Venturing into Languages Highly Dissimilar to Your Own: Helpful Tips

Many of you will have the feeling of beginning to learn a new language in which you recognize almost nothing. Vocabulary you know is scant, the grammatical patterns are different and you feel that the path of least resistance is to give up.

I highly recommend you don’t give up…because learning a language highly dissimilar to your own (whether it be your own native language[s] or ones you’ve already learned as an adult) IS possible. You will need to adjust your ways of thinking ever-so-slightly.

The good news is that you can harness various skills you have used to acquire your native language (or other languages you know) to learning your new language that seems as though it belongs on another planet.

Given that my native language is English, let’s look some of my languages in terms of “how different they are” from English on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 is very similar to English, 5 is very different. Keep in mind that this is NOT the same thing as difficulty per se.

 

1: English Creole Languages, Languages of Mainland Scandinavia, Spanish, German, Yiddish

2: Icelandic, Fiji Hindi

3: Hungarian, Finnish, Fijian, Hebrew, Irish

4: Kiribati / Gilbertese, Palauan, Tuvaluan, Burmese

5: Greenlandic, Lao, Khmer, Guarani

 

The further you get away from the West, the more likely you are to encounter languages that go up the scale. The languages in (1) are very tied to the west on multiple fronts (e.g. Atlantic Creoles, German, Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish all influencing American culture to profound degrees) the languages in (3) have all been profoundly impacted by Germanic-speaking cultures but still maintain a lot of distinctness. With that said, the English influence (add German in the case of Hungarian and Swedish in the case of Finnish) is undeniable in a language like Fijian or Hebrew (given that both were under British rule).

A friend of mine was diving into Korean and he found himself struggling to remember words. And that’s NORMAL. I had that experience with all the languages 2 and higher with the higher numbers requiring more of it.

That said, there ARE ways to remember words in languages highly different from your native tongue EVEN if it seems impossible now.

 

  • Make Connections Between Words in the Language

 

Instead of looking OUTSIDE the language for connections to words you already know (as would be the standard practice in Romance or Germanic Languages if you’re a native English speaker, or even Indo-European Languages further afield), look INSIDE the language.

 

In Hebrew I encourage my students to look out for “shorashim” (or root words). These are sets of letters that will encapsulate similar meanings when seen in a sequence. Like in Arabic, the letters will dance around various prefixes, suffixes and vowel combinations that will change the meaning ever-so-slightly.

 

A more concrete example is with Fijian. The prefix “vaka-“ indicates “possessing the characteristics of, possessing …”. As such, you can collect additional words by looking at words with this prefix and then learning the form of the word without “vaka-“ in the front. Let’s have a look:

 

 

Wati – husband, wife, spouse

 

Vakawati – married (vaka + wati -> possessing a spouse)

 

 

To find words that are similar in this respect, one method you could use is to have an Anki Deck of an extensive vocabulary (what is “extensive” would depend on your short- and long-term goals with the language). Look up a root in the deck and you’ll see all words that have it:

 

palopuhuja lol

 

The folks at Transparent Language have said that, minus memory techniques, you would need to see a word anywhere between five to sixteen times in order to remember it permanently. A huge advantage is that you can get exposed to one root and its derivatives very quickly in this regard.

 

Even with a language like English, you can do the same with a verb like “to take” which is idiomatically rich when combined with prefixes (to overtake), suffixes (to take over) or direct objects (to take a break).

 

Out of all of the languages I have learned, the same principle holds and can be taken advantage of.

 

  • Do the Words and Expressions You Want to Learn Tell Any Stories?

 

Let’s take the Lao phrase  ຂໍ ໂທດ (khɔ̌ɔ thòot). It would mean “I’m sorry” but it literally means “request punishment”.

 

Various languages don’t have a very “to have”, instead they would say something like “there is upon me” (Finnish) “there is by me” (Russian), “there is to me” (Hebrew, although Hungarian also does something similar sometimes) or “there is my X” (where X is a noun – Fijian, Kiribati / Gilbertese and Hungarian do this)

 

Arcane sentence structure can actually be an ADVANTAGE in some respects. Greenlandic’s mega-long words can be a great conversation starter AND something for you to remember.

 

Words, phrases and idioms tell stories in your native language too, but chances are you probably won’t be aware of them and if you do eventually, it may be after a decade or two of speaking it, if not more.

 

  • Associate Various Words with Entertainment or Things that Have Happened in Your Life

Scene: a synagogue event.

I got “Colloquial Hungarian” earlier that day. I met a Hungarian girl and the only thing I know is a basic greeting. I ask how to say “pleased to meet you” and she says “örülök hogy megismertelek”. You can imagine how much I struggled with this simple sentence on day one, much to her laughter and those looking on.

The fact is, I never forgot the phrase since. Because I associated it with that incident.

You can also do the same with individual words and phrases that you may have heard through songs, song titles, particularly emphatic scenes in movies, books or anything else you consume for entertainment in your target language.

The over-dramatic style of anime actually helped me learn a significant amount of Finnish phrases as a result of “attaching” them to various mental pictures. Lao cinema also did something similar. Pay attention ever-so-slightly to the texture of the voice and any other details—these will serve as “memory anchors”. It’s a bit like saving a GIF to your brain, almost.

  • Hidden Loan Words from Colonial Languages.

The Fijian word for a sketch / painting is “droini”. Do you see the English cognate?

It’s the word “drawing” –Fijianized.

Do be aware, though: some English loan words can mutate beyond their English equivalents in terms of meaning. Japanese is probably infamous for this (in which a lot of English loan words developed lives and meanings of their own, much like Hebrew loan words in Yiddish sometimes found themselves detached from their original meanings in Hebrew).

Another example: Sanskrit and Pali words in languages of Southeast Asia in which Theravada Buddhism is practiced. Back to Lao. The word ປະເທດ (pa-thèet) may be foreign to you as the word “country”, but you’ve probably heard the word “Pradesh” before in various areas of India, even if you know nothing about India too deeply (yes, it is the same word modified for Lao pronunciation). The second syllable in particular may be familiar to you as the “-desh” from “Bangladesh”.

Which brings me into another point…

  • Do You Recognize any Words through Proper Nouns?

 

Tuvalu is a country in the South Pacific. It means “there are eight”. The Fijian word for to stand permanently or to be built is “tu” and the word for eight is “walu”. Fijian and Tuvaluan are not the same language but they are family members. You can recognize various other words by determining what place names mean or even names of people you know (whether well-known historical characters or your personal friends).

 

Another example: Vanuatu. Vanua in Fijian is a country or a place. Tu is the SAME root that we have in “Tuvalu” (yes, the “tu” in “Tuvalu” and “Vanuatu” mean THE EXACT SAME THING!) Vanuatu roughly means “here is our country” (or “country here”)

 

Again, this is something you can do for many languages. I remember doing in in Germany as well.

 

Lastly…

 

  • Embrace the Differences in the Grammar

I was amused by the fact that the Tuvaluan word for “to understand” is “malamalama”. I posted it in a small polyglot group. A friend of mine who studies mostly languages from Western Europe and the Middle East asked me to conjugate it.

Tuvaluan doesn’t have verb conjugation. It instead puts particles before a verb to indicate tense. “Au e malamalama” -> I understand -> I present-marker understand.

Surprisingly this system (not entirely foreign to me because of having studied other languages in that family) was not foreign to me. But I learned to like it. A lot.

Feel free to tell interested friends about what makes your different language very different in terms of grammar. Some may even be intrigued about the fact that many languages don’t have an equivalent of “to have”.

There are some things that are a bit difficult to embrace, such as Greenland’s verb conjugation that has transitive forms for each pair (in normal English, this would me an I X you form, an I X him / her / it form, an I X all of you form, an I X them form, a you X me form, a you X him / her / it form … FOR EVERY PAIR).

That said, your love of your new language will find a way.

I’m sure of it!

ga

Fiji Hindi Mission: 2 Weeks Left

fiji hindi episode 4

So here I am with a deadline quickly approaching. I’ve been devoting much of my year to Fijian and it occurs to me that I am solidly B2 in terms of speaking (probably where I am with a language like Hebrew or Finnish).

This would be a great situation but…as it turns out, Fiji also has Fiji Hindi as well, and I’ve read in multiple places that Indo-Fijians play prominent roles in the tourist industry.

And concerning Fiji Hindi, I am NOWHERE NEAR where I want to be.

What I can do:

 

(1) Very simple sentences

(2) Order stuff in restaurants

(3) Ask for directions

(4) Speak quite slowly

 

What I CANNOT do:

(1) Read most texts.

(2) Significantly understand naturally spoken speech (even though I can “get the gist”)

(3) Have anything resembling an intellectual conversation at all.

 

I’m not going to lie, 2018 has been a hard year for me, probably one of my hardest is recent memory. Luckily things are looking up.

That said, I have one chance to get Fiji Hindi to shine courtesy of this blog and my YouTube channel, and so I’ll have to set a plan in motion.

 

(1) COMPLETE the Peace Corps book in the language learning series (I think I’m slightly more than half-way-done)

(2) NO ENGLISH AUDIO for news or almost anything unless absolutely necessary while I’m at home. Fiji Hindi except for things related to business, or maintaning Fijian or other languages I may need for classes or business.

(3) I have to listen to Fiji Hindi audio on the street constantly. Luckily I have that.

(4) Maintain my Fijian (which I want in ship-shape) by translating every Facebook post I write into Fijian…until I leave.

(5) Truly build an immersive environment during what time I have left.

 

Fiji Hindi has been hard for me just because of the whole “not many resources” and “no standard” thing. Most South Asians I have encountered been very supportive, even if they didn’t even know that Indo-Fijians existed until I told them.

I am in panic mode right now. And on top of that I’m working on translations AND “Nuuk Adventures”.

But I guess this post will be something hilarious for me to look back on. Especially if I succeed.

I will make a prediction: I will have managed better with Fijian and POSSIBLY Fiji Hindi than I did with Burmese last year. I have learned much since the last time.

Leave me encouraging messages! 🙂

The Biggest Mistake People Make at Language Social Events

come back when you can put up a fight

I have been going to language exchange events for years now (although I’ve been showing up at them less frequently in 2018 due to reasons I cannot disclose quite yet). In some respects it actually teaches me more about human psychology than it does about languages in general.

(It reminds me of the fact that, when I play Interactive Online / .io games, I actually learn more about human psychology rather than strategy as well. I will also never forget the time that someone named his/her character “press ctrl-w to go faster”.)

I’m sorry to have to say this but it really needs to be said: more often than not, seeing people interact at Language Exchange events makes me understand that most people don’t really know how to learn languages very well, for multiple reasons. I’ll go into why shortly.

If you attend a language exchange social event, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor if you want to learn (1) the local language (e.g. if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have many opportunities to learn Icelandic with natives, given as they’ll be the most commonly represented demographic) and (2) English (even if it isn’t the local language).

But concerning someone who wants to learn Mandarin or French and only speak a little bit of that and nothing else but English? You’re going to need to read this…because otherwise you may leave that event broken and discouraged, not also to mention demotivated from ever returning.

Now, you’ve come here for the biggest mistake, so here it is:

The biggest mistake that people make at Language Social Events is not seeking to make gains with their languages when they interact with native speakers.

And EVEN if there are no native speakers of language you want to speak present, feel free to bring some small books along that you can use to play “show and tell”. I did this most recently at an event aimed primarily at learners of Asian Languages (I turned out, not surprisingly, being the only person representing any learner of Southeast Asian Languages. But hey, maybe a Burmese or Lao enthusiast would show and I needed to account for that chance. Besides, I could easily learn about other people’s cultures or even pick up words from languages I haven’t been actively learning).

I had some books on my person and one of them was a Jamaican Patois book. One of my friends who was a Mandarin native speaker didn’t speak Patois and didn’t have any interest in it, but I told him that Chinese languages influenced Jamaican culture in general, showed him the book, read him a few phrases and showed him pictures of Jamaica. That way, I made gains with a language that NO ONE there spoke. I also met someone at a party who was learning Malagasy and HE did very much the same thing to me (despite having no book). I really appreciated it because I have to say I don’t know much about Madagascar at all!

But if you meet native speakers of a language you are actively learning, let me tell you what I most often see versus what you should be doing:

What you should be doing: even if you’re not fluent, ask them to help you put together sentences or even form sentences in your target language while they “feed you words” (they’ll be happy to do this, I’ve done it with English and even with other languages I’m fluent in like Norwegian with other learners). Also ask them to provide details about their language as well as sentences or cultural tidbits that are likely to impress the NEXT native-speaker you meet.

What a lot of people do instead: ask small talk questions only using English. Use a handful of pre-programmed sentences in their target language(s) and spend most of the time using English instead. Use language exchange events as a means to flirt rather than to actually rehearse languages.

The primary key is that you leave having gained something. That something could be cultural know-how, phrases that will help you put together sentences better, or tips on improving your accent. You can even make gains with languages you aren’t actively learning! (I know because I’ve done this with languages like Japanese that I’m not learning at the moment nor do I have any plans to in the immediate future. I’ve also taught people basic phrases in languages like Burmese and Norwegian that they may never see themselves learning at all).

And now one thing I would consider: even if you intend to focus only on one language, I would recommend learning at least a LITTLE bit of a variety of other languages (feel free to do this even if you have no intention to learn them to fluency). This way, you’ll actually be able to start conversations more easily.

If you’re the only one who knows any Khmer, Oromo or Danish, you’ll have people asking you about it even if they have no intention to learn the language themselves. Even if you speak only a LITTLE bit, you can actually be the “local authority” on that language (as I’ve done WAAAAY too often).

You can even use this as a means to learn how to “teach” through an L2 you’ve been working on (and you may discover vocabulary gaps along the way). Most people who show up to these events are curious people and this is even MORE true if it’s a paid event.

A lot of people use English (or English + their native language) 5/6th of the time at language exchange events and wonder why they’re not making gains and why other learners are overtaking them. It isn’t about raw intelligence, it’s about the fact that language learners that put more in get more out. And you have to put effort in from EVERYWHERE in EVERY area of your life if you want the coveted prize of “near-native fluency” or even anything close to it.

Don’t enter without a plan as to what you want and how you’ll get it. Yes, I know you can’t control who will show up (maybe that Finnish speaker will be there, or maybe there won’t be anyone with whom to practice! Who knows?) But you should prepare for a wide range of situations based on what you’ve read about the event series and how you’ve experienced it before in the past.

For most language exchange events in New York City, I’ll expect to use the Romance Languages with regularity. Speakers of Chinese languages, especially Mandarin and Cantonese, will be present with consistency, alongside speakers of Russian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, languages from throughout South Asia and Arabic dialects that will usually lean towards Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Somewhat rarer than that but still frequent are Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Persian Languages. Rarer still but showing up about once every two months or so are speakers of Nordic Languages, Turkic Languages of Central Asia (such as Kazakh and Uyghur) and languages of Southeast Asia. The rarest that I’ve encountered are speakers of African Languages, usually from South Africa and Ethiopia. Only once or twice have I encountered speakers of native languages of the Americas. I have never encountered anyone from Oceania at any language exchange event to date.

So think about who you encounter frequently and develop plans for what languages you KNOW you will practice there, what languages you are LIKELY to, and which languages you will probably NOT practice, but would LIKE TO.

Tl;dr always make gains with your L2 whenever you speak to a native speaker. Even if you’re not fluent, you can make those gains. The key is to get SOME progress on your language-learning, and you can always do that.

Have a good weekend!

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

My First Post of 2018: Looking Inside My Soul (+Happy Birthday, Slovakia!)

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Let’s just do the lazy thing and get the list of goals for 2018 over with. Yes, it’s large, but I set very high standards for myself. Even if I don’t make them, I’ll ensure that I’ll still do very, very well!

  • Master Hungarian, Lao and Greenlandic (B2 or higher)
  • Get the Scandinavian Languages to C2 (understanding virtually EVERYTHING written or spoken)
  • Make significant gains with Hebrew, Finnish, French, Breton, Icelandic, Jamaican Patois and Sierra Leone Creole.
  • Gilbertese and Uyghur at B1 or higher
  • Learn Comorian to A1 at least.
  • Vincentian and Antiguan Creoles at C1 or higher
  • Brush off Russian, Irish, Cornish and Ukrainian (B2 in them would be great!)
  • Tongan, Palauan, Mossi, Welsh, Persian and several Indian languages to A2 or higher.
  • Learn Swahili, Khmer, Haitian Creole, Basque, Fijian and Fiji Hindi in earnest.
  • Colloquial Arabic dialects (esp. Sudanese) to A2
  • Diversify my language practicing materials.
  • Gloss articles in languages I speak and read and put versions of them online for learners making them “learner-friendly”.
  • Continue that same work of throwing away limiting beliefs and practice all of my languages for 3 minutes a day at least one day a week.
  • Come out with a new polyglot video every season (Winter / Spring / Summer / Autumn). They don’t have to showcase ALL of my languages at once, but at least show something.
  • Start a “Coalition Blog” with folks like Kevin Fei Sun, Miguel N. Ariza and Allan Chin and … anyone else I forgot! Guests welcome!

Also, no new languages for 2018. I will make exceptions for picking up new languages for travel, business purposes or relationships that sprout up as a result of various happenings.

Anyhow, with each passing year it occurs to me that what becomes more and more important is not so much learning new words and expressions but rather developing mental strategies.

I could be fluent in a language but if I’m in a negative headspace words will elude me. I’m certain that anyone reading this has also had them happen when speaking their NATIVE LANGUAGE.

Anyhow, here are some difficulties I’ve been noticing;

  • I remember from “Pirkei Avot” (a Jewish text about ethics and life in general that I’ve periodically mentioned on this site) that it is said that “the reward for a good deed is another good deed, and the reward for a bad deed is another bad deed”. Namely, positive feedback ensures that you’re likely to continue to speak and act in your most optimal manner, and negative feedback will drag you down in a similar way.

I’ve noticed this at Mundo Lingo. I speak the Scandinavian Languages “very, very well” (that’s what Richard Simcott told me, so I believe him). So when there’s a Swedish native speaker who shows up, I’m in a good head-space and then I speak languages that I usually am not so good at (French, for example) better than I normally do.

 

On the other hand, sometimes I’ve heard racist comments at Mundo Lingo (yes, it does happen!) Or people disparaging me for my choice of languages. As a result, I’m in no good headspace to do anything, because it feels like I’ve been “wounded” and will act accordingly.

 

I think one way to counter this is to usually start the day with some good feedback. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to post daily in a closed group called “Polyglot Polls” (you can join if you’d like! Just let me know) Given that a lot of open-minded and curious people are in that group, ones who mutually support each other with their missions, it helps put me in a good headspace. It is a good thing to start any day with.

 

  • Imposter syndrome in the polyglot community runs a bit like a fear of turning out like Ziad Fazah, the polyglot who claimed to fluently speak 59 languages and, on live television…well, he was asked what day of the week it was in Russian and said that he couldn’t understand it because it was Croatian.

 

Only this past weekend I was asked to count to ten in Tongan (a language that I am weak at) and, sadly, I couldn’t do it. But I don’t claim to speak Tongan fluently. But still I felt down.

 

I think moments like these are good for recognizing my weak points. Even in our native languages, we have them. It’s not a reflection that you’re a fake, it reflects on the fact that you have something that needs patching. That’s what life is. Telling you where you aren’t doing well and bringing you on the path to recovery.

 

Unlike Ziad, I don’t claim to have any divine gift for languages. I just spend a lot of time struggling with things until I get them. The contemporary schooling modules have taught us that learning isn’t supposed to be about struggling. That’s not true in the slightest, certainly not at the advanced levels of anything.

 

  • The last one: sometimes I feel that I’m falling into the trap of thinking that I became a polyglot for the sake of others rather than for my own sake.

Again, to tie in Jewish themes, in studying holy texts and observing ritual we use a phrase “Leshem Shamayim” – literally, “To the name of Heaven”, figuratively, “for heaven’s sake” and more figuratively “doing something for love of the subject-matter rather than for acquiring validation, reputation, praise or any other contemporary form of social currency”.

Every dream chaser has felt poised between doing something “leshem shamayim” and doing something for the sake of personal gain or admiration of others. I have to resist that, now more strongly than ever.

20171027_173837

Professor Alexander Arguelles (right) and yours truly, Jared Gimbel (left)

On a side note, I’d like to wish my Slovak and Slovak-speaking friends a happy Independence Day!

May 2018 be full of blessings, everyone!

Think Human Translators Will Be Replaced By Machines? Not So Fast!

In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:

Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)

My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.

Iso an Jekob

I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?

I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.

But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.

I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)

If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.

Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.

Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).

And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!

When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.

 

  • Gendered Speech

In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.

What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).

Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?

On that topic, there’s also an issue with…

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!

A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).

If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.

A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.

Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.

If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).

In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.

In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.

What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)

Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.

The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!

 

  • A Good Deal of Languages Haven’t Been Touched with Machine Translation At All

 

And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)

 

And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).

 

For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.

In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)

Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?

 

Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.

 

 

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September 2017 Weekend Trip Mini-Mission! (Improving Hungarian + Two Creoles!)

 This in: I’ll be headed to Buffalo, New York this weekend. This is the first time I’ll be back there since two years ago (roughly when I began my teaching career).

The one thing I associate the trip with is very long drives, and this time (given that I’m not going to be driving) I’ve decided to develop a routine to maximize language learning in passive car travel (active car travel, such as when you’re the driver, is another thing with significantly more limits, and it becomes a different animal depending on how many people you have with you, and also if they will tolerate you learning the language there or not.)

I decided that I’ll be filming my next polyglot video in Milwaukee, the only place that I have had consistent memories of since my…infancy.

As things stand, I intend to use the following languages in the video, probably for about thirty second each: English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Finnish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Icelandic, Irish, Krio, Polish, Hungarian, Palauan, Mossi / Moore, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), Guarani, Lao, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Tongan, Trinidadian English Creole and Bileez Kriol.

I have about half of these in very good shape, and the other half I’ll probably only say very simple things. It is also likely that I’ll just do one with my fluent languages before the year is up in ADDITION to that.

This practice really isn’t entirely about that video, however (and I’m likely taking a week off beforehand so that I can hone my pronunciation to ideal heights. Also, I’m putting this out there, I’m going to be coming out with these videos regularly and I literally will not stop until one of them goes viral. I know that I may be subject to a lot of pain and criticism, but we need more global polyglots that genuinely go for rarer languages and we deserve to have be watched by millions. Tim Doner himself became a voice for languages like Hausa and some indigenous languages of Canada, and it would be great if I can do the same with my rarer languages. Words cannot capture how determined I am).

Anyhow, enough of me being lightly arrogant (or am I?)

Let’s detail my goals and my plan. I’ll be improving three languages this weekend: Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole and Bileez Kriol.

 

Hungarian

magyar

Probably the only language I’m working on right now that I want to be professionally fluent in. Sure, being professionally fluent in something like Breton or Gilbertese is cool, but Hungarian means a lot to me because it is one of my ancestral languages. My one living grandparent has memories of Hungarian being used in her family and I want to connect to that piece of my story before it is gone (note to the curious: she herself doesn’t speak Hungarian or understand it, I even wrote “Happy Birthday” on her Facebook wall in Hungarian and she didn’t even recognize the language until I told her.)

I’ve found Hungarian a relief because of the sheer amount of materials both for learners and native speakers. One thing I definitely could do is watch more animated films and cartoons in Hungarian and I really haven’t been doing that, instead focusing more on learning materials. Maybe that’s a bad sign.

Also, the Hungarian Duolingo course is very, very difficult (and I’ve heard even native speakers found it moderately painful to go through). I’m on Level 9 with one-third of the tree completed and I doubt I can complete the course without a notebook. What’s more, that voice is something I’m hearing in my nightmares already. (I’ll go on record saying that the Catalan voice is the worst that Duolingo has, period. It literally sounds like an alien parasite. My favorites among the courses are Vietnamese, Irish and Guarani, in that order)

Goal: Long-term, I want to be able to talk about my life, my job, the Kaverini games, language learning and my family. Short-term, I want to master cases, verbs and the most common 300 words in the language.

Where I am: I have the Colloquial Hungarian book and the audio for the book on my phone, I have an Anki deck of 3,000 Hungarian sentences that are surprisingly useful in demonstrating the grammar. I’ve plugged 17+ hours into Hungarian Mango Languages during my commute (you can play it on auto mode when is helpful if I’m on a crowded subway and I still want to learn things).  I also have a Memrise course with 3,000+ sentences in Hungarian and I’m about 800 sentences in.

In short, I have everything deployed and I’ve begun to see results. I’ve begun to have conversations with some non-native speakers of the language although sometimes I have to slow down.

I tried immersion (with Let’s Play Videos, etc.) and while I’m picking up some vocabulary with them I feel that I can only understand 15%. But the idea that I’m using the language of my ancestors that came to this country in the past 150 years gave me the same warm feeling when I was learning Yiddish, Swedish and Russian.

Tried finding Hungarian music I liked, so far haven’t found anything that clicked…

Plan: Part of me thinks “you’re doing a great job, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fluent in no time!” But I want to sprint further.

I don’t want to be “manageable”. I want to be great.

To that end, I need to change my routine.

In a car ride, I only have so many things (and made even more complicated by the fact that I tend to get ill when reading in a car).

Luckily, the book will never run out of electricity it doesn’t need.

But what exactly should I do with the book?

  • Study vowel harmony. This is important because I think I mess it up a little bit (For those unaware: Hungarian suffixes will change form depending on the vowel makeup of the word it is attached to. Hungarian uses suffixes to indicate “to”, “in”, “on”, “of”, etc. That’s called vowel harmony, and given how often Hungarian uses suffixes this is not something I can afford to screw up. In Finnish it came by more easily but in Hungarian there are some suffixes with two forms and others with three. Unless you’ve studied a language like this, this probably means absolutely nothing to you and so I’ll stop writing it at this point).
  • Study possessives. Possessives come in two forms in English. We have “my book” and “the book is mine”. Both of these exist in Hungarian. The “my book” is expressed with a suffix and “the book is mine” with a separate word. The possessive suffixes (e.g. letters you put at the end that make the word change meaning to say “this belongs to you / me / us / etc.”) are VERY important in Hungarian because without them, you can’t express any concept of “to have” clearly enough to have a conversation. (Hungarian has no “to have”, it just has “there is my book” instead of “I have a book”)
  • Study relative pronouns. These were an almighty pain in Finnish that I literally NEVER would have learned properly if it weren’t for immersion. For those of you who don’t know what a relative pronoun is: the book that is mine is good. (the “that” is a relative pronoun, saying that it is a pronoun relative to the other elements of the sentence). The only thing I can really say about relative pronouns in Hungarian right now is that I think that they tend to start with the letter “a” somehow.
  • Study transitive verbs. This is a big one. In English we say “I choose you” (totally not think about Pokémon here, I promise!) In Hungarian, the “you” bit is actually expressed to a suffix on the verb. I literally can’t converse without these, so I need ‘em.
  • On top of the book, I should go through the Anki deck and review as many sentences as I can. (I know some people don’t like “turbospeeding” through Anki decks, but with some languages like Tok Pisin I’ve done it with no problem. I’m also probably going to go on an Anki-binge with Hungarian shortly before my trip to Milwaukee, actually. That binge, if all goes according to plan, is more likely to be review).

 

 

Weaknesses to keep in mind: Sometimes my eyes get weakened from staring at screens too much, and sometimes I can’t manage reading in a vehicle for very long. I expect the latter point to be less of an issue if I am reading VERY small bits of information. I can always put the book down and rest. Or use it over the course of the weekend when I’m actually not in a vehicle.

 

 

 

Trinidadian Creole

t n t

I have one (1) book for this language, one that I got as a gift upon recovering from Lyme Disease and moving to Crown Heights in Brooklyn shortly thereafter.

Immersion in Trini Creole has been both easy and hard. Easy because I can understand a lot of it already, hard because Creole is often interspersed with Standard English very often among Trinidadians. (Again, keep in mind that there are those that don’t even consider it a separate language!)

Where am I?

I have excellent vocabulary except for the loan words from Indian Languages. I have a good although not great grasp of every grammatical concept and I understand how the grammar of Trini and English are different.

So what’s my plan?

  • When I have internet access, undergo immersion with Calypso music and Radio and PAY ATTENTION. What sort of verb forms are left out? What words are different from standard English? How do Trinidadians pronounce their vowels and consonants, in both Creole and Standard English?
  • Learn the Loan-Words from Indian Languages. Got a list of them in my book (the Kauderwelsch book which is literally the only learning-book for Trinidadian Creole I’ve ever encountered anywhere). I never heard of any of them before.
  • Master all aspects of grammar with a thorough review by reading out every sentence from your book in the “grammar” sections.

Combined with occasional speaking exercises, I think I could make very deep progress.

Unlike Hungarian, I’ll be using primarily book sources (or, more accurately, book source) for this rather than for a combination of digital and book sources.

 

Bileez Kriol

 Bileez

I literally have no good book for this and what I’m using now is…well…the Memrise course that I have in development (in which I’m writing all the sentences and words from the dictionary published by the Belize Creole Project [Bileez Kriol Projek]).

I’m going to literally have to be a detective and note general patterns in the sentences. Before I go, I should get the dictionary as a PDF on my phone and any other devices I’m taking with me.

Another thing I need to do is read things out loud in the course, otherwise my memory development isn’t going to be as honed.

Where do I stand now with Bileez Kriol? I know pronouns and a rusty form of verb conjugations, but that’s pretty much it. And I’m supposed to be speaking it on camera in less than a month. Great place I’m in!

But given how close it is to Trinidadian Creole, I expect to sprint much in the same way I’ve done with similar languages before (such as within the Scandinavian family and within the Melanesian Creole family).

I may need a notebook of sorts with this. Of all of the projects that I think will take the most effort to succeed this weekend, this one will be it.

Reading resources I found online: the Bileez Kriol Wikipedia Incubator, the Gospels in the language (I’ve only read Matthew and pieces of Mark in English in my college courses), my Memrise course, the dictionary.

And the one song that I’ve encountered so far in the language is probably not appropriate for younger audiences. (For the curious: just put “Belizean Music” in YouTube and see if something in the first few results catches your eye…)

The dictionary is probably going to be my best friend during this time.

 

I’ll let you know how it goes when the week is over.

Wish me luck!