1000 HITS!!! My Gift to You: 10 Vital Lessons from My Language Adventures (Part 1)

Two days ago, the hits for this blog hit the quadruple digits!

This list needs no further introduction except for the heartiest “thank you all” that I can muster…

tusen tack

  1. Confidence and Peace of Mind are the Most Essential Ingredient

 

“Everyone speaks this language better than I do, everyone’s gonna hate me, everyone will just see me as the stupid American anyhow…”

 

This is how I had to endure my semester a year ago, in which every single course of mine was held in German (although sometimes the instructors let me answer questions in either English, Hebrew or Yiddish).

 

I was self-conscious about my accent in the language. I was self-conscious about my grammar. I thought that people would correct me excessively.

 

It was a mind-numbing experience, one that made me feel tremendously stupid! My self-esteem was in another dimension and you can imagine the relationship I had with my American upbringing at that point.
As it turned out, one fine day I met Isabella the Italian, who turned out to not have any of this self-consciousness in regards to her language journeys, even if it meant using words in English while speaking German or using Italian while speaking English. Even while doing this, she laughed, she kept her peace of mind, and wouldn’t let a single mistake or slip-up faze her.

 

I wasn’t going to let this difference in passports phase me. I took up the same variety of carefree learning spirit, and with this came the final transformation in my soul from polyglot-wannabe to genuine speaker of many languages.

 

No matter how many words you learn, no matter how many mistakes you make, without a certain peace within yourself, you cannot speak any second language well.

 

You don’t need perfect confidence or inner peace. You just need enough to ensure that you can communicate and that people won’t judge you negatively. Which brings me to my next point…

 

  1. Most…Make that…ALL…People want You to Speak Their Language

 

I will never forget the time when I was surrounded by a bunch of students in Heidelberg from various countries.

 

Hopping languages from Hebrew to German to Swedish to Spanish and English again, I had some people begging me (cutely, not desperately) to pick their native tongue as my next language.

 

Whatever you might have heard about “being answered in English” might tell you, the fact is that everyone craves whatever attention may be given to their native languages, however badly it may be spoken.

 

I’ve seen Greeks light up in jubilation with just a few words of the language. Not even the nationalities with the reputation for being the most emotionless of all are immune to this charm.

 

Admittedly there are some countries where the local language(s) are put down, but if anything you should take this as “playing hard to get”…not also to mention that every place that comes to mind where this is the case has people who put on vastly different personae outside of their home countries.

 

Even if you had to stutter (as I did when I first ordered a drink on a Finnair flight), even if you have to mix up a gender (as I did with Swedish for the first time) or use an incorrect idiom (too many times in German and in Hebrew to count), your effort will matter, and people will notice!

 

There is a special phrase in Finnish that I like to use when trying to sell an idea: usko pois! (literally: “believe away!”) That is to say: take it from me, and you can thank me later.

 

  1. With Multilingual Friends, Juggling Languages is Very Helpful

 

I certainly found this a lot easier to do in New York City than anywhere else, but gone are the days where I felt that having a foreigner speak English to me at all is an insult.

 

What I sometimes enjoy doing is juggling various languages between someone who speaks several in common with me, and it can be surprisingly easy to keep this precedent going!

 

Usually you don’t even need to ask to switch the language, just make the switch and then the conversation will follow accordingly.

 

  1. Translations Create an Entire New Dimension for a Text / TV Show / Etc.

 

I remember a popular sport that my flatmates and I had at the National Yiddish Book Center—to watch the same portion of a Disney Musical Film in a series of different languages one after another. This can be surprisingly addicting, although the quality of dubs is, in the case of most languages, all over the place.

 

With every language grounded in the source of its origin, the translations can diverge significantly.

 

Imagine something like ice cream sundae with different toppings or flavors. The language alters the flavor of the work accordingly. You can experience the same text or episode in a different way and actually notice other things that you haven’t seen before, perhaps highlighted by a well-delivered line or by an oddity that becomes more apparent in one translation than another.

 

And then there is news media and how that diverges in accordance with the language…

 

  1. Less Common Languages Have Their Place

 

“Obviously you don’t encounter speakers of Scandinavian Language in Heidelberg, because generally there aren’t many of them

 

I got this over and over and over again during my time living in the city.

 

In New York City, however, I was met with a surprise. From the very first week, I had certainly heard Spanish and Chinese being regularly used, but now that it is nearly two months that I have spent here, I ran into more Scandinavians on the streets of New York than I have Slavs and Germans and Romance Language Speakers (other than Spanish) put together!

 

“That’s odd”, I thought, “I was expecting very much a similar mix to Heidelberg in regards to what European nationalities I would find here, I was not expecting to be regularly encountering Swedes and Danes with such an extraordinarily high frequency!”

 

Truth be told: every language as its place. If it isn’t where you are, then it is definitely somewhere else. Somewhere, someone will thank you for your effort…

The Legend of Isabella the Italian

I hereby devote this post to a personage who I very much need to thank for making this blog possible, one who enabled me to stop being so self-conscious about my efforts to learn languages (or anything else), and without her help and her example, I wouldn’t consider myself worthy of any polyglot title.
She herself may never end up reading this. I remember one time when Isabella the Italian was asking me about my experience learning Russian at Yale University. I mentioned the “ы” sound and smiled at her various attempts to pronounce it.
I mentioned that only a few days ago from that point, I had written a post on how to mangle with difficult sounds.
“Why would I read your blog?” she said with a mischievous smile, “I don’t read blogs. Blogs are stupid! Why would I read your blog when I could just talk to you?”
For what was not the first and what will definitely not be the last time, I almost bent over laughing. Isabella the Italian is very much unmatched with her honest opinions, the way she expresses them, and her ability to make small talk with just about any human being on the planet.
Having arrived in late 2013 to Heidelberg with no previous knowledge of German, her method of applying the language in her early stages was often to just unhesitatingly use an English word when she didn’t know any German one. “Bitte nicht touch-en”, was one of my personal favorite examples of such.
Isabella the Italian moved into my suite after having lived in the city for a while. At that time I was still struggling with how to express many ideas in the German Language, and in no small part could this be due to the fact that I found myself easily intimidated.
When I was in Stockholm, I was picking up the Swedish language after nearly two months of using mostly English. Not only was my best Swedish friend a teacher of the language for foreigners, but I was also surrounded by many supportive Swedes who would cheer on my efforts, however silly or simple. By the time I left, I was told by a guest that I spoke the language better than most immigrants to Sweden do in three years. I speak the language even better now.
On one hand, because of Isabella’s legendary superpower of small talk and friendship making, she enabled me to meet countless acquaintances, German and otherwise, with which to practice my skills non-judgmentally. She also enabled me to rehearse the language in a non-judgmental environment either, and as it turns out that I was the scrutiny that I thought that I had perceived was mostly imagined.
Sometimes she had to gently nudge me away from speaking any words of English, and it worked. But her contribution to my own linguistic journey doesn’t lie in that.
I remember one conversation I had with her about accent reduction.

As an American, a native speaker of probably the most common dialect of the most coveted language in today’s world, I have to do a good job at pretending that I am something else.

Most of the time, especially when I am feeling well, it works—sometimes I get mistaken for British (a constant for about six years now), but sometimes I’ve been mistaken as German, Dutch, several types of Scandinavian, and even Czech at one point.
But sometimes, people just know I am a foreigner, possibly due to the clothes or the walk or hearing me talk on the phone with my family.
One time I asked Isabella the Italian what she did for accent reduction.
“I don’t do anything”, she said, “people like my accent”.
She is a lot more comfortable with her national identity than I was with mine at any point in my life. But there was an important breakthrough: for one, accent reduction wasn’t particularly that important. Some of my family members and some friends had tried to tell me that I was so obviously American to everyone (and sometimes with an implicit discouragement to give up polyglottery forever), but Isabella did away with that self-consciousness for good. So what if they think I have an accent? Maybe people like it, after all…
Isabella the Italian enabled me to complete a transformation from mostly-English-speaking student with some knowledge of many languages to confident speaker of many languages—a transformation that began in November 2012 and was completed by about March/April 2014.
She taught me by example how not to let errors or other silly things act as such as ego-crushers in any learning process. Furthermore, she believed that there was a balance between discipline and relaxation that had to be reached in order for a true learning experience to happen—very different from the “work a lot and get good grades!” culture that exists in the United States.
One time I was in a grassy field and we were having a conversation about lifestyles. She told me that an ideal life would be that of a bumblebee, one that goes from flowers to flower while “enjoying life”. For most of my adult life, I saw something different when looking at bumblebees: competition for resources.
I realized that, especially as concerns an educational journey, especially with foreign tongues, that excess competition and steel-fisted work usually isn’t the best answer. Going from flower to flower, taking opportunities, savoring them with little thought to ego—this enabled me to improve many of my languages in the past year, and I look forward to using the same bumblebee method with even more in the next year.
The legend of Isabella is soon headed to Paris, probably the one place on earth where “linguistic chauvinism” is said to reign supreme (although thankfully I have no experiences to speak to this at all). I can imagine that some Parisians may scoff at those who may attempt to speak French as foreigners, but I am very certain that Isabella the Italian will not be one of them.
If there is a crisis of education, I am certain that more Isabellas (Isabellae?) would be the solution we would need. I think that the American educational system could learn very well from people like Isabella, who sees life and schooling as something about fulfillment rather than about prizes, jobs and grades.
Maybe one day we will learn from the bumblebees and apply that method to schooling. I am still waiting.