Why Learn Rarer Languages?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

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

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

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

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

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

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

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

”What Do You Use to Learn Languages?” Is the Wrong Question. And the Right Question is…

Before I begin, I would say that it is in a more tongue-and-cheek manner that I refer to “What do you use to learn languages” as a WRONG question. But too many people see processes as something that can only have (or can only need) a handful of ingredients.

I look at my most successful language-learning missions and, as it turns out, the most successful that I have had overwhelmingly had one thing in common, whereas my least successful language-learning missions also had the exact OPPOSITE of that one thing in common.

Before going further (gee, I really know how to make cliffhangers, now, don’t I?), I should also say that the “what do you use to learn language?” question is something I achieve with GREAT FREQUENCY. From my students. From my distant family members. From people who met me five seconds ago.

I also hear variations of it, such as “what’s the best way to learn a language?” or “what apps do I need?” or “what do you do to learn languages?”

But here’s what I always say:

I don’t ask myself “what DO I use to learn languages”, but rather “what DON’T I use to learn languages!”

The fact is, when I look at the most successful languages I have, I’ve used EVERYTHING.

 

Cartoon shows.

Music.

Studying.

Grammar review.

Forums (Fora?)

Let’s Play Videos.

Radio

And dozens upon DOZENS of other factors.

 

To give some examples from my own life that have been successful, Finnish (the one that won against all odds) I used ABSOLUTELY all of these elements I listed above. Others on that list would include: Danish, Bislama, Yiddish, Swedish, Tok Pisin and Norwegian. (Note I did not use Let’s Play videos for Bislama, Yiddish and Tok Pisin given that, as of the time of writing, none of those exist in any of those languages)

Ones that I failed to deploy AS MANY resources for? They fell down by the wayside. The languages I learned that got harmed the most because of this included: Fiji Hindi, Lao, Irish, Welsh and Tajik.

Then there are others in which I usually tried to use an excess of cultural immersion (Greenlandic and Burmese) or an excess of book studying (Hebrew and Spanish) and as a result some of them have been imbalanced with varying results (I can still speak Hebrew well and Spanish manageably most of the time, despite my self-admitted begrudging apathy towards global languages).

I go on to tell people that I see language learning like a strategy game. The more pieces and resources available to you that you USE, the more likely you are to WIN. Sure, it may take a lot of time to win and some “levels” are going to be easier than others (Bislama’s grammar is easier than Finnish’s by any stretch despite the fact that both of them use vowel harmony [Bislama only does it with some of its verbs, though]).

I can tell if people struggle with a language (even myself) and it’s almost ALWAYS because their “diet” has been (1) imbalanced (e.g. too much studying, not enough immersion or the opposite) or (2) inconsistent (e.g. I didn’t rehearse Irish for a month before the 2017 Polyglot Conference and it SHOWED, sadly, having been the “biggest loser” of my collection during that particular conference).

In antiquity, health was believed to come about through a perfect balance. My father (who holds an MD) believes very little about ancient medicine but this balance idea is helpful regarding mental discipline.

If you are struggling with a language that you’ve been working at a long time (certainly a year or more), that means that there is either an imbalance OR untapped resources you still have yet to apply to your own journey.

Keep in mind that I’m guilty of having these imbalances and untapped resources myself.

So here’s an idea;

  • What language(s) do you feel weakest in?
  • What sort of routine have you been using to learn or maintain it?
  • What is LACKING in that routine and what can you do to restore balance to it?

Happy fixing-upping!

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!

2017: A Final Reflection

Well, here I am at what is the conclusion of the most legendary year of my life!

I think the one thing that changed the most about me over the course of this year was that I became very secure in my identity and, as a result, stopped taking forms of rejection so personally (someone says bad things about me online? Not my issue, I’m a hero! Someone doesn’t want to engage meaningfully in a conversation with me? I know I’m good at what I do, it reflects on THAT person!)

Despite the fact that I sometimes have an abrasive style in both writing and in real life, people who have met me in person do rightly think that I am very friendly.

Here’s the time for me to examine each of my languages and how I could improve:

On top of my fluency list are the Creoles of Melanesia, Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama. I have a very good grasp of vocabulary and I can listen to songs, radio and other forms of entertainment in these languages without flinching. In conversations I can manage to say everything, but I tried filming a Let’s Play video in Tok Pisin and my own self-doubt and self-freezing (that were an issue with me making videos even in English earlier this year!) got in the way.

What I’m going to need to do from this point on isn’t as much vocabulary building, but sheer immersion. I have to become one with the Pacific Islands, I have to live and breathe the cultures of Melanesia as though I were raised in Lae city myself.

The same is also true with my other very good (or almost very good with some consistency) languages: Trinidadian Creole, Yiddish, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, German and Spanish (the last two being the weakest of the bunch).

Next up in the “lower levels of fluency” line are Hebrew, Finnish, Krio, Breton, Jamaican Patois and the two that I am sometimes good enough in Icelandic and French. Polish and Irish used to be up there but fell down.

These are the hardest to diagnose because each one of them has a very unique problem. Finnish and Hebrew are definitely my strongest of that group, with Krio and Breton being next up.

Okay:

Hebrew – listening with immersion (I’m going to need to find films and use them. Often! If Hebrew were as similar to English as Danish was I’d probably speak it at C1 right now).

Finnish – continuing with teaching it as an L2 certainly helps but I’m also going to need to do some writing and translation exercises. Luckily I have a project lined up for that in 2018!

Krio – same as Finnish above, minus the teaching aspect. Written material in Krio is harder to find than in Finnish (not a surprise, despite the fact that more people in the world speak Krio fluently than speak Finnish [!])

Breton – I need more TV shows (luckily I found a number of good ones thanks to Reddit. Also a Let’s Play Channel of sorts!)

Jamaican Patois – Translation exercises would be helpful as long as I learn to READ OUT LOUD. I have to use all of my senses otherwise it’s just going to be passive understanding. I can’t afford to have just a passive understanding (even though that in of itself is very good), given that I’m practically living in Jamaica given where in New York City I live.

Icelandic – the Anki deck. I have to continue with that. It’s been solving almost every single one of my problems!

French – The grammar needs brushing up. I need to detect my weak points in conversation (past tense is a big one) and patch up the holes.

 

Next we have Greenlandic, Lao, Hungarian and Polish. They are all weak across the board in many regards and have full of holes. My biggest holes in them are: vocabulary for Greenlandic, Lao and Hungarian, grammar for Hungarian and Polish. I guess it’s just an issue of “keep using them”.

For Greenlandic I have the Memrise course and for Hungarian I have the 30-Day Speaking Challenge. I also have Anki decks for all of these languages except for Polish.

 

In its own category is my new project with Vincentian Creole (of St. Vincent and the Grenadines). The first language I’ve learned with no resources to learn it (that I can find), I’ll detail what I’m doing another time. It will be VERY interesting to read about!

 

The rest of my languages are too weak to judge with the exceptions of Burmese, Irish, Cornish and Kiribati / Gilbertese.

I have a good grasp of the grammar of all of them, I just need to use it in exercises, especially speaking exercises.

It’s a little bit hard to diagnose things when there are CONSISTENT problems across the language. But luckily usage will be enough to patch them up.

 

In light of the #CleartheList challenge hopping around Social Media at the moment, here is my list for January 2018:

For Hungarian:

 

  • Recordings every day
  • One episode of Pokémon dubbed in Hungarian every week
  • One full-length Hungarian movie every week.
  • Read out loud one lesson from Colloquial Hungarian once every week.

 

For Kiribati / Gilbertese:

  • Do the tasks for the Mango Language January 2018 challenge every day.
  • Acquire new songs in Gilbertese every week.
  • Film a new episode of “Jared Gimbel Learns Kiribati” every week.
  • Write a status in Gilbertese every week.

 

For Vincentian Creole:

 

  • Listen to one Bible story audio once every day.

 

Find and translate (into English) an article in each of the following languages. Write word-by-word translations for each sentence:

 

  • Bislama
  • Pijin
  • Tok Pisin

 

For Greenlandic / Lao (Bonus points!):

 

  • Record the speaking challenge prompts in these alongside the Hungarian challenge.

 

I look forward to making another list for 2018 and beyond.

I’ll publish my FULL LIST of goals for 2018 TOMORROW!

2017 was the best year of my life in a professional sense. And 2018 promises to be nothing less of continuing that miracle.

May you have similar fortune as well!

last pic of 2017

Some Burmese Expressions You Should Know (Eurolinguiste 30-Day Challenge: Day 13)

This is going to be a shorter post, haven’t done one of these since 2014 or so.

Anyhow, for Day 13 of the 30-Day Challenge (which I intend to do again next month with a different language), I have to “teach people some words”. I thought one very helpful thing to go through would be various words and expressions I thought amusing from throughout my learning materials.

I have a very useful Anki deck put together by André Müller, one of my linguistic role-models, Esperanto and Klingon Language fan, and someone who provides extremely useful and well-thought out opinions in the Polyglot online groups.

I found it a week before my trip to Mandalay was scheduled (for those of you who don’t know, Mandalay was the first stop on my journey). I wish I had discovered it sooner.

Anyhow, here are some useful expressions, from that deck to give you some idea of how the language words…differently…than others throughout the world.

20170525_165915

ညနေ (ngá.ne) – this word means “evening” but it actually means “afternoon sun”. I think that one reason for this (thinking back to my time at Inle Lake) is that the sun actually becomes visible rather than white-ball-that-will-permanently-damage-your-eyesight right around the evening. Interestingly Irish has a word that refers to both evening and afternoon (tráthnóna). Come to think of it, the skies in rural Ireland and rural Myanmar do…resemble each other…in some respects.

စိတ်ပူ (seiʔ pu) – this means “worry” (verb) but it actually means “heart hot”, or, more accurately, this anxious feeling that your heart is actually boiling due to any number of things. This idiom perfectly captures many types of fright that are all too common in the human experience. There’s another idiom referring to worry and that would be…

အားငယ် (à ngeh) – this means “having weak strength”. The idea that having a worry is something that actually eats your strength away is something that I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed until I came across an idiom like this. Again this shows the value in learning languages, because some of the new idiomatic perspectives offered by other tongues are very helpful in making you relate to other people, situations, experiences and problems.

နားလည် (nà leh) – one of my first Burmese expressions that I ever learned (the first thing I did to learn Burmese was actually to download the Colloquial Burmese audio. I didn’t end up buying the book because I thought it would be too big for me to carry around, although I did have two other books, though) It actually means “ear going around”! This means that, in order to say “I understand” you would literally say “my ear is going in circles”, and similarly to say “I don’t understand” you would say “my ear isn’t going in circles”.

အသည်းယား (əthèh yà) – to feel disgusted, but it actually means “having an itch of the liver”. The next time I have that sensation I’ll definitely keep that in mind. Although it’s not a moment I’m looking forward to…

အသည်းကွဲ (əthèh kwèh) – in other languages, we have broken hearts, in Burmese, we have split livers.

ဈေးချို (zè tsho) – the word for “cheap” in Burmese actually translates to “having a sweet price” or “sweetly priced”. For some odd reason I can’t help but think of American slang when I read this. Similarly to be expensive is ဈေးကြီး  (zè tshì) – meaning “greatly priced”.

Tomorrow’s task for Day 14 is labeling items in my house. This. Should. Be. Fun.

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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