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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the solution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy learning!

On Language Learning During Illness

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(For those of you who recognize the character, I will avoid from making sickening puns of any sort)

Been a while, hasn’t it been?

I woke up one day in November 2015 having any variety of optimism sucked out of me completely, unable to focus on any task and feeling both energetic and tired in all of the wrong ways.

There was absolutely no positive feeling anywhere in me.

Worse yet, I had a game design conference to attend later that month. Thankfully for the first few days of November, I thought it would be a temporary thing that would pass, but after it lasted a week it became clear that it wasn’t letting up.

These feelings resulted in me walking away from every single one of my projects. Up until November I was updating this blog every week, and even looking forward to making one of those “polyglot videos” (for those unaware: filming oneself speaking a lot of languages one after another).

And thanks to the feelings incurred, I did the previously unthinkable and I shut down my Facebook account from November 2015 until June 2016. I genuinely wanted to retreat from a lot of my previous commitments and passions, and I had no idea why. I felt an extraordinary energy definciency and sometimes I fear that I still do have it.

Suffice it to say that thanks to one of my students, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease in time and it was treated in time. It is easily one of the most difficult diseases to detect, and it is likely that I caught it in a Connecticut forest while visiting my parents during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Thinking back to my time of treatment (and struggling to identify the disease) as well as various other illnesses I’ve had during my polyglot career, I didn’t see anything written on this topic.

Granted I have had the good fortune to not have undergone anything worse than Lyme Disease during my life, but I think that I should write some words of encouragement about learning a language during sickness. It could be something lasting, it could be something that may cause you to “not feel well”, for one day, but the truth be told is that..

You can still be in the process of moving your dreams forward, even under the most dire circumstances!

And language acquisition and retention is no exception to this!

If you find yourself not feeling well and stumble upon this blog post, I wish you a speedy recovery!

 

Some things to keep in mind:

 

Tone down judging yourself harshly

 

I come from a family of overachievers and me being the first-born sibling means that I am a lot more likely to be harsh on myself than those who are not.

Especially with the pressure of testing culture in the United States, which sadly leaves lasting scars on many people, it is very possible to feel invalidated from discouragement for too many reasons to count.

You may not be able to remember words as well, you may even find yourself forgetting basic phrases, your energy may be low and your native language(s) may also be in no great condition either!

As a general rule your passive abilities will be stronger than your active ones (although there are some languages with which can be definite exceptions to this). But even then, those may feel downsized as a result of your not-feeling-very well.

Keep in mind that if you are in one of these slump-days on your language learning journey, do not use moments like these to measure and / or track your progress! Granted, there may be some languages that you have such sharp control over that you can manage then excellent even when not feeling well!

What you should be using to track your progress, then, is how well you can manage with the skills of reading / writing / speaking and listening when you are feeling better.

But that day may be far off, sadly. In which case, you still do have hope! I remember that I was honing Irish and Finnish before Lyme Disease came in, and I didn’t even feel like doing anything.

Not visiting the respective wikipedias, not picking up a book, not even using videos or cartoon shows!

But regardless of how badly you feel, keep in mind that you can always do something.

It does not matter if it is just a handful of words, even a single sentence, or even a few minutes of exposure. The journey is always about moving forward. And those language learners who manage the best are those that move forward with their journeys.

Moving forward is not always the same is sprinting, and on bad days, you have to understand that. 

Some of you knew that I spent my preteen years in a very religious Jewish school. And one thing that they emphasized in theory (although in practice not as much) was the fact that every deed of religious observance, or good deed in general, no matter how small, was to be treasured.

On good days as well as bad days, you need to learn how to think like that with regard to your goals.

Moving slowly is okay. When you are not feeling well, whether with a fever or not enough sleep or even something far worse, it may even be expected of you. And so don’t push yourself too harshly and don’t treat yourself too harshly either.

Just because you are a polyglot or a polyglot-in-training, doesn’t mean you have to be superhuman. In fact, no one should ever expect that of you!

Happy days will be ahead of you, and realize that, while your language learning attempts during illness may seem underwhelming to you, they are actually greatly heroic acts that you will look back on with pride!

 

(P.S. about the video, I’m starting a YouTube channel soon [well, it is live already, actually!] and I’ll be honing my video-making skills along the way and delivering you a polyglot video when the moment feels right! Sorry to keep you waiting even more!)