How to Learn Yiddish if You Already Know Hebrew from your Jewish School

A long-awaited post, and sorry I haven’t been writing much in a while.

Too often I get asked if Yiddish is an easy language for English speakers to learn. Is it easy in comparison to a language such as Greenlandic or Hungarian? Most definitely. Is it easy in comparison to Romance Languages? Hard to really say, because Yiddish is an entirely different challenge depending on your background.

  • Are you a native English speaker? Expect a lot of words you’d recognize from the shared Germanic experience.
  • Are you a native German speaker? You’ll get a lot of vocabulary, probably by far the biggest advantage, but don’t expect the language for free. There are a lot of vocabulary gaps you’ll encounter even with the most basic words (as an absolute beginner). Not only that, but the grammar will be simpler than that of Hochdeutsch. Your accent WILL also need to sound like something further east (speakers of a language like Polish don’t even need to try to put on a Yiddish accent at all sometimes!)
  • Are you a native speaker of a Slavic language? If it’s Polish, Ukrainian or Russian, expect a good deal of words to be familiar to you. Otherwise those otherwise familiar words may be vaguely familiar, not also to mention the sentence structure of Yiddish being closer to that of a Slavic language rather than to High German.
  • Do you know Modern Hebrew? You’ll recognize many words that entered Modern Hebrew via Ancient Hebrew using Yiddish as a bridge. But some words will have their meaning drastically altered, including, in some cases, a normal word in Hebrew being a profanity in Yiddish.
  • Do you know Ancient Hebrew or Talmudic Aramaic? Many phrases were lifted from both into Yiddish because of Jewish religious scholarship.
  • Did you at any point have an immersion in an Orthodox Jewish atmosphere? You’ll encounter many, MANY phrases and grammatical forms you’ll recognize because of “Yeshivish”. A teacher of mine once described “Yeshivish” as “English but with the Hebrew / Aramaic components of Yiddish still intact”.

But by far the biggest issues with students across the board in making their Yiddish from good to great is the “Loshn-Koydesh” portion of Yiddish, which also uncannily resembles the situation of Sanskrit / Pali loanwords in a language like Thai or Burmese.

Yiddish is a phonetic language for the MOST PART. This means that you read words exactly the way they are spelled. There is one noteworthy exception, however, and that is the Loshn-Koydesh words. The words lifted from the Bible and the Talmud into Yiddish (many of which hopped over to Modern Hebrew in turn) are spelled the way they would be written in Hebrew.

This is an issue because in Yiddish, like in European languages, individual characters represent vowels (so “ayin” is always an “e” sound and one vav makes an “u” sound [in Lithuanian Yiddish, that is]). But in Semitic languages such as Hebrew, the vowels are not written out and are expressed with notations below and above the letters. (Although sometimes letters afterwards can provide some clues).

And the pronunciation of these words in Yiddish is almost NEVER the same as the way they are in Modern Hebrew! And the syllable stress is different! (Compare “ShaBAT”, meaning the Sabbath in Modern Hebrew, to “SHAbes” in Yiddish).

Sephardi Hebrew was chosen by Zionists in order to be more distant from the Ashkenazi Diaspora (and later this served to accommodate the background of Mizrahi Jews as well, to whom Yiddish was unknown).

So you’re dealing with two drastically different pronunciation schemes.

What do you do about it?

For one, realize that, much like in English, you will have to memorize each the pronunciation of each Hebrew word or phrase individually. “Yaakov”, meaning Jacob, is “Yankev” in Yiddish and there is no “n” sound articulated anywhere in the spelling at all. Yom Kippur becomes “Yonkiper”, with the m indicated in writing being fully transmuted into an n sound. This largely had to do with Polish phonology patterns which Yiddish imitated.

The good news is that many of these are very frequently used and, in some rare cases, may actually match the way they would be pronounced if they were phonetic Yiddish words.

However one thing to watch out for is the fact that sometimes Hebrew PIECES end up in words, in which you pronounce the word phonetically except for the Hebrew part. “Hargenen” (to murder) one such example, with the “HRG” component being written with no vowels, the same with “farsamte” (poisoned), in which “SM” may cause some students to read it as “farsmte”.

In dictionaries you’ll find these words fully spelled out in terms of the way they should be pronounced.

In summary (with some added tips):

  • Knowing Hebrew of any form is likely to be an advantage when you learn Yiddish
  • Do keep in mind that in comparison to Modern Hebrew the syllable stress follows Indo-European, not Semitic, forms.
  • Some Ashkenazi Jews nowadays use a combination of Israeli pronunciation with Ashkenazi Pronunciation. This does not work for Yiddish, even spoken in contemporary Hasidic communities today. Get a Yiddish dictionary (or find one online) and follow the pronunciation guides there.
  • The Hebrew spelling is a very rough guide to the pronunciation.
  • Sometimes pronunciation of one word can have some variations. “af tzu lokhes” = out of spite. Sometimes “lakhes” or “lehakhes” as well.
  • Sometimes pieces of Hebrew words end up smushed between normally-spelled pieces (see above with “farsamte”)
  • Lastly Soviet Yiddish spells the entire language phonetically with the Hebrew origin words intact but not spelled the way they would be in Hebrew.

Zol zayn mit mazl! (May it be with fortune!)

kegn dem shtrom

“Laddering” in a Classroom Setting (Or, Learning in a Beginner Language Class when the Language Used is One You Might Not Know Too Well)

This is a problem that many people face. It can come in many flavors:

  • The 100% use-only-the-local-language immersive courses (Israel’s Ulpanim did this, and then they were picked up by other places as well, most notably in Scotland and in Wales [and in the latter they call them “wlpanim”. No joke!)
  • Learning a language in a setting where the teacher and many of the students have a language you know but may use a lot of expressions that “go over your head”.
  • Group settings which begin OUT as using a language you know, but then transfer towards using the local language and then you get left behind somehow (this is particularly relevant in college or university settings).

 

There are a number of ways to surmount these obstacles. I’ll go through each of the three scenarios described above in more detail:

 

For the FIRST situation, in which you feel as though you are struggling in the immersion setting, the key is to be vulnerable and honest. Feel free to express to the teacher that sometimes you may have issues picking up words (use the target language, of course!) Once thing I’ve done in Ulpanim is request pictures (these really help).

 

Otherwise one thing you need to do is make learning the language a source of GOOD feelings. And you can do this outside of the classroom. Ask your teacher or other native / fluent speakers you know for jokes or memes. You’ll even come to remember entire grammatical functions in this respect! (Because sometimes a phrase will be so funny that you’ll remember the entire thing FLAWLESSLY, even if you’re just a beginner….case in point, the only thing I know how to say in Afrikaans is a long and detailed curse. I don’t even know how to say “hello” [I can say thank you and please, however]).

 

Television can also be helpful towards this end, but it has to be things you REALLY like. (The same is true with YouTube or other video streaming services).

 

Now for the SECOND situation, I’ve been here before. I’ve been in German- and Irish-Language classes in which I’ve fumbled so badly I almost got the teachers very angry (and obviously with my reputation right now I can laugh about it. Literally every single hyperpolyglot, WITHOUT EXCEPTIONS, have been in situations like these).

 

The key is to latch onto the most essential information. Keep in mind the Pareto Principle (something hugely important for language learning), the idea that out of 20% of your effort will come 80% of your results. Your goal (even if you were a native speaker of the language used) is NOT to remember everything, it is to make enough gains in the class in order to “move forward”. Any progress is good. I know it can seem sometimes (as someone who struggled with language classes myself) that “everyone seems to be doing better than you are”, but trust me, this is genuinely not the case.

 

Write things down as often as you can, even if you think you misheard things.

 

Get SOMETHING. Feel free to ask your peers or instructors if necessary. And, again, don’t forget to cement your studies of the language with fun topics (see my “recipe” above).

 

Then there is the third one—turbospeed. And this is merely a combination of the two situations I’ve just outlined.

 

And one final word: the classrooms are not a substitute for the primary goal of language learning, which is making up for the childhood you didn’t have. For that, you’d largely need to do a lot of activities on your own. But it can be done. The classroom is good for building a fantastic basis in the grammar and structures of the language as well as using opportunities to use it. But it is not equivalent to installing a language package in your brain. For that, you need active usage and entertainment.

 

And nowadays, with the internet, both are readily available at no additional costs.

 

yerushalayim

 

 

 

How to Decide on a Costume (for Purim, Halloween, etc.)

Happy February everyone!

This is an off-topic post that has nothing to do with language learning at all. Sorry! But perhaps I should actually write more of these.

So a holiday or theme party is coming up and you know that you want to dress up as SOMETHING, but you can’t exactly decide what.

This serves to document my personal process of how to come up with WHAT costume I should pick, not necessarily how I should assemble it (luckily, as of the time of writing, one of my best friends is about to get an advanced degree in Fashion and so he will be helping me put my Purim costume together this year!)

Fotka Jareda Gimbela.

WHAT MY COSTUME SHOULD BE:

  • I usually want it to be a particular character rather than just “a class” (e.g. J.P. Morgan rather than just “a robber baron”). I can make an exception for this if the class is considerably distinctive.
  • No cultural appropriating (my personal heritage is okay, so in high school I’ve done Viking costumes).
  • Props are good
  • Colors are good
  • Lots of attention to detail.
  • Having the “homemade look” is not only acceptable but encouraged (especially for Purim which is wacky enough as is).
  • The primary goal should not be to have other people recognize your costume. It’s great if they do, but don’t have it be the primary focus. Playing towards your own tastes works wonders.
  • Comfortable, or at the VERY LEAST can be comfortable with removable pieces (e.g. I can take headwear off and I’d be okay).

WHERE I GET INSPIRATION:

At the times in which I need to get thinking about what sort of costume to wear (or even when it is NOWHERE NEAR Purim or Halloween or Lord-Knows-What at all), I pay attention to character designs in films / video games / art in museums .

I pay particular attention to how such a character would fit my body type – male, dark hair, average height and weight, broad shoulders, quite muscular.

That said, some of these can be “flexible” but I really can’t pull off the look of a pale-skinned blond man or a dark-skinned character native to equatorial climates.

I understand that there are definitely certain types of people over-represented in popular culture than others (e.g. over-representation of white people in Hollywood films), but there always IS something, no matter who you are.

Another thing I keep in mind is that I see experiencing media (such as looking at paintings or movies) as “trying on clothing”, in a sense—imagining how I would behave in the suit of such characters. If there is any character that you feel particularly “clicks” with your personality, then you really may be onto something.

Lastly you don’t need to get EVERY SINGLE detail in your “target costume”. The most important colors, hair-styles and props are all that are necessary. If you can do that, great! But if you can’t, don’t disqualify a very good idea.

Happy costuming!

 

The Most Important Lessons of my Life So Far (30 Years of Jared Reflection)

On my 30th birthday I think of all the times in which people ask me if I “feel old”. The fact is, I feel wiser and more confident with each passing day, despite the fact that this decade has probably been the most difficult one of my life (granted, the sample size is not large).

At age 20, I was a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem while abroad from Wesleyan University. Looking back, I think that I was a LOT less restrained and a lot less “polished” in terms of my behavior. Paradoxically I was both an iconoclast AND very religious. The maturity that I’ve acquired since then, despite the fact that most of it happened as a result of negative experiences, is, oddly enough, something that I’m grateful for.

At age 30, here I am in Brooklyn, teaching a multitude of languages to very curious and smart people. It was something I’ve dreamed of doing since before my Bar Mitzvah. I also wanted to be a hyperpolyglot throughout most of my life, but I think a mixture of having discovered the right blogs and the right tools made it possible.

Also, perhaps at this juncture I’ll make a list of the worst things about my personality, as well as the best things.

Bad things:

  • I question myself very often, perhaps way too often.
  • I have a narcissistic streak in which I sometimes seem openly concerned for the way that I am perceived.
  • I set EXTREMELY high standards for myself, even to my detriment.
  • I am difficult to impress.
  • I tend to blame myself for anything bad in any situation.

Good things:

  • I am on an endless quest for self-improvement (and this attracts other people with similar qualities into my life).
  • I take advice from people readily and I apply it (my rabbis and coaches have noted that I do a “fantastic” job at applying advice and changing my behavior when asked).
  • I am difficult to provoke and remain calm in a lot of situations (to a degree that sometimes scares people, but also enables them to put their trust in me).
  • I make an uncanny amount of connections between things in my brain (this is probably my BIGGEST advantage as a learner).
  • I pride myself in being different and taking “roads less travelled”.

 

Now for the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my life so far. I may have written an article like this before, or possibly not. Honestly, I can’t remember.

Here we go!

  • Frame Your Life as a Story or an Epic in Conversations.

 

Characters such as Abraham and Odysseus are memorable because their characters are formed via transformative journeys.

 

Even if you haven’t left your hometown, you can still see yourself on a similar type of journey in a sense.

 

For me, the fact that I hopped between Orthodox Jewish Day School and Inner-City Public school and then Wesleyan University and then 20+ different countries made me a bit of a confusing fellow earlier in my life but an “epic character” later on.

 

Given that I downsized my religiosity, that also adds another element as well. Given that I became a hyperpolyglot, that also serves as a “twist” in a sense. Given that I stopped pursuing advanced degrees to create my own game(s), that shows deep courage.

 

Find what your story is.

 

  • To Teach Well, Think about What your Boring Teachers Did and Do the Opposite of What They Did.

 

 

Granted, in this clip my body language could…improve a bit (I think that I’m shaking too much). But hey, it was my first time.

 

Note what I did in the clip. Used a theatrical style filled with energy. I spiced up my presentation with artistic detail and tiny “blink and you’ll miss it” details (including having hid several of my gaming user handles in the presentation).

 

I’m not dismissive of anyone’s questions and I answer them on point. If I don’t know something, I say that I don’t (as what I did with Yanjaa Wintersoul’s question about learning from different consoles).

 

Richard Simcott approached me after the presentation and said that he was told “excellent things” about my presentation including several wishes that I could “come back” for future Polyglot Conferences. (It seems unlikely that I’ll be in Fukuoka for the 2019 Polyglot Conference, though).

 

  • If You Want Something, Take the Necessary Steps to Get that Something IMMEDIATELY.

Life getting too routine? Draw up a multi-step plan on how to change it and do SOMETHING to change it.

 

Too concerned about a flaw in your life? Speak to a friend about it.

 

Want to learn the language of your dreams? Start NOW!

 

I could go on.

 

  • Make Lists Often.

The self-descriptive article at its finest.

 

  • Realize That a Lot of Advertising and News Articles Are Meant to Tug at Your Insecurity for Clicks and Sales.

 

They are most likely overstating many problems (with some noteworthy exceptions) so that you can feel more immobilized and click.

 

  • The Aging Process Does Not Have to Be an Evolution from Idealism to Conformity.

 

It may be tempting to think so at times, but one way to counteract this is to constantly “open doors” in your life with new skills and expanding the world of you.

 

  • If you’re Over-Analytical, Know When to Turn it Off.

THIS is something I have issues with. Still.

Whether it be with students’ feedback or internet comments or even dislikes on videos, do realize that creating hypothetical situations and “stories” can actually be harmful. A lot of this has to do with competitive school culture, but once you really leave you’ll realize that most human beings are actually quite forgiving of…almost anything, actually. As long as it isn’t done out of pure malice, that is.

 

  • Ask People Questions About Their Story. Frame Their Lives as a Story.

For example, I’ve met Jewish converts and “newly minted” American citizens on a weekly basis for some time now. I’m curious to hear about how Judaism / American-ness makes them feel. Same for many other identities as well, whether it be discovery of a language like (Spanish / Danish / Yiddish / Thai / etc.) or having recently moved to New York City.

Often I got remarks like “I’ve always wanted to open up to people about this, but they almost never asked”.

 

  • Open Doors for People (Well, Yes, Literally, but Also in a Figurative Sense)

When I was in Yad Vashem in December 2012 (which, looking back on it, was one of the most transformative months of my life. I visited Skansen in Stockholm for the first time and visited many of Israel’s holy sites that I hadn’t seen before), there was one remark from a Swedish priest that still rings with me to this day.

“There were some of the teachers that tried to open doors for me. And there were others that tried to close doors for me”, he said.

In my teaching and in my conversations, I want to make people realize that their dreams can come true. I praise people for their tough decisions and their artistic determination. I want to act as an energizer and let them know that becoming their ideal self is always possible.

 

  • Know that You are a Legend and Other People Will Remember You.

 

Perhaps this one requires a good deal of egoism. But egoism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you use it to lift other people up, especially in times of despair, then it can actually be a divine virtue, in a sense.

See yourself as a legend beyond compare, as if the future of the world depends on your every action, in a sense. See yourself as a comic book character with layers of deep change and vulnerability. See yourself as someone who has to use his / her / their powers for good. Use that power to make others believe in themselves and feel appreciated and cared for.

 

After all, YOU may be the person upon whom the future of humanity depends. And you may not even know it yet!

20181120_113303

What I Learned from Not Writing Two Consecutive Facebook Posts in the Same Language for a Whole Month (June 2018)

The last post of the month!

Because of work that I’ve been doing on “Nuuk Adventures” as well as other commitments, I haven’t been making videos or writing blog posts as often as I used to. I do love what languages give me, but the biggest dream in my life right now is to get my first video game published and popular and while there have been difficulties with that, I will need to make sacrifices in other areas of my life. And that’s okay.

Anyhow, for June 2018 I imposed a challenge on myself to not write two consecutive posts in the same language for a whole month.

Here are some things that I realized as a result of the experience:

  • I most often defaulted to languages that I felt “needed work”.

 

Hungarian and Fijian were my primary focuses in June and will continue to be so in July (when I revive my Fiji Hindi as well). Devoting a serious amount of time to three languages every day will be difficult, but I’m not one to be afraid.

 

I don’t have a single Facebook friend who speaks Fijian (even though I do know some who can read Fijian words out loud and pronounce them correctly). That said, I often wrote posts in Fijian with English translations in the comments.

 

I have a substantial amount of Hungarian friends and Hungarian-speaking friends from other places (the U.S. and Israel, mostly). Between that and machine translations for Hungarian (despite the fact that they translated the word “Fijian” as “fiancé” in a recent post of mine), I didn’t need to translate them into English.

 

I struggle with Hungarian sentence structure (although I’m getting used to the cases better every day).

 

In line with that thought…

 

  • It enabled me to “refresh” languages that I couldn’t engage with online as readily (such as Irish and Gilbertese)

Learning Hungarian for me has proven to be MUCH, MUCH easier than learning any language from Oceania. Hungarian is all over the internet in comparison to languages like Fijian or Gilbertese.

As a result, my motivation for Fijian somewhat slumped because sometimes I felt that I couldn’t find interesting content as much (although maybe I’m…not looking hard enough! Yo, I’m always open for suggestions…)

Gilbertese was also an issue because “comprehensive input” (describing something that Olly Richards is currently using with his Italian project) has been…non-existent…except for my YouTube series on Gilbertese which is helpful but it’s clear that I’m a non-native and that my pronunciation in the earlier entries needed improvement. (the ‘ in the b’a combination is pronounced as “bwa”, and in some Gilbertese orthographies is written as such).

Actively translating things into rarer languages was helpful.

That said, sometimes I worried that I was “doing it wrong” and sometimes I realized that my vocabulary retention wasn’t too high.

But the key is to do something that helps, even a little bit, and to keep doing it.

  • My English-Language Posts Got Significantly More Likes (Not Surprised at All)

Machine Translation or not, most people would see something in Finnish and scroll past it if they don’t have a solid ability to read it.

I saved my longer, eloquent posts for being written in English and then had quaint observations and jokes in other languages. This doesn’t reflect my skills, but rather my audience.

  • My Facebook Friend Requests Quadrupled as a Result

My posts are open and so when people saw what I was doing they were immediately intrigued. With growing skepticism of polyglot culture for a number of reasons, the fact that I was writing posts in many languages, some of which haven’t been touched by machine translation at all, was a clear marker that I was genuine (which I know that I am).

A lot of people in the online Facebook groups added me as a result. Yes, I have following enabled, but I’m always glad to help others in any way I can. Granted, I get hundreds of messages a day and it has been hard for me to keep up. But I do try.

  • It seems likely that this may become a permanent habit in July and Beyond

I’m not going to lie, I genuinely enjoyed this, it made me project a more interesting version of myself and it cemented my vocabulary in many languages significantly.

I also got two corrections over the course of the month (one from a Hungarian speaker and another about word choice from a Swedish speaker). I’m grateful for your input and I don’t take it personally.

 

JULY 2018 Challenge:

July 2018’s challenge (I’m probably going to make the weekly challenges a habit, inspired by the legendary Ari in Beijing):

 

– I must translate ALL Facebook posts I write into either Fijian or Fiji Hindi. This is true regardless of source language. (Posts in Hungarian, Hebrew, Danish, English, etc. are affected)

 

– Exceptions include emergencies and life-changing announcements (including “Kaverini” announcements)

 

– I can write the translation in a comment instead (for example, if I want to write a very powerfully worded political piece, I may opt for doing this).

 

– I may use any orthography for Fiji Hindi.

 

– I may use as many English loan words in Fiji Hindi as necessary for it to feel genuine (e.g. the way an Indo-Fijian would speak). The same is true for English loan words in Fijian.

 

– For the sake of balancing translating into the two languages, I have to alternate between Fijian and Fiji Hindi with each post. If I translate into both, it serves as a wild card and I can choose which of the two to do for the next post.

 

– Instagram is unaffected, but if I share any Instagram photos or videos to Facebook, I must translate the caption into one of the two languages in a comment (or both).

 

– The challenge will be suspended in the event of me going abroad. (Foreshadowing?)

 

CAN I DO IT? We’ll see!

jippi-mundolingo

From years ago. My language list is a bit different now. 

An Afternoon with Jared Gimbel: Your Questions Answered!

Happy 4th birthday, World With Little Worlds!

To honor all of my readers and those who have provided me praise and constructive feedback throughout the years, these are your questions, answered with love and consideration by yours truly.

 

What do you look for in a mentor?

Five things:

  • Someone who opens doors rather than closes them.
  • Someone who doesn’t pull emotional hot-buttons or regularly cause me to feel distressed, downtrodden, or discouraged.
  • Someone who, when I am done meeting with him or her, makes me feel elevated and ready to enter my life with renewed motivation.
  • Someone who acknowledges the progress I have made in addition to that I have yet to make.
  • Someone who isn’t over jealous or guarded of me.

How learn any language from scratch in my own?

The first thing to ask yourself is how much you can PRONOUNCE, how much you can READ (and understand what you’re reading), and how much you can UNDERSTAND. Depending on which combination of the three you have, your approach will have to be different. However, the more prior knowledge you have in a related language, the easier it is to get “lazy”.

Generally, I would start with “hello, how are you? What is your name? My name is… Where are you from? I am from…” and then go onto “I have, you have…” “Do you have…?” and then the same with “to want”, “to go”.

I’ve spoken about this in the interview I did with Luke Truman of Full Time Fluency a few months back:

This should help.

What was the catalyst for your interest in languages of the Pacific in general and Palauan in particular?

Climate change in the case of Oceania in general, a childhood fascination with that area of the world, and, in the case of Palau, the sound of the language as well as how it looked on paper. Oh, and the flag. Who could forget the flag? As a kid I could look at it for hours. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.

How much Japanese do you understand with your Palauan knowledge?

Same as how much Latin you would understand from English.

Apart from Yiddish and Hebrew what other Jewish languages have you studied?

A tiny bit of Ladino in college and a handful of words from Jewish Languages of Azerbaijan in the early 2010’s, but aside from that, pretty much nothing seriously.

Have you ever looked into Krymchak or the Udmurt-influenced dialect of Yiddish?

Now I may have to!

When studying Breton, do you prefer the artificial French-influenced “standard” or one of the dialects?

The KLT (Kerne-Leon-Treger ) variety used in the Colloquial Breton book and in the Kauderwelsch book is my go-to. It seems fairly consistent with what is used on Wikipedia although there are some songs that have “curveball” elements for those overly accustomed to KLT.

Apart from Northern Sami, Finnish, and Hungarian, do you plan on learning any other Uralic languages?

I never say I won’t plan on it. Right now I do feel “overloaded”, however.

When you were in Israel, did you encounter any Circassians or Hungarian Jews? If yes, did they speak their ethnic languages?

Possibly and yes respectively. My Hungarian was limited to a few words in 2009 but my efforts were appreciated. What’s more, do keep in mind that I had heavy limiting beliefs about language learning back in those times. Odd, because my experience in the Ulpan should have actively proved those beliefs wrong.

How often do you encounter peoples of the Pacific in real life apart from the times you actually go there?

Hawaiians about once every three months or so, same with people who have been expatriates in places like Fiji and Samoa. Aside from Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, I haven’t met anyone in person from Oceania yet. That will change this year, I hope.

Will your RPG “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” be playable in Greenlandic?\

I’m going on record: YES.

Have you ever written poetry in the languages you learn?

I believe I did once or twice in Yiddish at the National Yiddish Book Center. I also have done improvisational singing in Tok Pisin. I may have also written a piece or two in Hebrew while at Wesleyan University but I have no recollection of it. I did write an absurdist play about talking jellyfish in that same Hebrew class that makes most internet memes look tame by comparison.

How do you deal with the blurry boundary between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is, in my view, taking one element of a culture (let’s say, clothing) and claiming it as your own without having a basic understanding of where, why and how that culture or cultural element exists.

If I were to wear a national costume in public with holy significance, that would possibly be breaching a boundary in that culture that I may be unaware of. But obviously me wearing a shirt with a Greenlandic flag on it despite not being Greenlandic or Inuit (or any Native American at all) does not make me a cultural appropriator. It is a mark of solidarity and appreciation.

On this note, I would like to say for the first time that I am fully aware of the fact that there are people who are prepared to call “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” cultural appropriation despite the deep involvement of actual Greenlanders at every stage of its production. I look at the Greenlandic story as a whole in a way that contemporary American pop culture and its sad legacy of cartoonish national caricatures will probably never do otherwise.

If you would prefer Greenlandic culture would remain a virtually unknown mystery in much of the rest of the world instead of appreciated for the wonderful slice of the human story that it is, then I have nothing to say to you.

What was, to you, the most easily graspable non-Latin orthographic system in any non-L1 language you’ve studied? What was the least?

From Easiest to Hardest:

  1. Greek
  2. Cyrillic
  3. Hebrew
  4. Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary
  5. Arabic
  6. Lao
  7. Burmese

Have you ever SAVED SOMEONES LIFE with language?

The answer is: yes. And surprisingly, my own. Several times.

For one, my decision to become a tutor of several languages actually ended up saving my life. Shortly after graduating from JTS, I fell ill for a while. My own parents, who hold medical degrees, misdiagnosed me several times.

What ended up saving my life was one of my students of Swedish, who casually recommended based on my symptoms that I had Lyme Disease. Thanks to his suggestion, the disease was caught in time and my life was saved.

There is also the story about how Greenlandic saved my life, but I will relate that in future interviews when “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” is released. There is a specific reason I chose Greenland as the setting for my first video game (well, one of several specific reasons) and one of them in particular may come as a shocker to many of you.

Speaking of which, I’m going to continue doing character sketches for Nuuk Adventures right now!

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Happy Birthday, O Beloved Blog of Mine!

The Key to English Language Immersion: An Outsider’s Perspective

May the Fourth be With You!

Okay, this isn’t a post about Star Wars. Not at all. But a friend of mine (actually, several friends of mine) wanted me to write about various roadblocks / sticking points in English-Language immersion and how to overcome them.

Often when I try to bring up these techniques in groups, sometimes there is the occasional voice that just says “HIRE A PROFESSIONAL TEACHER AND THAT WILL SOLVE EVERYTHING!”

In order to truly bring something into your life, it has to be all-encompassing. No one solution will solve everything concerning language learning sticking points, which is why part of me is vexed by the “how do you learn languages?” question. This is because people expect one or two routes to fluency when there are HUNDREDS of possible ones that intertwine various methods.

English, especially the American variety, is intimidating. The r is difficult for speakers of many languages, a lot of the vowels are perplexing for native speakers of almost anything, and an idiomatic depth that seems unparalleled given that English, in the words of one Tumblr user, is “three languages wearing a trenchcoat”.

But the English learner has one advantage that is UNPARALLELED:

Imagine if four out of every five companies on the planet had a name in your target language. Imagine if loan words in your target language were commonly used in almost all languages on the planet. Imagine if your target language was the most studied language of all time as well as, arguably, the most powerful in world history.

Perhaps the closest things that could come to it would be, French, Spanish, German, and possibly a case could be made for Mandarin Chinese or Japanese or maybe Italian even. But very little else. Finnish has five words that found their way into English (“sauna” would be one you would probably recognize), Greenlandic also has a few (igloo, anorak) and Fijian had one that comes to mind (tabu = taboo). By contrast, English loan words have been in literally EVERY language I’ve ever studied.

The key to learning a language is to engage with it, and with English it is literally more possible to engage with it than any other language on the planet, given how coveted and “necessary” it is.

There is one BIG advantage to the English learner, however, and it is something I’ve seen over and over again.

Let me put it this way:

In Sweden, there was pressure on me to have a good accent. If I didn’t, that meant that people might answer me in English without a second thought. That accent could be anywhere in the Swedish-speaking world (or even plausibly anything Scandinavian—like that one time I accidentally addressed a Swedish staff member in Danish and he responded in Swedish without flinching). Luckily I think that many Americans can manage, if not a Stockholm or Gothenburg accent, something from either Finland (as in sounding plausibly Finland-Swedish) or southern Sweden without issues.

In Myanmar, I had to get my tones right. The fact that I was white didn’t help matters at all. I also had to answer on point all of the time. Otherwise, it was a one-way ticket to English-town (or German-town, even).

In the United States, if someone has a mediocre or even bad accent in English, unless he or she is in an ethnic community (e.g. Hispanics, Mandarin-speakers, Polish speakers, etc.) they don’t run the risk of getting answered in their native language.

Learning English with foreign accents can be seen as cute, learning many other languages with foreign accents, especially Anglophone ones, can be a liability. (The only place I can think of where English-native accents could be passable was Israel, and even then it could be an issue more often than not).

There are several nodes that advanced English learners struggle with, and I’ll identify them right now:

 

  • The Finer Points of Pronunciation
  • Idiomatic Expressions
  • Irregular verbs
  • Germanic-cum-French Sentence Structure

 

The key to solving all of them is twofold: (1) make lots of mistakes and (2) imitate native speakers to the best of your ability. Pretend you are American / British / Australian / etc. Fall in love with the cultures and find things to link about them.

Let’s go into each of the nodes in detail:

 

  • Pronunciation

 

The short vowel sounds are a big issue for a lot of learners (if you need help with these sounds, put the words on the right side into Google Translate and have them read out loud):

 

Short a -> bat

Short e – > bet

Short i -> bit

Short o -> bot

Short u -> but

 

You CANNOT sound like a native English speaker without having mastered these sounds, and you’ll notice that a lot of English learners can bypass them entirely (pronouncing words like “bitch” and “beach” identically).

American English in particular has a lazy feel to it that has “legato” (or notes / sounds being drawn out). Some languages have a bit more of a “staccato” (=short quick notes / sounds) feel to it (languages like Fijian and Solomon Islands Pijin come to mind, even though they are spoken in places where English is an official language. In such countries in Oceania, you’ll notice that English speakers mimic Australian speech very well but have traces of their native accent, too).

Think about WHAT makes the sound of English different from your native language or languages you already know. Mimic the differences accordingly. That mimicry will eventually turn into a believable accent.

 

  • Idiomatic Expressions

 

This is an issue in all languages and even English speakers can be confronted with difficulties with varieties of English they’re not familiar with—even within the same country!

The key with idioms like these is to “hook” them on various memorable elements – like a product, movie scene or advertisement.

The more of these you have, the better, but keep in mind that even native speakers may not have a perfect knowledge of idioms all throughout the English speaking world and even some non-natives have introduced me to British ones I haven’t heard before!

 

  • Irregular Verbs

 

Looking at a table is, in all likelihood, not going to help you. Clozemaster in the upper levels definitely will, but exposure and immersion (or using the language in your daily life as much as you can, or in your entertainment / recreational life if you use other languages at your job) will help you.

 

Keep in mind that there are some irregular verbs that can be inconsistent across generations. One example is the English verb “to sneak”. Older people will say “sneaked” (for the past tense) but younger people will opt for “snuck”.

 

  • Germanic-cum-French Sentence Structure

 

There is a clear difference between an English non-native speaker who says “do you know what is this?” vs. “do you know what this is?”

 

This is BY FAR the trickiest thing about learning English, in my opinion. Surprisingly I also think that if some English learners took on a study or two of another language they would get a lot better at this aspect (and not necessarily if it is a one related to English via the Germanic or Romance family trees).

 

Auxiliary verbs can also be tricky. Perhaps in mimicking very informal English some learners may ask “you have a book?” rather than the more formal “do you have a book?”

 

How to get over this? Well, the first thing is to not be scared. You CAN do it and there have been a few people in my life who have been so good at English that I have mistaken them for native speakers (and they’re not all from one area of the world, mind you).

 

The second thing is to PAY ATTENTION TO THE DIFFERENCES between your native language and English. (Also pay attention to the differences between all languages you learn, it’s good discipline and it really helps in creating good grammar).

 

 

Conclusion:

 

The biggest thing that prevents people from being satisfied with their English level is the idea that they can’t get better or that it is “too much work”. You don’t work more on English, instead you work smarter. Work on English in a way that makes you happy to work with it (e.g. with material that you genuinely like). Make the presence of English in your life a source for positive feelings. That way, you will find yourself sounding like an American (or any other English-speaking nationality) before you know it!

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