imposter-syndrome-riddled legend. And now I want to live for myself rather than my reputation.

I am glad to have “dated” so many languages and cultures, but now I’d like to settle down and really get to intimately know my favorite languages. These would be, in no particular order, Yiddish, Scandinavian, Finnish, Hungarian, Greenlandic, and Polynesian in general but with a focus on Tahitian and Hawaiian.

My English is EXTREMELY good, even by native speaker standards (I tested in the 99th percentile for vocabulary). I know that there literally might not be enough time for me to get to that level in my “favorite languages”, but I’d like to get closer.

Also the pressure of trying to get me to speak better (Spanish / Modern Hebrew / French / etc.) has been bothering me. I somehow see it as friends who would encourage me to break up with a girlfriend I really love.

So as a result of that I may stop attending language exchange events as often as I used to come June. But maybe I’ll pop in occasionally.

Here’s what I felt I needed to give up as a result of becoming a hyperpolyglot:

 

  1. A Sense of Belonging

 

I became “that guy”, in a sense, the one whose reputation as a “language genius” always proceeded me. ALWAYS.

I never really could find myself connecting to my American culture on a deep level. I gave up American television and news. I found myself permanently apart from the country I spent the most time in.

Even though I felt significantly “at home” among foreigners of all types sometimes, I constantly felt as though I was American first, speaker of their language second.

I became the bridge. A true member of none of the cultures I partook of, but a genuinie member of none of them.

 

  1. Full-Time Fluency without Doubts

 

There were exceptions to this, but often with the languages that I had to spread myself thinly to maintain, I felt that my knowledge of idioms would be thinner than I would have liked, even then I worried about my grammar sometimes.

At first I figured that I didn’t really WANT native-like fluency, but with each year I feel that it is what I want in the languages I want most.

I saw it this way (and the book “Babel No More” manages to point to this): I put most of my chips on the languages I liked most and then spread many of them thinly across many others.

Now I’m going to put all of my chips on the eight languages I like the most. And the fact that Scandinavian languages and Yiddish are closely related, not also to mention the Polynesian family, gives me an advantage in that respect.

I don’t want to sound “learnerese” anymore in any of my languages. I want to sound completely natural. And I got there. But only with a few. But even with those view I want to get better.

I also knew seventeen languages to conversational fluency, but even with half of those I felt as though many of them had holes. Holes are okay. Even very good speakers of English as a second language have them. But I want to make the most of what I can get and that will involve optimizing my skills.

 

  1. Leisure Time

 

This is self-explanatory. I had to convert all of my free time to maintenance. Walking around? You better be listening to audio in one of your target languages. Playing a game? Same.

It took an unbelievable toll on my mental health. The idea that I had to maintain my reputation all of the time meant that everything that wasn’t explicitly related to my career had to go to language learning. The only fun I really had for fun’s sake was video games but even then it was usually to note “what is this game doing well? How about not so well?” concerning what I would incorporate into “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” and other projects.

 

  1. Security and Confidence

 

Language learning is highly vulnerable because there IS a point where you will sound like an idiom. I got told that my accent was terrible. Sometimes I even got told to stop speaking the language.

And that’s not even going into what was said about me online. Whenever I would read some things, entire days if not weeks would be plunged into despair.

Even with fluency, either professional or conversational, I interpreting things that native speakers said very seriously. “Pretty good” was code for “needs work” or “not passable”. I would interpret anything other than endless praise as “you better work on it!”

And even then I would sometimes interpret praise as the fact that I needed work on it too. (It had to do with a post I read saying that native speakers don’t praise each other’s language skills).

It was a neurosis that I was aware of from my days in religious school as a pre-teen. The endless “shoulder checking” and the idea that God would always punish you for every small thing…and only now while writing this do I realize that it ended up in other areas of my life without realizing it.

 

  1. Ability to Converse with Certain People

 

This is an odd one. Because my life became so internationalized, there were people to whom I could connect to VERY easily and others whom I could barely manage a conversation with at all.

Among most internationals, I didn’t need to explain the whole Macedonia naming controversy at all. Among many Americans, it was necessary. And many people throughout the world only imagine the South Pacific as “Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti and that’s it” (Kiribati required a lengthy explanation as did Tuvalu or the Federated States of Micronesia). And that’s not even mentioning the constituent countries of New Zealand (such as Niue).

I didn’t want to learn about American pop culture too deeply. It felt fake for me. Sometimes it cost me the ability to connect with people. Although with other internationals we could always talk about our cultural differences or about the things American locals were never asking us about.

 

  1. Time to Relax

 

My polyglot career became everything and it consumed every aspect of my life. I always wanted to get better, almost like an addiction in a sense. I wasn’t allowed to relax because I figured “someone else out there is doing a better job than you are and YOU have to keep working!”

Again, this was another transmuted neurosis from my high school and college days in which I was a “striver”.

 

Bonus: Pressured to learn popular languages and get good at those.

 

Do I need to say more about this? Some people barely believe languages outside of Western Europe exist. The idea that my heart was elsewhere some people found confusing.

If you love something, go ahead and choose what you love above all else. And that’s what I’m going to do.

Why the Jerry Cans (the Musical Band from Nunavut) is Everything Music Should Be

Happy 20th birthday, Nunavut! Well, technically speaking, it was yesterday (given that Nunavut became a Canadian province on April 1st, 1999), but who would take an article seriously if I were to publish it then?

I first discovered Inuktitut (which I have paused for several years ever since my bout with Lyme Disease in 2015, during which I wasn’t actively writing on this or any other blog) due to KNR (the Greenlandic National Broadcasting service).

They showed this music video (turn on CC for English subtitles):

My first thought was to imagine how many Americans would react to seeing the video (use your imagination). My second thought was the fact that the music was not only extraordinarily catchy and familiar but it also showed a genuine desire to showcase everything that daily life in the Arctic is for the community.

Also what’s amazing about the Jerry Cans is the fact that it showcases both Inuktitut and English at regular intervals in many of its songs, as well as the fact that their songs serve as a culture guidebook to the region.

In case you’re curious about the name, it was, if I recall correctly, named after the fact that during their first jam session they used Jerry Cans as makeshift percussion. (I believe they’re used to power snowmobiles) Obviously the jerry cans themselves were substituted for real drums, but the name stuck.

While this song isn’t one of my personal favorites from the band, the fact that it mentions the struggles that Arctic shoppers have has always made it memorable for me in another sense:

And also different cultural perspectives are in order as well, including this song that, in my opinion, no one truly ever forgets:

“This one goes out to environmental propaganda / Dear PETA, you know we can’t stand ya!” (This song will be thought-provoking no matter who you are).

Also note the presence of Inuit throat singing in the song as well, which is, I should note, conspicuously absent from most Greenlandic music (because Danish missionaries banned it in). That said, Rasmus Lyberth from Greenland does also feature something like it in some of his songs.

More controversial issues aside however (or…what people in my area would consider them), the Jerry Cans’ music is positively sublime and captures perfectly the feeling of strolling around the Arctic and admiring all that humanity cannot create.

Check the video description for the lyrics and their English translation.

(I should also remember that I saw many of the hides that you see in the video also present throughout the National Museum of Greenland during my visit there).

In a world of growing cultural divides, I think the world needs a lot more music like this that genuinely causes worlds to open up to people and ignites the curiosity that we all innately have as humans.

Feel free to check and purchase their music on iTunes should you feel so inspired.

Their website is also bilingual in Inuktitut and English as well: https://www.thejerrycans.com/home

Happy 20th birthday, Nunavut!

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People Who “Hate” Their Native Languages: My Perspective

Beware the Ides of March!

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Today’s topic is an interesting one that I’m surprised hasn’t been touched on in almost any language-learning blog I’ve encountered.

For many years I’ve heard comments like these:

 

“(Speaker’s native language) is the most useless language in existence”

“(Speaker’s native language) is only useful 0.1% of the time.”

“I suppose there are a lot better things to do with your time (rather than study my native language)”

“Why the fuck do you want to learn (speaker’s native language)?”

“I think my native language is boring”

“I would trade my native language for…”

 

I should mention two things:

  • I’ve been guilty of this myself. Part of me wishes that English wasn’t my native language. That was literally the second blog post I ever wrote about on this blog, actually!
  • Almost all of the people who made comments like these were westerners (although I’ve heard some people from Asia or the Americas do the same, too—but not as frequently. From Africa and the Pacific, not to date).

 

Before I continue I’m going to say that I do NOT include people who actively dislike their language due to trauma. (e.g. “my grandmother was a native German speaker from Nazi Germany and after she left she refused to speak German ever again”. Disclaimer: this describes neither of my grandmothers). That’s beyond the scope of what I feel qualified to talk about, and in the event you DO encounter someone like that, avoid that language altogether without questions. End of story.

 

But as far as ordinary people who somehow feel that they could trade their native language (or one of their native languages) for another one, there are some things that I’ve noticed.

 

  • Sometimes they just say that in order to get you to validate their native language.

 

YES. This has happened to me. Enough for me to write about it.

 

Only yesterday was I in a Talmud class and we had a discussion about the fact that, according to Jewish law, prospective converts have to be refused three times (in order to show that they are genuinely serious about becoming Jewish, regardless of what liabilities it may bring them in the future).

 

Sometimes someone who says “why bother learning (my language) if so few people speak it / everyone in my country speaks English anyhow / it’s ‘useless’” may actually want you to justify your decision passionately. Or they may actually want to hear your story in detail but don’t want to ask directly.

 

The more fluent you are in a language, the LESS this will happen, especially if your accent is good.

 

There’s a reason for that, actually. Because if you speak it well enough, it shows that you’ve had a good enough reason to invest a lot of time into it, so your reason will almost CERTAINLY not be within the realm of questioning (e.g. having done business there, married to or dating a native speaker, etc.)

 

  • If they use ANY amount of the language with you at all beyond basic greetings, they really DON’T hate their native language. Especially if they show telltale signs of enchantment.

 

If they did (and yes, I have encountered a handful of cases in which they did), they wouldn’t smile if you speak their language, they would instead appear disgusted and a tad confused. They wouldn’t be continuing the conversation in the “useless language” and playing along with you with smiles as they do it.

 

This is the case with me and English. I may have extremely conflicted opinions about American English, but if someone wants to learn it from me, I’ll usually play along rather than act frustrated (especially if someone really needs help with his or her English). Because whether I like it or not, American-ness is a part of who I am (in addition to my other identities).

 

  • Sometimes this attitude can reflect a certain sense of jealousy (that we ALL have) about speakers of certain languages.

 

I’m hugely jealous of Greenlandic native speakers. I make no secret of that fact. (It still remains the hardest language I’ve ever attempted to learn, bar none, to the degree that if someone lists a major language as the hardest to learn, I’m secretly scoffing on the inside.)

 

Throughout Europe I’ve met many people who view American English native speakers as lottery winners and view them with a certain sort of jealousy that they can’t hide. And yes, you will make friends JUST by virtue of that fact alone, especially with people who feel that they need the conversational practice or even knowledge about American culture (this is true no matter WHAT your native language is, actually! Someone out there is looking for you! This can also be the case if you’re a fluent speaker of a language, even non-natively).

 

My knowledge of whatever native languages I can’t have and I can’t catch up with will almost certainly never be on the level of a native speaker. But I can try and keep learning. And if it is of any comfort to you, my knowledge of other English-speaking cultures and their idioms are also going to be out of reach in terms of “perfection” as well.

 

But you don’t need to be a native speaker to be good. Far from it, in fact.

 

  • Unless someone brings up a traumatic incident or shows signs of vexation, do NOT take “I hate my native language / I think it’s useless” comments seriously.

 

And there also is a chance that you just MIGHT need to get better at their language in order to get them to warm up to you!

 

One last thing: you can actually use this to your advantage to keep conversations in your target language (which I’ve noticed is becoming less and less of an issue the more experienced I get. It was a noteworthy issue back in 2014 and is almost NOTHING now, but we’ll see how Austria and Slovakia fare later this year on that front). Benny Lewis famously would bring up his English-language Catholic school experiences in order to guilt people away from using English with him in places like Spain. I’ve never had to go to that length but I’m certainly willing to describe the darker sides of my American experience (which I won’t go into right now).

 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

The State of Being Able to Learn the Nauruan Language in 2019

Happy 51st Birthday Nauru!

Today I’m going to speak about my experience with (trying to) learn Nauruan, which collapsed several times due to no fault of my own.

First off, the Nauruan language does have significant boons that some smaller languages don’t have.

There’s Nauruan Wikipedia you can visit at https://na.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bwiema_peij

There’s a predictive Nauruan-language keyboard available with SwiftKey (I can’t say how good the predictions are, but it seems to be better than the Greenlandic one).

Music is readily available on YouTube and it seems that even the most translated website in existence (I am speaking about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Organizational Page, translated into 700+ languages) has a good deal of text and even audio. While a lot of material from JW does end up in Glosbe’s translation database, this hasn’t been the case with Nauruan as of the time of writing.

There isn’t a single book for learning the Nauruan language that is user-friendly. There is a German-Language Grammar that I wrote about earlier this month. It’s about as user-friendly as it gets: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

It is from before World War I and it seems that the orthography is quite different from what you can find on the aforementioned Nauruan Wikipedia. (Reminder to those unaware: Nauruan was once a German colony).

The advantages to this book: the grammar is clearly laid out, there are even texts for learning and a helpful dictionary. The one disadvantage is that it is probably not going to prepare you to have your first conversation. Take phrasebooks from Lonely Planet, Berlitz or Reise Know How / Kauderwelsch. Those TRAIN you to learn things that are instantly useful within a matter of minutes. This book isn’t like that.

Then we get to Stephen Trussel’s website. His work with Kiribati / Gilbertese has not only been fantastic but actually made my studies of that enchanting language POSSIBLE (I can’t thank him enough for what he has done). Concerning Nauruan, he did put a dictionary online that I in turn converted into a Memrise course (along with some other sources).

I decided to put it online and you can access it here. It probably won’t make you fluent or make you even conversational but it may be useful: https://www.memrise.com/course/1794555/nauruan/

There are some other grammars and courses that I’ve seen referenced in scholarship, but I cannot acquire copies of any of them. Part of me was hoping to get an accessible Nauruan language learning textbook when I visited the University of the South Pacific. They didn’t have anything in the way of Nauruan language materials when I went in August 2018 (as far as I could see), but they did have Cook Islands Maori / Rarotongan and Tuvaluan stuff (again, that trip made my TUVALUAN studies possible!).

Here’s what I think needs to be done in order to make the Nauruan Language accessible. I think that there are a lot of people who will appreciate being able to learn “the language of the world’s smallest independent republic”.

  • I would like to translate that Nauruan Grammar book and hopefully publish it but I don’t know how to go about doing it and / or updating the orthography.
  • A “Hacking Nauruan Course” should be made accessible. A native speaker could throw it together in an afternoon. It should have pronouns, “to have”, “to want”, conjunctions, question words, a pronunciation guide and a sentence structure guide. It could be on Memrise, Anki, or even on a free blog. A YouTube tutorial would also be fantastic.
  • Some variety of phrasebook, even a free one, should be made available. I think the Lonely Planet Fijian guide was very well put together and I think something in a similar structure would make Nauruan less intimidating. In it should be phrases related to lodging, restaurants and other everyday topics.

 

Perhaps some may think, “well, why bother with a language with so few native speakers?”

Well, I think that in the age of great language death, a lot of people are caring a lot more than they used to. And perhaps it may inspire someone to visit the country or otherwise spread knowledge about this tiny island that others in the world deserve to know about.

Naoero eko dogin! (Nauru Forever!)

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First Week of 2019: Review

Today was extremely difficult with me having had a translation job that literally ate up my entire day. That said, however short a post I have to write I thought I should write something now that 2019 is one week over.

Thoughts:

  • On free days (the likes of which the first days of 2019 were), I had absolutely no problem meeting my daily goals at all. Once I realized that my freelancing was going to be making an even BIGGER comeback shortly after the new year, I realized how I sometimes didn’t have enough time to manage putting in 50 Greenlandic sentences in a day. Daily goals are good if they are bit-sized, but sometimes things happen (whether that be illnesses or emergencies or suddenly finding yourself having to do something).
  • So my first week of Tibetan didn’t go particularly well. I credit this to material not being “fun”. It occurred to me that given that I have material from Mango Languages and uTalk for Dzongkha but not (yet) for Tibetan, maybe I should pivot with devoting the first half of 2019 to Dzongkha (Bhutanese) and the second half to Tibetan. Already I’ve been seeing results and poised to be able to have my first conversation in Dzongkha. Even a “field trip” with plans is in the cards! (…to another neighborhood in New York City. Not to Bhutan. Sorry.)
  • I figured that I should also adopt a “light version” of my goals on certain days.

With that in mind. Revised goals for January 2019:

  • 30 minutes of Dzongkha study every day (thanks to MTA never working this is easy).
  • 50 sentences of Greenlandic sentences into your Clozemaster Pro database (except for super-busy days).
  • 10 sentences of Greenlandic sentences to be reviewed every day in Clozemaster Pro.
  • 1 video of Dzongkha every day, no matter how long. Any level is good.

How are your goals going?

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Hello 2019! (And New Smaller Plans!)

For some odd reason I feel a certain flower of hope blooming in my life right now. Perhaps this New Year is going to provide a lot of healing as well as a lot of intrigue. Just the way I like it.

Inspired by All Japanese All the Time, I decided to implement a new strategy of learning in my life (and not just for languages). Namely, I have to have quantifiable goals that are either OVER or not.

“Be fluent in language X” is not one of those goals (if there is no test for it, anyhow, as would be the case for most languages of the developing world as far as I know).

However, “write X sentences a day” or “read a book for Y minutes every day of January” IS a quantifiable goal.

2018 saw me draw up a HUGE list of languages that I wanted to touch, very unrealistic precisely so that it would stretch me to my limits. It didn’t work out that way, so instead I’m going to focus on mastering two this year (or getting “good enough” at them).

2018 saw Hungarian and Fijian go on my resume, and while they both need improvement that will likely come with time and exercise (given that I can understand most material in either this will be a way to “cement” my skills, especially on the subway or while walking).

2019 may or may not see me forgetting languages (I was introduced to someone in December with the words “this man has forgotten more languages than most people speak fluently”. Okay, then. I’m happy.) But seeking to explore something new to invigorate my life (as well as something I can use in areas of New York City), I’m turning towards the Himalayas.

My two primary focuses for this year will be Tibetan and Dzongkha (which I will always spell correctly from now on).  With “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” looking at a release in the second half of 2019, I’m going to be focusing on that throughout the year (as well as using my Greenlandic studies to pay homage to the UN’s year of indigenous languages).

 

For Greenlandic, my goal is as follows for January:

  • Write in 50 sentences a day into your custom Clozemaster Pro course.
  • Do 10 of those sentences.

For Tibetan, my goal is as follows for January.

  • One YouTube video each day.
  • 30 minutes with the book.

 

When February comes around, I’lll adjust the goals so as to fit with my reality.

As for maintenance, I’ll be watching one video per week in each of my fluent languages, if possible. If I have a conversation in any of them, or have a class in any of them, I am exempt from the video.

Also, I know I say this every year on New Year’s Day, but happy birthday, Slovakia! This year I may even get to SEE YOU!

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My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

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Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.