Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

Learning Endangered / Minority Languages to Fluency: Is it Possible?

Learners of languages that have little political support (like Breton or Palauan) struggle more than those who learn politically powerful languages (like French or Japanese). The reason behind this has actually very little to do with the grammatical makeup of “difficulty” of the language.

For English speakers, Fijian (a language I’m currently learning) is easier than Finnish if one takes ONLY grammar into account. Within a little more than a week I’ve mastered many of the elements of Fijian grammar and that same task for Finnish took me at least A YEAR.

Of the languages I’ve done for the Huggins International 30-Day speaking Challenge (Lao, Greenlandic, and Hungarian–I’m doing Greenlandic again in February), I would say Hungarian and Greenlandic are about equal in terms of grammatical complication but Greenlandic is harder for me in general because (1) not as much support in technology and Internet usage (2) the words are longer (3) ways to engage with the language are more scarce and (4) Greenlandic doesn’t have as many Latinate / English cognates as Hungarian does (and Hungarian has significantly fewer than its Finnic bretheren further north).

Make no mistake: learning a rarer language can seem like an uphill battle at times, and that’s without taking into account what people may say to you (if you even care what sort of reactions other people have towards your project at all…part of me has really learned to stop caring).

Finding written material in Bislama was difficult, despite the fact that it was probably one of the easiest languages I encountered (given the fact that it is Vanuatu’s English Creole with French influence). I had no shortage of listening material, however, and that really sealed my journey to fluency. That, and putting the comprehensive vocabulary (about 7000 words, including place names from Melanesia and the Bible, in the WHOLE language–as in, every known word in it) into Anki.

With multiple rarer languages, I defied the odds and got fluent. It seems that I’m on track to do it again with Fijian! But why do so many language learners struggle and fall (note that I did not say “fail”) when it comes to learning rarer languages?

Have no fear!

Mother of the Sea and Me

 

(1) A lot of people getting attached to their language-learning materials.

This is a big one, and I addressed it a while back here.

Point is, language learning materials are to be grown OUT of, not grown ATTACHED to. And even when you’re fluent, feel free to use them as a reference now and then, but fluent speakers engage the language with material intended for native speakers.

What usually happens is that people sometimes get too attached to their books and their apps and use them as a recourse to engaging with the language when they should hop into the real world of that language…as QUICKLY as possible.

 

(2) A lot of people getting attached to needing to use the language with real people.

I became fluent in Bislama without even having SET FOOT in Vanuatu or in any other country of Oceania. How did I do it? I made a “virtual Vanuatu”. I had Ni-Vanuatu radio stations playing regularly when I needed a break from teaching and had to play mindless video games. I employed dozens of other methods across language-learning disciplines.

I used it actively by singing Bislama songs to friends and even recording myself.

Using the language with real people helps, this is beyond any hint of doubt. But don’t use “I need to be surrounded by people who speak it!” as an excuse to deny yourself a language you’ve been dreaming of, and certainly not in the age of the Internet.

Fun fact: up until I met Greenlandic speakers for the first time, a few minutes before boarding the plane to Nuuk in Reykjavik, there was a TINY nagging voice in my head that tried to convince me that Greenlandic was actually a conlang that was only used on the Internet and in a handful of books (given that I had never, EVER heard it spoken or used by real people up until that moment).

Turns out, the language as it was used in Greenland was every bit as real and authentic and MATCHED UP WITH everything I learned with books, music, radio and online studies.

You can fool your brain into thinking you’re pretty much anywhere on the planet at this point with immersion even with a language you haven’t heard ONCE used by real people in person.

 

(3) A lot of people begin learning rarer languages with a losing mindset and no intention to shed it

“I’m probably not going to be fluent in this language anyhow. There’s just no way. But I’ll try it…”

Hey.

Stop it.

If you WANT to learn your dream rare language to fluency, it may take more effort and LOADS of more discipline because giving up is the path of least resistance, especially with a language that others may actively be discouraging you from learning.

But you’re a winner, right? You want to be fluent in that language, right? So why believe the dream killers or that internal voice saying you won’t do well?

 

(4) They don’t build emotional attachment to the language

One of the first things I did when I learned rarer languages successfully (Yiddish, Tok Pisin, Fijian) was FIND MUSIC that I liked in the language and put it on all of my devices and my phone.

That way, I would build an emotional attachment to the language every time I heard the song and it would, on some level, increase my motivation.

A lot of people don’t really do this. Instead they slog away at books or classes and seldom if ever do they actually “get to know” the language or the place where it is spoken.

Also for Kiribati / Gilbertese in January, I tried searching for music that I liked and my first impression was “this country has ABSOLUTELY no good music whatsoever!” But interestingly enough, I found YouTube channels that collected Kiribati music and I sampled fifty different songs. I acquired the songs I liked and I put them in a folder and there are so many Kiribati songs that I find myself wanting to hum while walking on the streets of Brooklyn that, right now, I actively needed to be REMINDED of the time in which I thought that Gilbertese music was “no good”.

Also feel free to use the national sub-reddits for smaller countries to get music or radio-station recommendations. (There may be a handful of countries with no subreddits or, in the case of Kiribati, one that is locked ot the general public. I applied to get in. Still waiting. Hey, administrators, if you’re reading this, could you approve me, please? I have videos of me speaking Kiribati on the Internet!)
(5) They don’t learn about the culture behind that language in detail.

 

Pretty much every human alive in the developed world has some knowledge of what French or Japanese culture is like. I knew very little about Papua New Guinea’s cultures before learning Tok Pisin, despite the fact that my father had stories from his time there. So one thing I did was I headed to libraries and bookstores where I found travel guides to “PNG”, and read up about what the political systems there were like, the history, the cuisine and important things that travellers to the country should know.

Without that cultural knowledge, even with global languages, you will be at a disadvantage to (1) native speakers and (2) learners who have that cultural knowledge. So get reading!

 

(6) They may believe limiting advice from language gurus, the vast majority of who have never learned endangered or minority languages and have no intention to do so.

 

And not having that intention is okay, I should add. Personally I really like learning the rarer languages and I’ve embraced it fully. I understand that not everyone has that drive.

That said, a lot of gurus in the language-blogging world may insinuate things that you could possibly interpret as discouragement from wanting to learn Mandinka or Bislama or other languages that don’t have millions of people clamoring to learn them.

Disregard any advice that makes you want to run away from your dreams. And embrace any advice that encourages you to make them real.

I think I couldn’t end on a better note so I’ll just stop with that. Have fun!

 

Mango Languages’ 31 Days of Language (January 2018): A Reflection

I missed the last few days thanks to a flood of new students and other difficult factors, but aside from that, I’ve completed the 31 Days of Language Challenge that Mango Languages put forth in December 2017 to build language learners’ momentum in January 2018.

Here I am at the conclusion of it all (despite having missed a number of tasks, again, although this article is the final piece for the 31st day).

Let’s have a look at the task list now, shall we?

Mango_31DayChallengeCalendar_2018_web

One thing that actually made this list significantly lower-pressure than other challenges was the fact that many of them just would take a few minutes to complete. However, despite that (or perhaps because of it), they created a certain curiosity that really caused me to look into my target language in detail.

The language that I chose for the challenge was Kiribati / Gilbertese (yes, I’m fully aware that Mango Languages doesn’t have it! Not only that, but they actively ENCOURAGED me every step of the way! Yes, the Mango Languages staff!)

Let’s discuss where I was in December with Kiribati and where I am at the end of January:

In December, I was nowhere near the 600 “core words” of a language that I required for everyday conversation. I also had pronunciation issues, grammar holes and while I was capable of having a VERY predictable conversation, it was a conversation nonetheless.

But after the challenge, I had notice the following changes:

  • My knowledge of the core was fortified
  • My cultural knowledge was VERY fortified
  • Kiribati felt like a place that I actually visited rather than a place I daydreamed about while using language learning apps.
  • My grammar, while not perfect, was significantly stronger.
  • My pronunciation was a little better.
  • Alas, my listening comprehension wasn’t really improved (I’ve notice that Caribbean Spanish varieties and languages from Micronesia are the QUICKEST I’ve encountered in my life! Kiribati is going to be an uphill battle in this regard, although songs have been significantly more merciful).
  • I’m not yet fluent. But that’s okay. Am I conversational? Maybe after doing this three more times. But depending on what happens, fluent Kiribati IS in the cards for 2018 if I do everything right and am ultra-careful with my focus!

 

In light of this, I think that it would be wise of me to summarize the advantages and disadvantages of this challenge:

 

What I liked:

  • A lot of the tasks were SIGNIFICANTLY low-pressure, very few of them required me to upend my schedule in order to complete them.
  • It really enabled me to publicize my progress regularly, even though there may have been some of my Facebook friends that were annoyed by it (Oh great, those islands AGAIN!)
  • It drew together the understanding that a language is truly something to be experienced rather than learned.
  • It involved multiple senses, disciplines and the “separate intelligences”
  • The tasks were satisfying to complete.

 

What I disliked:

Very little, actually. If there would be one thing I would add, it would be the possibility to either “up the ante” with a given task or to do a simpler version of it. (After all, some days you may find yourself significantly bored, or otherwise completely overwhelmed).

Another thing is the fact that it should be customizable to complete in other months that are not January 2018.

 

Above all, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to learn this language and contribute to the study of Kiribati (which is quite a scant field of study as of the time of writing).

Kiribati

This is my last article for January 2018.

For February 2018, I will be focusing on Greenlandic with Huggins International (the Hungarian 30-Day Challenge went by well although I actually have 28 recordings because two of them involve me singing copyrighted songs that I’m not putting on YouTube!) and I will have a personal project with Fijian and a YouTube series with Bahamian Creole / Dialect (lovingly voted on by the members of Polyglot Polls) in honor of Black History Month!

2018 is a great time to be a language enthusiast! Go get your dreams!

What No Outsider Really Understands about Polyglotism

last pic of 2017

January 2018 is about to close, and it seems that I did myself a great disservice at the beginning of the month.

Empowered by the fact that I did achieve a significant amount of my 2017 goals, I DRASTICALLY overshot for both the whole year as well as for January 2018.

My goals were to focus on:

 

Hungarian (modest success)

Gilbertese (modest success)

Vincentian Creole (virtually no progress whatsoever)

 

Not also to mention that I greatly neglected the “CleartheList” challenge that I set out to do at the beginning of the month. I seemingly neglected every single task.

If this were a high school report, January 2018 would have given me a barely passing grade.

But interestingly, I’ve notice a HUGE change from my school days to now, the fact that the combination of failure and trying again is more powerful than merely succeeding on the first try.

Surprisingly I felt (and this is the first time I’m saying this) that my college grades weren’t up to par. While some people found themselves on the Dean’s List and Phi Beta Kappa I struggled GREATLY (granted, this was in part because I felt pressured to continue my classical studies long after I lost interest in dead languages in general).

But do I think about it now at all? No. If anything, I think that I saw organized education as deeply flawed actually EMBOLDENED me. It made me want to go on the different path, stand out and be rebellious. And you’d be surprised how little your previous failures matter when you speak 17+ languages very well (even if a good portion of those 17 are English Creoles).

And then, there are the polyglotism failures.

 

Times I haven’t lived up to my standards.

Times I felt compelled to run away from a conversation with a native speaker because I was just too self-conscious even if they said outright I was speaking very well.

Times I was asked to speak a language that I’ve had rusty practice with and didn’t deliver.

Times I’ve fallen to my own limiting beliefs.

Times I’ve made grievous errors, regarding word choice, grammar, tones or something else entirely.

Times in which I’m tempted to compare my native English to any of my other languages and they, for obvious reasons, fall short (I tested in the 99th+% percentile for English vocabulary usage, so my speech in English is EXTREMELY well developed.)

 

But with each one I’ve become further emboldened after the fact. Sometimes I’ve had to call a family member or confide in a friend that I felt that I used a certain language so weakly that I “ought to have been ashamed” (and yes, sometimes ENGLISH was that language!)

I think that there are some online polyglots that try to deliberately hide their vulnerability on their blogs but from my experiences at conferences we really all have that vulnerability…not just polyglots, but any high achievers.

As to what I did wrong with “Clear the List”, well…I was feeling invincible after the Polyglot Conference and after having looked back at what a success 2017 was for my life, and I just took on too much.

Let’s revise my plan for February 2018 accordingly:

  • Greenlandic 30-Day Speaking Challenge (I just think COMPLETING it would be a good idea)
  • 30 minutes of Fijian Every Day (this is something I NEED to get done)
  • Caribbean Creole Project in honor of Black History Month, perhaps uploading at least one video on that Creole once every three days at least.

I haven’t decided which Creole gets the “honor” yet, I put it to a poll on my Facebook page but it seems that the personal poll feature still has yet to be worked out (it didn’t show up on people’s News Feeds for some odd reason).

Anyhow, the Hungarian 30-Day Challenge in complete (there will only be 28 recordings because two of them involve songs that I can’t post on my YouTube channel if I want to monetize the videos. Despite the January 2018 changes that will render my channel demonetized until I reach 1,000 subscribers AND 4,000 hours of view time in the last year, I want to invest in it eventually, so make sure to subscribe!)

In the meantime, here’s the previous Greenlandic 30-Day Challenge Video from December 2017, I’m curious how my next one in February will go!

Is it a Waste of Time for Americans to Learn Foreign Languages in 2018?

Way too often have I encountered this idea that, for native English speakers, especially from North America, time spent with languages could best be done doing “other things that are more important”.

(But given that a lot of American youth I’ve really lived with, with noteworthy exceptions, did spend a lot of time on English-language TV and YouTube more than pretty much anything else outside of the workplace, I’m extremely skeptical when it people making such claims, certainly in this country. Fun fact about me and video games: whenever I play them, I have educational podcasts or language-learning materials playing in the background!)

Indeed, I think if a lot of people from English-speaking countries would be fully aware of the realities and histories of other places in the world, they would be in a state of permanent shock.

With each new language I study the more I realize (1) how awful human beings truly can be and (2) how imperialism and colonialism are almost COMPLETELY responsible for virtually every single conflict present in the world. What’s more, this imperialism and colonialism is consistently rooted in shallow greed.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language on the surface without getting to the core elements of the culture(s) attached to that language, but to TRULY be good at any given language you need to understand many elements of local history and cultural mindsets.

For international languages, picking one country to anchor that cultural knowledge will usually suffice (it will also make your accent better so that it doesn’t sound like a mixture and your knowledge of colloquialisms can be deeper and more believable).

With that cultural knowledge comes a willingness to discover the human experience beyond your immediate surroundings.

Now let’s get back to the original question: is learning languages, for Americans, a waste of time in 2018?

Let’s get this over with:

No.

Here’s why not.

The first reason is that, given how FEW Anglophones truly want or even try to learn languages in detail, you will consistently be given fantastic treatment from native speakers.

Granted, some languages are more susceptible for getting you special treatment than others (In the United States, speaking high-school or even college Spanish isn’t going to have the same effect on your Venezuelan bartender as speaking even basic Hungarian with your new acquaintance who speaks it as a first language. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now Spanish in a place like Southeast Asia is an entirely different manner!)

But regardless if you want to learn Spanish or Hungarian or Fijian or Mandarin or anything else, there’s one thing you’re doing that is ESSENTIAL in maintaining the United States’ general health right now:

You’re bringing down barriers built by a system that wants to keep people permanently confused and embattled.

Donald Trump peddled fearful rhetoric about Mexicans and Chinese during his campaign and more recently rhetoric of a similar nature towards Haitians and residents of Sub-Saharan Africa.

His rhetoric was appealing to a large portion of the electorate because of a system that we as American language learners have the power to fix!

When I speak languages or even relate some of my cultural knowledge or even, heaven forbid, ask questions, I get people to open up.

My Taiwanese-American friend who is also Jewish told me that in his entirely life (he’s 30 at the moment) he never heard anyone ask meaningful questions about his identity until he met me. An acquaintance from West Bengal told me that I was “amazing”, “knowledgeable” an “brilliant” because I…knew that Assamese was a language (“You’re probably one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!!!”)

People from small countries the world over are told by liberals and conservatives alike that their culture aren’t important and that they and the languages associated with them don’t mean much to the world (or that they’re not “economically useful”).

When I speak languages like Finnish or Icelandic with these people, it has an almost therapeutic effect, as if to say “your place and your identity have value to me”.

More people giving up their culture in favor of becoming more Americanized only benefits the same system that has created income inequality more great than human history has ever seen.

Even if there might have been someone who wanted to use English with me instead, even the fact that I TRIED to use their language may have caused them to rethink the idea that becoming more like a powerful culture is the road to success or happiness.

Now imagine that every American learned languages of many sorts. Let’s say every American learned at least a little bit of a series of languages the way that Professor Alexander Arguelles recommended (e.g. a language close to your own, a language far away from your own, a personal language of your heritage, a personal language relevant to the history of your passport country or countries and/or your area, etc. For me, those could be Swedish, Greenlandic, Yiddish and Irish)

Not everyone has a time commitment to become readily fluent in five languages or so, but perhaps a few phrases in five languages would be something easily manageable by anyone. Even ONE PHRASE in five different languages. (I know I get impressed by, let’s say, Polish people rehearsing the five Finnish phrases they know on me)

In that world, Americans see the world as a collection of cultures and a collection of peoples.

In contrast to this there stand the idea that the world is, first and foremost, about money and monetizeable skills, that the world is to be exploited and that the winners of that wealth are to be celebrated, that places on the planet that don’t provide money are as good as dead. (“Who the hell cares about Nauru?” says someone who isn’t aware of the fact that that attitude may have lead to an entire country being reduced to poverty and ruin and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees from powerful countries.)

An activist friend told me that thanks to Manifest Destiny and other factors set in place earlier in American history, the country has had “shallow values” for centuries, namely the philosophy of “more, more, more!” and of entitlement (much like the idea that all of the land from California to the Atlantic coast is OURS and deserves to be OURS).

There are other elements of American culture that I believe to be noble. The open-mindedness I see among young Americans is unparalleled by the youth in other places. The curiosity of these same young people is also unmatched. Americans living in cities are globalized story-collectors that are the envy of the world and rightly so.

Well, you may say, you’ve made a case that learning languages even to a simple degree and learning about cultures is certainly NOT a waste of time for Americans and may actually end up SAVING THE WORLD, but what about learning a language to fluency?

And here comes something:

The better you learn a language as an outsider, the more readily you gain someone’s trust.

Even if they do speak English fluently, they use that language to communicate with outsiders. They CAN’T go on outsider mode with you, in using their L1 they have NO CHOICE but to address you in the same dimension that their cultural insiders are in. Granted, there are some light exceptions to this (e.g. some languages may have modes in which locals speak to foreigners or foreign-looking individuals, I believe Japanese and many East Asian Languages are guilty of this, not also to mention Fijian and Samoan having different modes of speaking depending on whether or not you’re an outsider). But even if someone is engaging with me, in any degree, in their native tongue, this means that I am the guest with special treatment.

It’s like getting premium access to an entire culture. And with it come invitations, free drinks, people asking you questions and wanting to do business with you, and even romance.

On top of that, you may encourage another person to become a polyglot (or even a hyperpolyglot) as well. If not that, then maybe someone like Ari in Beijing who devoted himself to near-native fluency in one language, one that (because near-native fluency as an L2 is so unbelievably rare) provided with him celebrity treatment in Chinese subcultures EVERYWHERE.

But most importantly, our system of destruction in the name of profit depends on making us teams of humans fighting against each other, distracting us with infighting while they commit unspeakable acts of destroying the planet.

The infighting starts to disappear, to however small a degree, when you decide to learn the language or languages of your dreams.

come back when you can put up a fight

Kiribati / Gilbertese: The Easy, the Hard and the Future (January 2018)

More than three weeks into 2018 and I’ve found my Gilbertese drastically improved. That said, with the 31 Days of Language challenge today’s task is to reflect on what makes your language challenging.

Kiribati

But first, that wouldn’t be very helpful without recognizing what make Kiribati EASIER than many other languages.

For one, the pronunciation is straightforward with the primary difficulty at first being the pronunciation of the “ti” combination, pronounced as “si” (or “s” at the end of word). Hence “Kiribati” is not pronounced “kee-ruh-baa-tee” but rather “kee-ruh-baas” (have the “aa” on the side of a short-a sound to sound more authentic).

The verbs are also significantly simpler than those of the majority of languages I have learned throughout my life. In no instance in Kiribati does a verb change depending on the seubject. I roko – I came. E roko – he came.

Granted, there are some more complications that become relevant at the intermediate level (where I’m now at) so expect this video of mine to explain almost everything:

The fact that I’ve been able to see similarities throughout other languages I know is also helpful. In Breton, as in Kiribati, you also put the adjective before the noun (English can also use this pattern as well, hence “strong are the ties that bind friends like us” — note that “strong” goes before “ties”)

The absence of a verb “to have” is also not striking, given that I’ve seen this with Finno-Ugric Languages and with Hebrew.

From the video above we have:

iai am boki? – is there your book? (=do you have a book?)

OR

iai te boki iroum – is there the book with you? (=do you have a book?)

Now let’s get to the harder stuff:

Listening comprehension outside of songs has been difficult. Often I hear a big blur of words with a lot of slurring and then I think “HAWWGGH!??!”. Luckily, much like I had this problem with Danish, I think that songs will serve as a segway into the spoken language (which was how I solved the problem with Danish in 2013/2014).

I don’t feel as though my accent has the right texture quite yet. And this is something I’m going to need to really think about and apply to my existing languages as well as ones that I’m still at the beginner or intermediate stage for. Just because you can pronounce each individual vowel correctly or passably doesn’t mean you have a fluent accent. The missing piece is still something I’m working on.

I feel as though I speak slowly and like a learner. That’s obviously not the worst thing, given that Kiribati is one of the faster languages I’ve heard spoken. (For warmer climates, Lao was the most forgiving in terms of its tempo although Kiribati and some forms of Tok Pisin were the ABSOLUTE WORST).

I feel that there’s a lot of grammar I still have yet to apply and cover. This does have a lot to do with the placement of commonly used small words. I remember having this similar struggle in Swedish as well. The fact that Kiribati has a lot of the aspects that would make a language “easy” on paper doesn’t necessarily translate it to being easy in practice, and the lack of resources makes it even harder.

Right now, I have a solid basis in Kiribati. I just need to assemble the interior pieces of the language puzzle until I get something that I’m proud of.

And about listening comprehension, maybe I just need to get exposure to it until it sinks in. Obviously I’ve been getting a lot of musical exposure, but the spoken language is a lot more merciless in its speed and its scope.

I remember having this struggle with Hungarian and Finnish as well. What I usually did do was that I did apply audio, and tried to see how many words I could recognize. From then, it became an issue of using my applied knowledge to fill in the gaps until I understood 80% (I’m not there with Hungarian or Kiribati quite yet…but I’m on my way!)

Some concrete steps I can take in order to patch any weaknesses:

(1) Recording myself more often
(2) TRANSLATING YouTube comments in Kiribati (YES, they exist)
(3) Applying audio (NOT songs) so that it’s not scary and avoiding that temptation to CLICK AWAY.

This is just the beginning of something sweet that will only continue to grow!

How Do You Self-Evaluate Your Language Learning?

How do you know what level you’re at in a language you’re learning or that you speak?

Yes, you could take tests, but what if the language you’re speaking is from a developing country or has no standard written form? What then?

For one, in the United States I evaluate myself readily and I call myself fluent if I can do the following things:

  • Speak about my life with ease without awkward pauses for fifteen minutes or longer
  • Understand a good mixture of songs, radio broadcasts, TV shows and YouTube without issue
  • Can sight-read articles with relative ease
  • Have a convincing accent to MOST people. (Some Israelis think I sound like a “Sabra” but not all)
  • Have cultural resonance in some capacity.

Interestingly the most important component is the 5th one. Allow me to explain what it is: my heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish (Hungarian + Russian Empire) and Swedish / American blend (the American side having largely Irish / German / English / Scottish). I have connections to languages like Hebrew, Swedish and Yiddish because of my heritage.

But something inside me is also amused by Vanuatu and, despite the fact that I have no ancestry from there and have had no family members that travelled there, I see Ni-Vanuatu culture as something that calls to me, for some odd reason. Because of that, I listen to Bislama-language radio very often as well as Ni-Vanuatu music (which often features guest stars from Vanuatu’s cultural siblings, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands).

Anyhow, another thing I do is I also attend language events. This is in order to evaluate my progress as consistently good as well as detect any issues that my vocabulary may have. Granted this tends to serve the most popular languages like Spanish the most often but every now and then I get chances to use languages like Yiddish, Norwegian, Hungarian and Burmese. If I leave thinking that I may need to work on something related to grammar, general flow or word choice, then I’ll have to work on it.

Another thing I do is, on weekends or on days in which I have completely free, I will set aside four to six hours to rehearse each language, usually through hearing (because what you hear translates to your speaking style in any language. Keep in mind that active listening is NOT an absolute substitute for actually speaking. If you’re learning a rarer language and have no access to native speakers, you NEED to use your MOUTH! Even by yourself or with recording software!)

Right now I’m noticing that I’m focusing more on my fluent languages than newer ones for a number of reasons. Part of me is considering putting huge swathes of my beginner languages on the cutting block right now, actually.

If I understand absolutely everything (as is the case, for example, with languages like Bislama and Danish) then I will mark them down as “very good”. If I have some kinks in understanding them (as is the case with languages like something like Burmese or Polish) then I’ll focus more on them when I’m using Anki in the subway system during my commute (or when choosing which music I have to listen to when walking or in a crowded subway car). If I understand very little (which I realize for a language like Kiribati where I’m almost at the intermediate plateau with) then I will mark it down with an emphatic “NEEDS WORK”. I’ll write up a memo as to where my weaknesses are and determine a solution catered to it specifically.

Keep in mind that this is a continuous process. I’m fluent in Bislama but that doesn’t mean that I can neglect it for years on end and expect to be dropped in rural Vanuatu and expect to be speaking Bislama perfectly. I used to be good at Russian but I neglected it during my time in Poland and after several years I could barely answer any basic questions. I’m still not that good at it anymore.

I’m willing to move languages both up and down on my fluency ladder. What is C2 on my website is being able to understand virtually EVERYTHING and speak without floundering when I’m at my best.

Keep in mind that if I’m in a debilitating situation (jetlagged, starved) then it’s not going to be a reflection of my truest capabilities. That’s another thing to keep in mind because sometimes I dwell on “messing up” at events like Mundo Lingo, or I get vexed when I hear ignorant comments about my languages or my language choice (as, sadly, happens often there. I’m seriously starting to re-evaluate if people who speak multiple languages really ARE more open-minded. No doubt language hobbyists are, however).

Anyhow, the most important thing to realize is that every language you learn throughout your life is a process.  There is always something new to discover and you have to savor every step of the journey, even if you falter.

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DETERMINATION.