Several Languages at the Same Time?

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I get asked about learning several languages at the same time by many, MANY people. The common wisdom that curious souls tend to glean from forums is the following:

  • Avoid it when possible
  • If you must, choose languages that are highly dissimilar.
  • You must feel very confident in one second language before taking on another.

As for myself, I have a passionate soul and heart that pulls me in all directions and, as a result, am not one for following rules that I don’t have to follow.

I have no real principles that I steadily keep about simultaneous learning. The only principle I really have in this regard is “if you have a desire to learn a language (or to do anything, for that matter), act on it!”.

“But what about mixing up languages?” some of you may say.

Well, I do have tips about doing that. Looking at my list, there are highly similar languages, such as:

  • Yiddish, German and Dutch
  • Norwegian, Swedish and Danish
  • Icelandic and Faroese

All of these, to make the problems even worse, are Germanic. But the only real ones I’ve ever mixed up consistently have been German and Yiddish! Those in the third category I have mixed up on…only a few occasions, and the second one almost never.

What did I do well with the Scandinavian Languages? Well, from the beginning I associated each one of them with highly different modes of speaking. As my first unofficial Swedish teacher told me: Norwegian is nasal, Danish is guttural, and Swedish is (like all things Swedish) in the middle.

The vocabulary between Danish and Standard Norwegian in particular are frighteningly similar, as anyone who has studied both languages will tell you. You thought Spanish and Italian were close? Well…imagine that times ten. Although it should be said that there are vocabulary differences between Danish and Norwegian Bokmål, despite what others may tell you (in jest).

The primary difference between Danish and Norwegian lies in the way they are spoken. The pronunciation differs very much (and Danish pronunciation has been known to scare students of Swedish just by merely mentioning the topic).

Where was I?

Oh, so the reason that I almost never mixed up these languages had to do with the fact that I had them categorized with different registers and feelings. One time on the “How to Learn Any Language Forum” I encountered a post that said that it was “not possible” to learn more than one Scandinavian Language because they were so similar. Well, obviously that isn’t true, because I’ve met people who can speak all three fluently. And if they exist, well, then it is possible…what is there to be said?

So what you genuinely need to do with simultaneously learning is ensure that you put languages on different emotional registers. Give them associations with a culture, with a mode of feeling…and, as such, mixing up words will seem like such a terrible intrusion that it won’t happen.

On a side note, I should also mentioned that I even mix up my native language with my other languages. Sometimes I’m thinking in another language and speaking in English and as a result I have to pause and configure a phrase or a word into something that would make sense more readily in English. (Recent examples of this included me trying to configure the German word “Missbrauch” and the Danish phrase “har lyst”).

Is mixing up languages the worst thing in the world? Not if it happens very infrequently. And I’ve noticed people of all nationalities do it at some point! What you need to do is minimize the chances of it happening by ensuring that you compartmentalize the various versions of yourself in each language so that they don’t intrude on each other more than they need to.

When you have that, you will realize that you can study all of the languages you want, without fear of mixing them up.

Isn’t that nice?

 

 

5775: Where I Am, Where I Was, and Where I Want to Be

Two nights hence Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins. It is a time for me, and all others of my faith (heritage?) to reflect and consider the year to come.

This post will just be about my language acquisition/maintenance life, so don’t expect anything else besides.

For one, I think about where I was earlier this year, I feel that I have changed in the following regards:

  • Especially when in the United States, I don’t feel insulted anymore when someone chooses to speak English with me over another language that I know.

 

Earlier this year I used to take it as a personal insult to my skills if someone didn’t want to speak anything in English with me.

 

Luckily, thanks largely to the polyglot bar, this has changed. Even with many of my friendships, I balance the various languages used to all degrees so that “everyone is happy”.

 

It is true. There are some friendships that begin in something other than English and then it just feels awkward using any other language that the one I first used (Yiddish, German, Scandinavian Languages, mostly). But regarding ones began in English (let’s say, back when I began living in Sweden and really struggled with the Swedish Language), I didn’t have a hard time breaking out of English when I proved my skills in the language well enough (forming sentences without flinching is usually the best way to do this, as is a healthy degree of colloquialisms)

 

Maybe it is living New York, but there are plenty of polyglots to go around. I heard more Danish spoken in the past few weeks than I ever had heard by pedestrians in Heidelberg in over a year. Even in Paris I encountered Danes, Swedes, Israelis, Finns, Germans, Dutch, Flemings, Brazilians, and too many more to list.

 

I’m confident enough in my abilities now that I don’t take it as an insult. I used to be insecure, but after starting this blog and seeing my true potential in this American Metropolis, I don’t need to feel insecure anymore.

 

Now the real test is if I can keep that security when I leave this country…

 

…I expect that a year from now, I won’t even need to ask it or even consider it.

 

  • I felt afraid of judgment from people who spoke certain languages. I was actually afraid of the day that I would meet a real live Dane because I was certain that my pronunciation would never be good enough.

 

As it turns out, this past year I met both Danes and Danish learners from elsewhere in the world, and there wasn’t a hint of being judgmental from any of them.

 

And even when I met Finns back when I wasn’t particularly good with Finnish, they genuinely appreciated my efforts, perhaps sometimes with a laugh and always asking a question beginning with “miksi” (why) and another with “miten” (how)

 

And my funniest story with Finnish (back when I visited the country and knew it to a rudimentary degree, but impressive for a beginner):

 

“Wow, you really know a lot about the Finnish Language. When did you get here?”

 

“…just a couple of hours ago…””

 

I may have encountered some degree of judgment, but literally never from any native speakers over the course of the past year. Before that, I might have, but that was a different Jared who definitely wasn’t as confident as he is now.

 

  • I learned to stop thinking that everyone saw me as a “stupid American” by default. When I shed this attitude (although sometimes it came back at unpredictable moments), then it worked wonders for my German conversational ability. Back when I had it, it hindered me every step of the way, and sometimes it was so bad that I felt that I couldn’t even hold any basic…anything…

 

I broke out of this almost near the very end of my stay in Heidelberg, although sometimes I used English in messages with bureaucrats because some of my friends, local and otherwise, told me that would be a good idea. But even then, the fact that I did that doesn’t say anything about the skills I may or may not have.

 

Those are the three major problems I had over the course of the past. I can say that, while some shred of these problems exists, I have sent them on their way.

Now for my own desires for the next year:

  • Stop worrying about what other people think is possible.

 

I worry that if my multilingual adventures reach a certain level, then people will cast doubt on my ability to have learned anything (although you are more than welcome to go ahead and test me in the comments).

 

With my current collection of languages, I’ve encountered people wondering “HOW THE HECK DO YOU DO THAT?!!?” and assume that I’m some variety of superhuman genius. Here’s the thing: I may forget a handful of my languages that I have now, but I’m not stopping learning new ones, certainly not now.

 

(Note to world: I really dislike it when you put me on a pedestal. Please, any of you can learn 15+ languages, too. Flash cards, Phrasebook [especially for a very rarely spoken language] and media intake, you know the drill…so what are you waiting for?)

 

What will my employers think? What will the folks on the “How to Learn Any Language” Forum think? What will my friends think…? (Well…actually, my friends are always very supportive of me…thanks, friends!)

 

What will everyone think?

 

As we say in Greenland, sussat! It doesn’t matter to me.

 

  • I Have to Follow my Desires

 

How did I learn Greenlandic, people ask me?

 

Simple: I had a desire. I acted on it.

 

The act of learning Greenlandic (or any language) is never complete. There may be a finite amount of words in the language (billions of them, actually), and, on a more realistic note for a human to learn, there are a finite amount of word pieces in the language (Oqaasileriffik lists 20162, to be precise).

 

I have plenty of other desires to act on as well. I don’t want my life to be complete without learning a bunch of other languages, most of which I haven’t even listed on my list in the “flirting” category (a reference to the aforementioned “How to Learn Any Language” forum).

 

Again, I didn’t care what people thought when I was learning stuff like Faroese or Greenlandic or Northern Sami. Now that I feel that I might have a bit “too much on my plate”, even with closely related languages, I’m beginning to rethink the “there’s always room for one more”.

 

But you know what? Sussat! There IS always room for one more! And even if one has to go for whatever reason, my passive understanding of it isn’t gone.

 

Only earlier today was I watching an episode of Pokémon in Polish and I understood a lot more than I knew I had active control over (and my active control of Polish may be enough to impress my Polish friends, but I deem it quite pathetic, especially in comparison to the languages I know well).

 

 The same occurred for the songs in my Russian music collection.

 

Now, I could convert that passive understanding to an active one just by virtue of switching my media input. I don’t need to relearn the grammar. I can recognize the parts of speech on sight or just by hearing the words.

 

But even if I have to forget some languages, I can rest assured that my passive understanding will remain strong, even through years of disuse, provided I gave it enough nurturing.

 

In Conclusion: right now I am living the polyglot life that I’ve been dreaming of since I was a kid. It will only get better from here. Even with my best languages (English included!) there is a lot more for me to always learn, but I have to savor the fact that I’ve come a long way, one with discouragement, despair, and doubt.

 

And now I’m here.

 

But the journey doesn’t end.

 

The journey will continue, until the end of 5774 and well beyond it!

 

L’shana tovah!