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

All About the Burmese Language

My first Independence-Day Related post of 2018! (Well, discounting the shout-out to Slovakia I gave on New Year’s Day). Today is Burmese Independence Day and I thought it would be a good occasion to write about the language.

A year ago at around this time my parents were floating the idea of visiting Myanmar (Burma) after isolationist policies were relaxed. Interestingly they weren’t the only ones thinking this way—Sammy Samuels of “Myanmar Shalom”, a Jewish-Burmese Tourist Agency (YES, there are Burmese Jews, both in the country proper and abroad, and I’ve met BOTH!) described it as a “gold rush” when we met for the first time in May.

In a mall in Yangon that looked fancier beyond most malls in America, there were photographs of the country’s many minorities with captions about their lifestyles in Burmese and in English. My father told me that the underlying implication was that the wave of investors from China, the West and Myanmar’s immediate neighbors such as India and Thailand would threaten many aspects of local culture that remained unchanged during the years of military dictatorship.

Myanmar’s internal politics are labyrinthine and the ethnic diversity found in the country is similar to the situation that was present in the Americas before European colonization happened. (Fun Fact: Europe is the least linguistically diverse continent!)

It’s been more than half a year since I took off from Yangon and since then I’ve kept up my studies of Burmese on-and-off. It has proved to be one of the most difficult languages I have encountered by virtue of the fact that it is…different. (And Lao, for many reasons, I found significantly easier both to learn and to understand).

Here are some videos that I made about Burmese and my journey learning it last month. Sadly due to some circumstances I wasn’t able to complete the Eurolinguiste 30-Day Challenge but I’m glad I did what I did:

In any case, I turned to Polyglot Polls for potential topics to write about, and I got some topics that I’m not too qualified to write about, such as:

  • Burmese street slang
  • Tai-Kadai loan words in Burmese
  • Mon-Khmer loan words in Burmese

 

IF YOU KNOW about any of these topics in any capacity, PLEASE let me know about them in the comments.

One thing I really have noticed was the fact that, much like with languages like Yiddish, Uyghur and Tajik, Burmese takes a lot of words from a religious language, in the case, Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism’s scriptures.

Burmese native words are one syllable each, and so expressions that have more than one syllable are usually of foreign origin. It goes without saying that words like “telephone” and “Internet” are detectable English loan words, as well as many names for countries and nationalities.

But one of the first things I had to learn in Burmese (as SOON as my visa got approved), was how to ask for only vegetarian food and the word that is used is သက်သတ်လွတ် (θɛʔ.θæʔ.luʔ). There were also some other things that pointed to foreign influence that was Indo-European but clearly not European, like the fact that the word for “name” is နာမည် (næɴmɛ), which is very similar to the English word “name” (it’s a Pali word.

Interestingly I notice that the patterns for liturgical-language loan words throughout the world are quite similar (and my observations tell me that they tend to skew towards nouns and higher registers of language).

But, here are some things you need to know about Burmese, whether you may be starting to learn it or want to learn a little bit or just want to read a list of facts:

  • No grammatical gender.

 

  • You put words at the end of a sentence in order to indicate what tense it is:

 

Tense Markers DONE

These will also be DIFFERENT depending on how formal (or not) the text (or spoken word) is. On inscriptions you’ll usually see formal variants. In phrasebooks, you’ll see informal.

 

 

  • Men and women will speak differently. My first day in Mandalay I went to a bank with my father and the servicewomen opened the door and told me “mingalaba SHIN” (the “shin” at the end is a “polite particle” used by women. For those unaware: it really doesn’t have a meaning, a bit like adding “sir” or “ma’am” at the end of sentences in English. I, as a man, would say “mingalaba khimya” (using a different polite particle). Also! Polite versions of “I” will be gendered as well. ကျွန်တော် (ʨənɔ) for men and ကျွန်မ (ʨəmá) for women.

 

 

  • You will also use classifier words as well. To say “I want coffee + 4” you would say “I want four cups of coffee”. To say “I want paper + 3” you would say “I want three sheets of paper”.

 

Here are some classifier words:

Category Words DONE

  • You can usually omit the subject of the sentence if it is implied. I remember one time I was talking to a Burmese taxi driver about Burmese music and I mentioned Chan Chan (described a musician who made her career off women’s broken hearts, in a sense). He said “very beautiful”, leaving it unclear as to whether it was the music OR the singer that he was talking about. Expect this commonly.

 

  • The tones are probably the trickiest out of any tonal language that I’ve encountered (with Mandarin probably having the easiest system, in my opinion). I’ll link to various sites that can help you better.

 

One website I would recommend is this below: provides a LOT of cultural information and provides steady information where a lot of other sites are lacking. Great for learning the Burmese script as well as tones and the finer points of language:

https://www.asiapearltravels.com/language/intro_burmese.php

Another resource I would recommend for getting a very basic level is Kenneth Wong’s playlist. He has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard in my life:

Concerning books, Lonely Planet is also a good bet (when I first became enthused by Burmese in 2014, WAAAAY before I know that I would end up in the country and I honestly didn’t ever think I would end up there, they didn’t have the standalone Burmese phrasebook but now they do. I have the Southeast Asia one).

Also Reise Know How is pretty much always fantastic if you read German. In case of the Burmese one, the proceeds will go to funding children’s schools in rural Myanmar.

 

And as for USING it:

Burmese is very lively on the internet and when I was in the country I could see why. Even among some of the temples in Bagan which are crowded with homeless people, there were people using smartphones there.

What’s more, the Burmese-American communities are also noteworthy to point out (and the U.S. isn’t the only place that has these expatriate communities). They also have many ethnic minorities of Myanmar represented as well within these communities.

Burmese music is also fantastic especially when you consider the fact that, in some cases, it somewhat resembles Tom Lehrer’s confession as Lobachevsky (“Every chapter I stole from somewhere else”). Tons of Western, Chinese and Russian pop songs are covered in barely legal manners and translated into Burmese. A lot of the lyrics are also readily available embedded as subtitles in the video (so you’ll need the Burmese script for that!).

Some songs I’ve heard rendered into Burmese include “My Heart Will Go On”, ABBA, VIA Gra (Band from Ukraine popular in the Russian-speaking world), “A Million Voices” (that almost won Eurovision 2015), and many songs that I vaguely remember hearing in produce isles in the United States. (Confession: I know pathetically little about American popular music and, to be honest, I like it that way).

Anyhow, I’m happy to answer your questions or receive your expertise.

Above all, know that Asian Languages are not scary as you may make them out to be!

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4 Reasons You Should Learn a Provincial Language from India

“I Speak English, Hindi and *pause* … a couple of Indian Languages”

If you have met someone from India and the topic of languages comes up, you may hear a sentence like this.

As the proud owner of an India Phrasebook, I am happy to say that I usually follow up the question with “which ones?”

So Many Languages, So Small a Book. And My Time Budget is even smaller.

And then I remember the one time I met someone from West Bengal at a video game design mixer. I asked him if Bengali was similar to Assamese (one of India’s languages that actually sounds like it is from Southeast Asia despite the fact that it is Indo-European). Stunned, he asked me three times how on earth a Jewish boy from Connecticut would have any knowledge of Indian local cultures at all

“You’re like one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!”

It is very far from the first time. And then there was the one time I correctly identified someone as a Malayalam speaker (I just guessed), and after a minute of a dropped jaw, I was told, stunned. “Oh. My. God. ARE YOU PSYCHIC?!!?”

Just knowing the names of the local Indian Languages set you apart. I’m probably the only member of my extended family that can name more than five Indian Languages.

As for Indian Languages I’ve studied…well…some Tamil…not very much at all…some Gujarati…not too much…and some Oriya…even less than both of the two of those put together.

Of the one that I am focusing my effort on (as far as Memrise.com is concerned), it is Gujarati (for the time being) still haven’t had a conversation in it (I’ve used a few sentences with native speakers!), but given as today is Gujarat Day and Maharashtra Day (which is actually the same day, when the “Bombay” state was divided into two pieces, and is celebrated in both provinces as their provincial day), I’m going to write this piece.

 

  1. India is a Fusion of Many, MANY Peoples and Recognizing that Will Earn Favor and Smiles. The Best Way to Recognize it is to Learn an Indian Regional Language.

 

Hindi and English do function as languages that tie most of the country together, but each area of India comes with a regional flavor (and many other sub-regional flavors) that many outside of that area of the world overlook.

I still remember the times when I needed someone to explain me what “Tamil” or “Marathi” was. In high school, I thought that Hindi functioned in India the way that English did in the United States. I had no clue how deeply important and used the regional languages were (and continue to be).

As of the time of writing, I don’t even list Gujarati or Tamil as languages that I know. At all. Given that my list is a bit large at the time (both in the languages learned and the languages to-be-learned department) I feel the pressure to abandon them.

Luckily I’ve stopped caring so much about pressure of any sort, although I’m not actively learning either. (I’m just picking up pieces on apps)

Anyhow, building connections with Indian Languages!

The various little things that I have said have been construed as demonstrations of the fact that I recognize that India is a collection of many, MANY cultures, and that I am very amused by some of them and I want to learn more about them!

In the case of talking to Native Speakers of these languages, it gets them to open up about what life in their province is like, what there is to see, what sort of fun words there are in the language, as well as endless praising of your skills, even if they are the most basic.

 

They tend to be used to people not even knowing that these local cultures exist! And then you come along!

I am very grateful to my Indian friends and acquaintances for their help!

 

  1. The Indo-Aryan Languages, as well as the Dravidian Languages, are similar to each other, sometimes even mutually intelligible!

 

In some areas of Europe (Scandinavia and the Balkans come to mind), languages became discrete entities based on national borders. Denmark and Sweden decided to alter their linguistic orthographies to become very much not like the other one.

 

The entire thing with the Balkan Languages is not something I feel too qualified to talk about at the moment, but feel free to treat yourself to a Google Search about Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Or Bulgarian and Macedonian.

Have Fun.

Tee Hee.

 

In India, a lot of languages, despite being discrete, actually blended with similar characteristics, as a result of Sanskrit influence. In nearly the whole North of India, similar words for “Thank You” are used, all based on the Sanskrit “Dhanyavaadaha”. Greetings are function similarly, as well as the usage of words from liturgical languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) playing their role.

Often it is common for Indians to learn another regional language when they head to another province of the country. (One person told me “I bet you could learn Kannada in a week with my help”). In the case of Kannada, its closest relatives are the other main Dravidian Languages of Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil (These four are the primary languages of the South of India, distinct from their Indo-European compatriots). Learning any one will get you very close to learning any of the other three to fluency.

The Indo-Aryan Languages in the North, some of which are very similar to each other (like Hindi and Urdu being, as one of my Pakistani students put it, like Swedish and Norwegian) and others less so (Oriya and Gujarati are from opposite ends of the country but still have some similarities) can also be “collected” with similar ease, much like the Romance Languages.

There is the writing issue, which is more of an issue with some languages than others, but interestingly some character sets are close to each other or even identical. (Kannada’s script is also used for Konkani in Goa).

No wonder there is such an internal polyglot culture in India! And it is one that you can contribute to!

 

  1. Regional Media and Culture is more Accessible than ever, and will continue to endow privileges to L2 Learners!

 

India is a tech giant. Just look for apps to learn Indian Languages on the Google Play Store (or IOS). A lot of these apps have fantastic audio, very good phrase selections, and audiences for adult learners as well as for kids!

And that’s just the beginning.

Go into ANY YouTube search or any library in a major city. Look for the film section. Look for films in Indian Languages. I often find films not only Hindi but also every single Indian language I’ve mentioned in this article (although I don’t think I’ve seen Konkani so far).

India is home to the world’s largest film industry! Yes, Hindi and English dominate a lot of it, but that’s not the whole story!

All throughout India, film culture plays an extraordinary role, and coming to know its various regional aspects and flavors will make you think about what role regionalism and regional cultures could play in our increasingly global world, if only more of us were more adventurous!

Your Indian friends will be more than happy to give you recommendations!

Speaking of which…

  1. Native Speakers will be Super Helpful!

I haven’t received a single word of discouragement the way I have with some other languages, least of all from native speakers!

Sometimes I cringe whenever I think of the time that I was in a library in Sweden and was told “why bother learning Swedish if we all speak English anyhow?” (Answers: too many to list, but at the time it was “the letters written by my deceased family members were not going to translate themselves, one, and two…I’m surrounded by books I can’t read yet!”)

India is the world’s largest English-speaking nation, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) the Indians to whom I have spoken speak fondly about their regional cultures, and actively are thrilled with the possibility of you engaging with it!

Coming from a place with many, MANY regional languages, a lot of Indians are keenly aware of the struggle of learning another language! What we need in the struggle is more encouragement! And with a choice like an Indian languages, you’ll encountered plenty of it!

Hawaii Pidgin isn’t an Indian Language. Just letting you know that.

A Happy Gujarat Day / Maharashtra Day to all! I hope that one day I will be able to write more articles on Indian Languages! But first I actually have to … ummm … learn them better!

How to Learn Your First non-Native, non-English Language

 

I would like to dedicate this post to the mighty and memorable Miguel Nicholas Ariza, who celebrated his birthday yesterday at the famed Mungo Lingo Language Exchange events.

I hope that this article will inspire people to return to language learning again and again, as well as to the events that you help host!

 

be like miguel

This is Miguel. He is open-minded, friendly, curious and a great human being. Be Like Miguel.

 

In much of the world, people have 1 ½ native languages, English being the 1/2 , and the local language being the 1. (Sometimes there are areas with two local languages, possibly even more, such as areas of Spain or India that have regional languages)

The dynamics of learning English are very different from learning other languages. While Iceland may excel at teaching a lot of its students English, there were (and sadly continue to be) snags when it comes to the country’s Danish education system, which may be on its way out.

To compare the experience of learning Danish (in the case of Iceland) or Swedish (in the case of Finland) or Irish (in the case of the English-speaking areas of Ireland) to learning English just isn’t fair.

Imagine if, out of 20 products (such as computer programs or company names or refrigerator brands), 19 had names in (insert name of language that isn’t English here) Imagine if (that language) had among the best known movie and entertainment industries in world history and had a significant amount of  import words in every language in the developed world and, to boot, was more learned than any other language on the planet by people who have been told their entire life that not knowing it is to be left behind, and that sometimes a nation’s economic worth and potential in the eyes of the world is dependent on how well (or not) they speak that language.

That’s reality for non-native English speakers, almost anywhere, regardless of what continent they’re on.

No wonder people get answered in English when starting to learn languages. The native speaker may feel an inherent shame on not having won the “native language lottery” the way I did. Even if they come from a place like Iceland, where English proficiency is a standard.

(For whatever it’s worth, I think English will lose its cool factor when it starts to more seriously threaten other languages and cultures, and English proficiency is already starting to lose its impressive factor, even in places like Iceland, and will continue to do so. Contrariwise, learning non-English languages of all stripes will continue to be seen as an even more impressive feat if English continues to be on the ascent. These are my opinions).

 

I am beginning to learn my dream language. It is (XXXX), and, right now, I only speak English (or English + My Native Language). I feel that I’m struggling a lot. What can I do?

 

The first thing I would recommend is take your first field trip to omniglot.com, look at the language you are learning from the A-Z database (I can almost guarantee that it will be there, no matter how exotic), read about it, get used to the sounds of it, click the links offered at the bottom of the language profile page to either read more about the culture or get language learning resources (many of them free online pages)

If there is a “phrases” section, copy out everything in it into a notebook or put it into a program of your choice. You will use these countless times throughout your life if you are to succeed! Exciting, huh?

From there, you have a number of options, are your primary goals are as follows:

  • Learn all of those phrases.
  • After that, say, “I have, I need, I want” followed by “do you have? Do you need? Do you want?”
  • Activate the following “checkpoints” (I’m not thinking about Duolingo right now, I promise!). Think of these as your “collectibles” (so this is what was going through Luis’s head, right?). Just learn how they work in a basic sense: articles (if any), adjectives (how to say “I am X, you are X, he / she / it is X, etc.), verbs (in order of importance: present, past, future, imperfect, any conditional tenses), conjunctions (start with and, but and or, they get you pretty far), prepositions (size will vary tremendously depending on language), case system (If there is one. How many? How often are they used? Which are regularly used? In some languages, like anything Finno-Ugric, case system and prepositions overlap.), noun genders (if any, there are entire language families lack them)
  • Give a stump speech about yourself and prompt others to do the same. (I am a X, I come from Y, I was born in A but now I life in B, my current goals are CDFG because of H. I am learning dream language because of reasons IJK.)
  • Learn associated vocabulary with your job and the things around you.
  • Common mistakes made by learners (unless you are learning something very rare indeed. Even something like Welsh will have an article about it about this topic)

 

From then on, learning the vocabulary in that language will be like assembling puzzle pieces, except for the puzzle NEVER ENDS!

 

Congratulations, you just got in for life! You’re always going to be learning new things about the language, maybe even if you try to forget it…even if it is your NATIVE language! Ha ha ha ha!

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Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

 

Okay, Jared, that is great and all, but how do I go about memorizing it?

 

Imagine you have a giant pizza or other fantastic meal you like right in front of you. You wouldn’t try to shove a whole piece in your mouth…(I would hope…)

 

Some ways you can assist the memorization project:

 

  • Memory devices. This is easier for languages closer to English, obviously, but even with something like Greenlandic I made it possible (Even something like “sumingaaneerpit?” [“where are you from?” In Greenlandic] I memorized in this fashion.) Memrise.com has it as an in-built function that you can store your memory devices in. I imagined that the word resembled “some gunner pit”, and while it didn’t even make sense, it got the job done. (If you have a notebook, feel free to put your “mems”, as Memrise refers to them as, next to the words)

 

  • Repetition. The same Burmese learning audio every day for a week sure doesn’t hurt…

 

  • Funny incidents. True story. One day I got “Colloquial Hungarian” shipped to me, and that day there was a Jewish event (Lab / Shul in New York City, for those curious). I met a Hungarian native speaker that evening and I told her that the book arrived today. I asked her how to say “pleased to meet you”, and I hear “örülök hogy megismertelek”. After nearly destroying my tongue after four attempts (and a lot of laughter), I explained that I got the book earlier that day. When I heard it again a few days later, having it associated with that incident made it stick better.

 

  • Mental Images from TV or Audio “Images” from your Dialogue Tapes. When I was learning Dutch from watching a lot of the Pokémon Anime in it, I remembered a lot of key phrases by virtue of remembering certain poses of characters or certain plot points that I would remember. If you do something less visually oriented (like a dialogue tape), you can note anything unusual about a certain phrase or intonation and you may remember it better.

 

 

And here are some general pointers:

 

  • Do NOT be hard on yourself! This includes: (1) do not compare yourself to other learners who have had more time than you (2) do not compare yourself to native speakers of your target language and their English skills and (3) do not expect to know all vocabulary. No one ever knows all vocabulary in any language (true story!). 10,000 words will net you something very close to a native speaker, 2,000 words will get you through almost all conversations with significant ease (others would even argue that 600-1,000 would suffice)

 

  • Start off by simplifying your language. You may be tempted to think of everything in terms of flowery English idioms, instead, at this stage you should train yourself to simplify your speech and once you’re assembling that puzzle you’ll acquire useful phrases and idioms along the way for which English has no equivalent for.

 

  • If you have to lapse into English, do so confidently. A perfect example includes how people from places like India and the Netherlands may use English phrases in casual speech to make a point.

 

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions of native speakers. Almost all of them want to help you, actually, even though they may not explicitly express it.

 

  • Don’t get discouraged from native speakers. Some of them may have no intention of becoming polyglots and may be threatened. Anyhow, if you encounter any amount of discouragement from a native speaker at any time, it is thoroughly their This is different from constructive criticism! Constructive criticism: “this word is too formal, be aware of that”. Destructive criticism: “your accent is awful”.

 

  • There will be hard times ahead. There will be a lot of people that may belittle your efforts or unknowingly make you feel bad. Just keep on going forward. The more forward you’ll go, the more you’re hear native speakers ask you in amazement. “How on earth do you speak such good (XXXX)?”

 

And then you’ll think of the times that you were struggling, that you thought of giving up, or even times that people were not very nice to you on behalf of your choices. But congratulations! You won!

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You, someday, with twice as much happy and the fact that you’re probably not an orange if you’re reading this. 

Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

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Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!

“Is Tajikistan a Real Country?” – Introducing the Tajiki Language

Happy Persian New Year!

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The most money I’ve ever spent on a language learning book. Came with a CD. Can’t imagine there are too many books that can say that about themselves in 2017.

 

In Late 2016 and Early 2017 I thought it would be becoming of me to try to learn a language of a Muslim-majority country for the first time. Yes, I did get the Turkish trophy in Duolingo but I don’t count that because the amount of Turkish phrases I can say as of the time of writing can be counted on my fingers.

The same way that the Catholic world is very varied (you have Brazilians and Hungarians and Mexicans and too many nations in Sub-Saharan Africa to list), the Muslim world is just as equally varied with numerous flavors and internal conflicts that Hollywood and American pop culture not only doesn’t show very often but actively tries to hide (or so I feel).

While I am not fluent (nor do I even count myself as proficient) in Tajik, I am grateful for the fact that I can experience tidbits of this culture while being very far away from it, and it seems oddly familiar to me for reasons I can’t quite explain.

What’s more, Tajik is one of three Persian languages (the others being Farsi in Iran and Dari in Afghanistan), and so I can converse with speakers of all three with what little I have. I remember being shocked about how close Swedish, Norwegian and Danish were to each other (to those unaware: even closer than Spanish, Catalan and Italian), and I was even more shocked at how close these were. The three Persian languages are even closer—so close that there are those (both on the Internet and in my friend group) that consider them dialects of a single language (yes, I’ve had the same discussion with the Melanesian Creole languages!)

As a Jewish person myself (and an Ashkenazi Jew at that, for those unaware that means that my Jewish roots are traced to Central-Eastern Europe), I was intrigued by Tajik in particular as the language of the Bukharan Jewish community.

(Note: Bukhara is in contemporary Uzbekistan, and if you see where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet on a map and you have a hunch that imperialist meddling may have been responsible for those borders, then you’re absolutely right!)

What’s more, my father visited Iran and Afghanistan earlier in his life but when he was there the USSR was “still a thing”.

I also had a fascination with Central Asia as a teenager ever since I heard the words “Kazakhstan”, “Uzbekistan”, “Tajikistan”, etc. (despite the fact that I literally knew NOTHING about these places aside from their names, locations on a map, and capitals), and so between Persian languages I knew which one I would try first.

It has been hard, though! With Tajik I’ve noticed that there is a gap in online resources—a lot of stuff for beginners and for native speakers (e.g. online movies) and virtually NOTHING in between (save for the Transparent Language course that I’m working on).

Thankfully knowing that I have surmounted similar obstacles with other languages (e.g. with Solomon Islands Pijin) fills me with determination.

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I’m sorry. No more “Undertale” jokes for a while.

 

Anyhow, what make Tajik unique?

 

  1. Tajik is Sovietized

 

The obvious difference between the other Persian languages and Tajik is the fact that Tajik is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and much like Hebrew or Finnish, is pronounced the way that it is written with almost mathematical precision (despite some difficult-to-intuit shenanigans with syllable stress).

 

Thanks to not using the Arabic alphabet this obviously does make it a lot easier for speakers who may not be familiar with it.

 

Yes, in a lot of the countries in Central Asia (especially in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) there are some issues with what alphabet is used (and if you think that this has to do with dictators forcing or adopting certain systems, you’d be right!). Tajik I’ve noted is very consistent in usage of the Cyrillic alphabet, although obviously presences of the other two Persian languages e.g. on comment boards are present almost always whenever Tajik is.

 

But what exactly does “sovietization” entail? Well there are a lot of words that come from Russian in Tajik, and ones that were probably adopted because of administrative purposes. The words for an accident ( “avariya”) and toilet (“unitaz”), for example, are Russian loan words.

 

But unlike the Arabic / Turkic words in Tajik, a lot of these loan words refer specially to objects and things related to administration (the concept of the “Familia” [=family name], for example).

 

And this brings us to…

 

 

  1. There are a lot of Arabic loan words in Tajik.

This is something that is common to many languages spoken by Muslims.  As I noted in my interview with Tomedes, it occurred to me that the usage of Arabic words in a language like Tajik very eerily paralleled the usage of Hebrew words in Yiddish. Yiddish uses a Hebrew greeting frequently (Shulem-Aleikhem! / Aleikhem Shulem!), and Tajik uses its Arabic equivalent (Salom! / Assalomu alejkum! / va alajkum assalom!).

In case you are curious as to why the “o” is used in Tajik in the Arabic-loan phrase above, this has to do with the way that these words mutated when they entered Tajik, the same way that (wait for it!) Hebrew words changed their pronunciation a bit when they entered Yiddish! (Yaakov [Jacob] becoming “Yankev”, for example)

These Arabic loan words found themselves not only in the other Persian languages but also through Central Asia and in the Indo-Aryan languages (spoken in Northern India)!

 

  1. Tajik uses pronouns to indicate possessives

 

Should probably clarify this with an example:

Nomi man Jared (my name is Jared)

Kitobi shumo (Your book)

Zaboni Tojiki (Tajik Language)

 

Man = I

Shumo = you (polite form)

 

This means that forming possessives because easy once you grasp the concept of Izofat.

Cue the Tajiki Language book in the picture above (on page 135, to be precise)

 

“Izofat is used to connect a noun to any word that modifies it except numbers, demonstratives the superlative form of adjectives and a few other words. It consists of “I” following the noun and is always written joined to the noun. It is never stressed, the stress remains on the last syllable of the noun

 

Kitobi nav – a new book”

Madri khub – a good man

Zani zebo – a beautiful woman

Donishjui khasta = a tired student”

 

(And this is the point when it occurs to you that “Tajiki”, the name used of the language by some, uses Izofat. Tajik = person, Tajiki = language or general adjective, although enough people don’t make the distinction to the degree that even Google Translate refers to the language as “Tajik”)

Thanks to Izofat, a lot of the words are not extraordinarily long (much like in English), sparing you the pains of a language like German or Finnish (much less something like Greenlandic) in which a word may require you to dissect it.

 

  1. Hearing Tajik can be an Enchanting Experience for Those Who Know Iranian Persian or Dari

 

Ever heard someone with a stark generational difference to you use a word you can recognize but don’t use? (for me in my 20’s, this means someone using the word “billfolds” to refer to your wallets, “marks” for your grades, etc?)

 

In using my Tajik with speakers of the other two Persian languages, I’ve often heard “that makes sense to me, and its correct, but it has fallen out of usage in my country”, a bit like you might be able to understand idioms of Irish English or English as spoken in many Caribbean island nations, although you might not be able to use them yourself…including some you actually legitimately don’t know!

 

Unlike with, let’s say, speaking Danish to a Swedish person (did that only ONCE!) and not being understood, I haven’t had problems being understood in Tajik, although I usually have to explain why I speak Tajik and not Farsi (answer: curiosity + my father didn’t get to visit there, but maybe I will! + Central Asia and the -stan countries are KEWL

 

I would write more about how to learn it and how to use it, but the truth is that I’m sorta still a novice at Tajik, so maybe now’s not the best time.

But hey! September is Tajikistan’s independence day, so if I progress enough by then you’ll get treated to something!

Soli nav muborak! A Happy New Year!