Things I’ve Learned from Making Online Videos Since my First Polyglot Video Last Year

 One year ago today I filmed  my first polyglot video of me narrating my life in 31 languages (and I uploaded it the following day). In my opinion now, it isn’t the best video, but still an accomplishment nonetheless give that I was fairly new to video-making and was still (at that point) too nervous to even film a Let’s Play Video, yet along a Polyglot Video.

I’ve gained not only wisdom, several newspaper articles written about me, and many interviews and friends since then, but also things I need to know about making videos in the future.

For one, a lot of people aren’t going to really know about what makes a video good or not, even if they’ve filmed something viral themselves. The algorithms continue to not only confound me but also change regularly.

However, one thing I’ve consistently gotten feedback on in the fact that more emotion and voice musicality is good, not also to mention sound quality. Sometimes I’ve been capable of delivering this, other times I haven’t.

Also keep in mind that no matter what you do, people are going to accuse you of being fake somehow. Believe me, this happens to ALL of the online polyglots (some do a significantly better job at hiding it that others). One viral video had several nasty comments accusing the speaker of using Google Translate (something that I literally COULDN’T have done with my most recent Valentine to Oceania video from February 2018, given that literally none of the languages in the video were in Google Translate at the time of filming [and still aren’t, as of the time of writing]).

I know I’m genuine. Sometimes I have bad moments, sometimes I “knock it out of the park”, but most of the time I’m good if not great. This isn’t up for debate, because otherwise I wouldn’t be friends with well-known polyglots and have conversations with them in their various languages. No amount of Internet hate can take that away from me, and it shouldn’t take it away from you either.

I wasn’t reading from a script in any of my polyglot videos (although I did outline beforehand “things to talk about”, for example, and go through a practice run of talking about those things with recording software to see if my accent[s] sounded good enough). Nonetheless, given that I didn’t show emotion in my video (due to fear) I got that accusation leveled against me by multiple people.

Even if you have difficulty showing emotion, I would recommend trying to smile (even though yes, this is something I’m trying to work on myself). Also I think that while short videos can be helpful if you’re trying to get some feedback on your accent (which was one point of the Oceania video from last month AND the Jared Gimbel Story from last year), keep in mind that many people may be looking for a solid 30 seconds – 1 minute per language you speak.

But again, feel free to experiment with the formula (very much like I have).

If I had to prepare another video tomorrow, here’s what I would do:

  • Each language I’d like to feature, 30 seconds each MINIMUM.
  • Multiple takes is okay with good editing.
  • You could have a thread that ties all of the narratives spoken in each language together or just simply say “I learned language X. I liked it because XYZ”. Either way, there are going to be some “haterz” angry with you regardless of which you picked. (The former may accuse you of being scripted, the latter may say “why do you just say the same thing over and over again?” You can’t win with some people)
  • Announce a plan to my friends beforehand (on Facebook) to give me positive feelings going in.
  • Set aside a good hour to rehearse speaking beforehand (that is to say, good diction, eye contact, etc.)
  • Film with the best device I have (smartphone is good).
  • Use languages I really like.
  • Do some recording practice beforehand for some self-assessment
  • Give it a title that doesn’t mention you by name but DOES mention you by name in the description or video itself.

 

Some Miscellaneous Thoughts

 

One neutral, and one thought that may vex some of you.

Let’s start with the neutral one.

The fact that I focus on lesser-known languages is likely to work against me in the algorithms, if it hasn’t already. Someone speaking Romance languages from Western Europe may be more likely to get millions of views than my videos featuring languages from the Pacific (despite the fact that my Oceania video was actually the first-ever of its kind!)

I’m okay with that because it is true to who I am, and who knows? Maybe a video featuring me and my rarer languages WILL actually go viral, contrary to my expectation now.

Lastly, I’m not going to lie, I feel as though the online polyglot community needs to diversify away from the official languages of the U.N and the “Duolingo Five” (of Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Italian). It’s okay if you like them, it’s GREAT if you like them, even. I may even choose to focus on one of them in the future in more depth than I already have if the need comes up (Spanish and German I have well enough already, but I don’t really “love” them the way I do languages like Greenlandic or Fijian).

To that end, I will be omitting languages like Spanish, French, German and even ENGLISH from my polyglot videos until I feel as though the YouTube collection of polyglot videos diversifies considerably beyond that.  If you speak one of these as a native language, please do not construe this as me holding your culture is less regard, because we ALL have value. This is just my way to ensure that this world gets “spiced up a bit” (and also to see how people react when I have Kiribati and Lao in my video and no Spanish. It should be an important lesson on how most people ACTUALLY value linguistic diversity)

I need to set an example. I think that a lot of people are focusing on very powerful languages with very little motivation without realizing that so many cultures need to be explored. That’s why I do what I do. And it is okay if you disagree with me, because communities are all about mature disagreement.

I have to use my position of power and influence to create a world I need to see. And that world includes linguistic diversity from ALL of our cultures, not just the ones that were and are dominating the globe.

 

I’d like to thank all of my watchers and readers for the support that I’ve had since my first polyglot video was filmed. I truly appreciate it and it is because of you that I continue to work!

Lao 30 Day Wow wow wow

I’m running out of pictures and I should probably upload new ones. Sometimes I can’t believe how shamefully open / honest I am. 

On to your dreams!

Everything You Know About “How Many Languages Can a Human Learn and Maintain?” is WRONG. Here’s Why…

Possibly one of the emotionally charged topics in the language learning world (and one that no one has good answers to, myself included) is the topic about how many languages a human being can learn.

We will never know the answer to that questions for way too many reasons. Here are some of them:

  • While most language enthusiasts haven’t thought about it (or have been put in a position to think about it), the language vs. dialect debate is getting increasingly muddy. Should the Caribbean English Creoles count as separate languages? The ISO 639-3 codes seem to think so. But would governments think so? How about universities? And obviously different areas where this question is more relevant will approach it differently (such as Jamaica and Italy, two completely different countries).

 

  • There is no definite way to quantify or even qualify proficiencies (except for, maybe, extended interviews on tape or eyewitness accounts of polyglots at conferences or gatherings). Even test results aren’t safe, given how many people may pass them and proceed to forget everything. (And if people can forget their native language, this is certainly also a possibility).

 

  • Human history and, by extension, history of human languages, is too long and too varied to take all the variables into account. I may have said this before in another one of my articles, but in some places like Western Africa or Melanesia, speaking ten languages is seen as normal. In many areas of the west, especially former British colonies, ten languages is seen as nearly superhuman if not in fact outright disbelieved by some people. This is despite the fact that there is no dearth of polyglot videos on the internet.

 

  • In addition to that, different areas of the world and different time periods would measure fluency differently. Mezzofanti, considered by some the greatest polyglot of all time, obviously had no usage for words pertaining to computers in any of his languages given as they did not exist when he was alive. He probably didn’t need to discuss complicated matters of science, either. Also (and this is another thing a lot of languages gurus don’t even realize because the languages they tend to choose) not all languages on the planet have that vocabulary. (In the event that you would talk about it, you would possibly use loanwords, primarily from a colonial language, or even switch into English or another colonial language periodically. However yes, there are some languages that have that vocabulary even though you think they might actually not.)

 

We will never know the answer to how many languages a human being can possibly know, and I highly encourage you to distrust ANYONE who tries to come up with an answer to the question. Because in attacking the question, they get the methodology wrong for all sorts of reasons.

 

Here are some of them:

 

  • Only taking into account their language experiences and those of their friend circle, which tend to be overwhelmingly skewed mostly towards politically powerful languages of Europe and sometimes Asia. Dialect continuums are not accounted for. If you think that Italian and Spanish are the equivalent of closest languages there are, give it some more thought. The Persian Languages are even closer, as are the “BCS” languages (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbia) not also to mention my own pet languages, the Melanesian Creoles (of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama). Not all language counts are created equal, and this point alone would be capable of disqualifying the question altogether, but I’ll go on.

 

  • Not realizing that technology has changed and will continue to change. Mezzofanti didn’t have Memrise and many of the memory tools that I use on a daily basis. Technology has the capability of turning us into superhuman versions of our ancestors. An average person who has trained with contemporary first-person shooter games (which I never play, by the way) would have significantly better reflexes and hand-eye coordination than pretty much ANY soldier that fought in the Second World War. They would be considered SUPER SOLDIERS back then (this was a factoid I picked up from the 2016 Games for Change Conference). But for some reason almost no one considers that a similar thing is also happening for language learning and skill acquisition.

 

  • Using Ziad Fazah’s “Viva el Lunes” performance in order to automatically disqualify anyone who claims to speak 50+ languages. For those unaware, I’ll summarize it in one sentence. Liberian/Lebanese Polyglot who won Guinness Book of World Record’s title for most multilingual person goes on Chilean television, is tested and struggles even with basic sentences in most of his languages. But to dismiss any claims of that nature just because of ONE incident is a logical fallacy, and while I haven’t met anyone who has significantly pulled off that number, I wouldn’t automatically revert to skepticism. Just because of one person who may have likely overestimated his abilities doesn’t mean that we as a species should hold ourselves back. Who knows? There may be someone who may actually speak 59+ languages and who actually CAN show the skills. You never know!

 

I get it. A lot of people have deep insecurities, including many in the polyglot community. The temptation to knock others down or be dismissive only shows defensiveness and maybe a poor attempt to hide your own imposter syndrome. This is why I’m willing to consider anyone’s language proficiency based on claims alone (note I said “CONSIDER” not “definitively judge”, because there is no way to really do that.)

 

  • Using data about famous polyglots that have been dead for centuries (or even those that are STILL ALIVE) in order to draw conclusions as to what human beings in the 21st century can do. Really? In the case of the ones that have been dead for hundreds of years, they’re not relevant to our brains and our technology and our learning abilities NOW. Maybe they could be used in order to speculate about limits before the technological revolutions that happened during my lifetime, but we’re changing now and most people who answer the “how many languages is it possible to know?” question don’t acknowledge how contemporary technology sets our time period apart.

 

  • Different vocabulary thresholds for different languages. One person whose opinion I very much value said that a vocabulary of about 16000 words were required to reach a C2 level (the highest possible level, considered equivalent to a highly educated native speaker) in a language. But here’s the thing: in Bislama (an English Creole that is the primary language of Vanuatu), there are literally about 4,000 words (excluding proper nouns, which would bring the count up to 7,000) IN THE ENTIRE LANGUAGE. So if you speak with one-quarter of that amount with some languages, you get a near-native vocabulary, an advantage not afforded to languages like French and Swedish with significantly larger vocabulary lists (Swedish’s list of loan words from English ALONE is likely larger than the comprehensive vocabularies of the Melanesian Creoles COMBINED). And before you say “well, that’s just concerning Creole languages”, the same variety of comprehensive word counts can also be found the further away you get from the developed world AND the further you delve into languages without as much political support.

 

If there is a definitive limit for amount of languages learned, even to a high level, we will never know what it is, in part because of all of the factors that I lay out here.

 

It’s an interesting mental exercise that, let’s be honest, is usually used to discourage people and create skepticism so that some people can have their egos buttressed, but it’s one with no definitive answer (in the Talmud, we end such debates with the word “teyku”, meaning “let it remain unresolved”. And that’s what we’re going to have to go with this debate as well.)

 

What do I intend to do? Well, for one, I’m going to try my best and learn many languages, some to fluency, others to degrees of curiosity, and I fulfill MY vision. Because if you constantly live in the fear of judgment of others, you’ll never live your full life.

 

And that’s something you deserve to do! Don’t let ANY discouragement get you down!

come back when you can put up a fight

I really need to start using new pictures of myself.

What Criteria Do I Consider When Choosing a New Language?

First off, let’s start by listing the variety of things I do NOT consider. And you can probably already guess what the first one is:

(1) Number of native speakers. Doesn’t mean anything, isn’t necessary in building an emotional connection to the culture. All languages have their worth and it shouldn’t be measured depending on how many people on this planet speak it. Sure, it might be easier for you to find people to practice with, but in the age of the Internet, does finding people to practice with, even in person, really matter?

(2) Lists of Articles on Publications Like Business Insider Telling Me That It’s a Good Idea. I don’t outsource my decisions to giant publications and I don’t think you should, either.

(3) Any charts that point to a language or a series of languages being “the most lucrative” or “the best to learn”. Especially in the United States where most people don’t learn ANY language (interestingly among Jews this really isn’t the case given how many of us have some passive knowledge of Hebrew at the VERY least), ANY language is a boon and it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Palauan. Come to think of it, given that 60% of high school students study Spanish, maybe just MAYBE Palauan and Spanish might be fairly equally waited. Again, do which one you like the most.

(4) What other languages people are learning. The world doesn’t need more followers. Nu uh. The world follows the lead of the leaders. And leaders do what is different and unexpected. (Again, don’t take this as discouragement from wanting to study a language like French, just don’t consider the crowd as the sole deciding factor or even ONE of the deciding factors.)

So here’s what I consider:

(1) Am I Healing the World by Choosing to Engage In This Culture? One thing that I’ve used to decide several of my languages in the past year (such as Gilbertese or Lao) is the fact that I realize that I can use my language to bring about healing.

With Kiribati, looming climate change and rising sea levels is something that defines the cutlure at the moment, and by choosing to learn Gilbertese I have committed to keeping their culture alive AND letting other people know about the realities of these threatened areas.

With Lao, I got to glimpse a country (that I haven’t visited yet) with extreme poverty that also has the distinction of being the most bombed country in all of human history. (More bombs were dropped on Laos by Nixon and Kissinger than all of the bombs by all sides in WWII everywhere COMBINED).

With a language like German, Polish or Hungarian, all associated by some more close-minded Jews as “languages of people who have anti-Semitism in their blood” (saying that hatred is embedded in someone’s culture is extremely offensive, in my opinion), I actually realized how many Jews (past, present and future) strongly identified with these cultures, and how much they’ve influenced the Judaism I’ve known for my whole life.

Thankfully German-Jewish relations have drastically improved during my lifetime, and I’m doing work to help Jewish relations in both directions with the other two (and many others!)

(2) Do I Have Music or Other Media that I Deeply Like in This Language? I fell in love with Greenlandic music and it became a motivating factor in wanting to studying it more. With music in other languages like Tok Pisin and Burmese, I found a lot of songs that I really liked and it caused me to have not only motivation to learn the language but also positive feelings when learning it.

Some languages, like Tajik and Lao, I haven’t found REALLY good music that I like. Yet. But with Icelandic I also remember having that struggle for months, and eventually I found Icelandic music that I really, REALLY liked. Or, if you know anything about this, you could give me recommendations, maybe!

(3) Will Engaging with This Language Make Me More Knowledgeable about a Culture I Don’t Know a Lot About?

Some languages, like Finnish or Palauan, I learned as exploratory journeys into “places” that I didn’t know very much about at all. I’ve never regretted learning a language for this reason.

(4) Is this language spoken in my immediate neighborhood? Hence the reason I learned Jamaican Patois ‘n friends. In Crown Heights it genuinely feels like a pan-Caribbean neighborhood, and especially given our zeitgeist of cultures distrusting each other, I felt as though “being a good citizen” involved me learning Patois. So glad I did!

(5) Did my ancestors speak this language? Hungarian and Swedish were both on the agenda precisely because I had great-grandparents who spoke both as their mother tongue (on opposite sides of my family)

(6) Do I need it for business, travel or romance? I think this is fairly clear. Sometimes (like my travels to Italy in 2014 and in Jordan in 2015) I felt as though I was half-hearted in my attempts to learn the local language and my trip felt genuinely lacking in comparison to when I did know more of it (such as, most notably, my recent trips to Greenland and Iceland). This is the reason I’m learning Fijian right now (and Fiji Hindi is also on the agenda in a month or two, and preparations for it were underway for a while).

(7) Have I dreamed of finding out what this country or culture was like since childhood?

Some places, like Greenland, Laos, Burkina Faso or Ireland, are places that I’ve wondered about since early childhood sometimes for silly, sentimental reasons. Somehow within my unconscious I feel as though places like these would be “good fits” for me. And I’m almost always right.

Between these seven reasons, a combination of all of them dictates which languages I choose to have in my life and which ones I devote time to. Feel free to share some of YOUR motivating factors below!

20170525_165915

I Want to Learn Jamaican Patois…But HOW?

 

First off, anyone wanting to learning Jamaica Patois is a brave fellow (or fellowette?) and deserves praise. Because trust me, even in the language-learning world, there are NOT a lot of people that look kindly on it.

First off, what exactly is Jamaican Patois? Let’s turn to Wikipedia…IN Jamaican Patois!

(from jam.wikipedia.org)

 

“Wi a-chrai mek Patwa wan a ‘i Wikipidia languijdem. No Jamiekan Ingglish, Patwa. Nof a ‘i piejdem we rait aredi de ina Jamiekan Ingglish, a no Patwa. Jamiekan Ingglish a we muos a wi chat ebi die. Patwa a ‘i raa baan ting we unu griet gran muma did chat, we tiicha did biit unu fa ah se “Speak Properly!”. Wah nex ting tu, a nof dayalek de ina Jumieka. Rait aatikl ina fi yu dayalek. Piipl wi andastan an iwi ton standad suun. Dis ya we mi a-rait a ‘i Wesmolan dayalek.”

 

Jamaican English is an everyday language that stands in stark contrast to the “raa baan ting” (raw born thing). In this paragraph you can see that it is associated with ancestry (“griet gran muma did chat” = “great-grandmother spoke”) and shame (tiicha did biit unu fa ah se “Speak Properly!” = teacher beat all of you saying “Speak Properly!” unu -> all of you).

Even today, Creole languages, especially English creoles, suffer from undeserved derision, despite the fact that music in these languages is popular in every corner of the globe and many cultures associated with these places have influenced Anglophone culture on a very deep level. Virtually every American knows something about Jamaica in particular, much like many of them would know something about Japan or France.

The journey with Carribean Creoles for me is an interesting one and one that really shows to test how open-minded people really are.

Some language-learning events, especially free ones, have a problem. There are language enthusiasts (like me and my friends) and there are also people who happen to be bilingual or speak multiple languages on account of their UPBRINGING rather than their hobby. Most of the former tend to be open-minded explorers who share stories, the latter aren’t too different from the general population (in the respect that all levels of curiosity and open-mindedness, or lack thereof, exist among them. The nastiest things I’ve heard about my choice of languages have actually come from bilingual and “polyglot wannabes”.)

And no language in my repertoire gets a mixture of either scorn or admiration as much as Jamaican Patois does.

 

Anyhow, inspired by my followers (as I often am), I opened up for questions about how I learned Jamaican Patois and how I’m continuing with it.

For one, a multitude of free apps exist which can help for building vocabulary in a small sense but they are NOT substitutes for learning how to speak.

That would largely go to this book, which I know isn’t accessible to everyone, but when I showed it to a friend who had no knowledge of German she actually found it astonishingly useful regardless:

20171006_153211

You can purchase this book on Amazon and find it in bookstores around the German-speaking world, I also think that sellers in areas of the UK and US may also have it.

Another thing that I should also mention is the fact that having learned Krio of Sierra Leone beforehand definitely helped. Krio is further away from Standard English than Jamaican Patois is, and it also really helped me realize what sort of differences would exist in usage between Jamaican and English.

Let’s give some examples:

 

“we” is an all-purpose relative pronoun, “that”, “who” or “which”

Juwish piipl frahn Spien ahn Puotyugal we a ron frahn di “Ingkwizishan,”

Jewish people from Spain and Portugal WHO ran from the Inquisition.

 

You can use “fi” in order to indicate ownership. Works similar to the English word “for”

“mi” can mean “my” but also “fimi” can mean “mine” or “belonging to me”

 

Plurals are different:

Wan bwai -> tuu bwai

(One boy -> two boys)

OR

Di bwai dem (the boys, literally “the boys them”)

 

“Se” is used like “that” in English, as in “I said that you are doing a good job”. Krio and Bislama share the exact same usage.

Also, given the dialectical fragmentation of Jamaican Patois (note that the paragraph above mentions it!), no rule is absolute, and you’ll dance between standard English and Patois forms with regularity depending on who you’re talking with. It’s very much something you’ll need to get a sense for but your best bet is to imitate native speakers. Features present in some communities’ Patois may not be present in others.

Also, Wikipedia and various missionary translations into Jamaican Patois have also helped to significant degrees. It’s telling that religious organizations pay more attention to many languages that most global corporations don’t even give a second thought to.

There is Swiftkey Keyboard in Jamaican Patois as well, but its predictive text function, as of the time of writing, is off.

Omniglot.com also has useful websites in many regards including a newly-added phrase page for Jamaican Patois.

What’s more, a bit of a warning: there is no standardized form of Jamaican Patois (as noted in the first instance of the language at the top of the page) so you’ll need significant exposure to a handful of sources in order to get a good grounding in something consistent.

 

And here also comes another important question: how do you get native speakers to speak it with you?

For one, contrary to popular belief, the Carribean Islanders I have encountered have been VERY thrilled to hear me “chat Patwa” (full disclosure: I’m visibly white, but there are also white and Asian Jamaicans as well who speak fluent Patois from birth. The “out of many, one people” motto is important to Jamaican national identity and virtually every Jamaican knows many aspects of their quilt-history which ties together elements from all corners of the globe).

One issue is the fact that often I encounter people who are second-generation and, as a result, their knowledge of Patois is confined to something more passive. But that’s okay. This is not your fault, this is a fault of creole-shaming present in this world at large in general and I think, to some degree, it’s also found in a lot of these island countries as well (not just in places like the U.S. and Canada).

Obviously one thing you really can do in order to build your “cred” in order to fully feel like a “yardie” would be to (1) use proverbs you’ve heard (Carribean Islanders, much like Slavs, very much value proverbs and sayings and use them in their speech. Each of the nations has their own collection that is very foreign to the other islands. That is to say, Vincentians or Trinidadians may not understand Jamaican proverbs, and vice-versa). (2) If you don’t have proverbs, look online or ask your Jamaican friends for some. Even if they don’t have proverbs, they may actually have SOMETHING to share with you.

Especially with Jamaican Patois, a key element is to think in phrases, not individual words. If you are a native speaker of English, you have a HUGE advantage because you already think in “chunks” in English rather than individual words and you can transmute that way of thinking into your newly forming Jamaican Patois as well.

Much like the struggle I had with Solomon Islands Pijin, in which Pijin and English are juggled in a lot of content produced in the Solomon Islands, Jamaica has an interesting situation as well. Except for even more so, because with the English Creoles of the Carribean some people will change registers IN THE MIDDLE OF SPEAKING. It’s a bit like speaking TWO LANGUAGES AT ONCE and it takes time getting used to. (The fact that this happens so much gives fuel to the dialect side of the dialect-versus-language debate, but I think that the dialect side really only serves no purpose other than to discourage study of these cultures so I’ll put that out there plainly).

Also, don’t worry that you’re “making fun” of their language at all. I hear Jamaican Patois more often on the streets of New York than Japanese or Italian. Also friends of Jamaicans pick up Patois as well (and this should be no surprise to anyone. A lot of these “why speak their language? Won’t they just make fun of me or use English?” are…limiting beliefs that deserve to be pushed out. A lot of it is in your head.

Have YOU learn Jamaican Patois or another Carribean Creole at any point? How did that go for you? Let me know!

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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6 Attitudes you Should Adopt for the Sake of the Future’s Linguistic Diversity

Yes, I understand that not everyone wants to learn an endangered or minority language. I’m perfectly okay with that (as long as you don’t mock or put down people who do).

I’ve put forth enough cases as to why learning rarer languages is a good career move, a good move from a moral standpoint (whether you look at the world as a whole or what it does to you) as well as a character builder.

This is not that article.

Instead, I’m going to write about various attitudes you can adopt in order to ensure that you can change the contemporary climate (present in many places) that is encouraging people to give up their smaller cultures and languages and thereby cause the continued extinction of our beloved human tongues from all over the world.

I learn languages like Breton, Tongan, Yiddish and Krio. I realize that that path isn’t for everyone. That’s perfectly okay. There is, however, one thing that I really would like to change, and that is a general set of opinions that I think most people would be do well to do away with for the sake of our cultural diversity.

Here goes:

 

  • Stop referring to languages as “useless”

 

I remember talking to a Burkinabe bartender once. He spoke ten languages fluently but he said that aside from English and French there was “nobody” that spoke languages like Mossi, Fulani, etc.

A few months later I spoke to a Spanish-speaker (you don’t think I was using English, did you?) at a polyglot event and he said that he had a Fulani-speaking taxi driver (Fulani is a language spoken in many places in West Africa and Burkina Faso is among them. Fulani-speakers were also sadly well-represented among the many victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Well, so much for “nobody speaks it”, right?

And of course that one time there was a Bulgarian girl in New York City who told me that “there would be better things to do with your time than learn it [that is to say, the Bulgarian language]”. Apparently she was so imprisoned by a culture of “smaller languages and cultures are economically useless” that she seemed to imply that her culture was something that was holding her back…and based on my prior experience I know that she wasn’t the only one…

Esperanto, Cornish, Tajik and all Creole Languages are among the languages on my list that I’ve heard regularly insulted the most and some have even gone so far as to question my judgment as to why I would want to learn them.

Thinking different will always get you validated in the end. Trust me on this one.

But in the meantime, stop referring to languages as “useless” and try to stop other people from exploring the world. It just serves to perpetuate cultural destruction which goes hand-in-hand with income inequality (believe it or not).

 

  • Referring to Certain Groups of Languages as “Dialects”

 

Ah, yes, referring to Italian Regional Languages / Creole Languages / Yiddish and Afrikaans as “dialects”.

This really doesn’t serve any purpose except for silencing other people’s decisions to go off the beaten path. If there’s anything that threatens the current order of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, it’s thinking differently.

It’s one thing to refer to American English and British English as dialects of the same language, but to refer to various regional dialects within places like the Arab World / Italy / Persian-speaking countries is misleading. Keep in mind whether your choice to call another language a dialect is actually privileging one dominant culture over another. Be very careful about that.

Scots, Nigerian Pidgin and Trinidadian Creole are separate languages in their own right because they feature grammatical patterns and distinctive vocabularies that distinguish them from the English in which you are now writing this. It is true that speakers of these languages can understand what I am writing right now, but by calling their languages mere dialects you rob them of a distinctive personality and the ability for others, certainly in the academic world, to take their differences seriously.

 

  • Saying that “Having Everyone Speaking One Language is a Good Thing” or that English is the only language worth studying.

 

Perhaps the first part is true, but with this way of thinking we’ve seen the proliferation of terrible habits because of it.

For one, a lot of cultures throughout the world may see themselves as duly inferior to the grand culture of the United States of America and their language as inferior to American English, the language of money and science.

Having a lingua franca is a necessity and we’ve seen that wherever empires are, all over the world. However, saying that only one language is worth study is poisonous. It seriously will prevent other people from exploring other languages and ways of thinking. Other ways of thinking is the one reason why corporate power hasn’t taken root any more strongly than it already has. With diversity of thought becomes a diversity of leadership, and when a handful of people control nearly half the wealth in the world, I doubt that they might be looking for any competition in the slightest…

 

  • Refusing to Use Your Native Language with Learners

 

This. Is. A. Big. One.

And this has collectively caused more damage to global language learning than almost anything.

The “why bother if everyone just speaks English?” myth.

And yet, so many people will just do the lazier thing and use whatever language is made “easier” rather than doing what the right thing for human diversity is, to encourage usage of many human tongues rather than only the tongues of empire.

It’s okay if you want to “juggle” the sort of languages you know with other people. I do it. I understand that people see my English-language abilities (as a native speaker) as a gift that they want to learn from. Even if they speak a language that I’ve never spoken before and I want to practice, I wouldn’t withhold it from them if they really want to speak English with me (for example, speakers of Spanish, Hebrew, German and Russian, so I’ve noticed, can get very self-conscious about their English skills if you continuously address them in their native language. I’ve seen the looks in people’s eyes. And I doubt these four are the only ones.)

But if you can’t even be bothered to use a handful of basis phrases with a learner, or, even worse, use English with me when I’ve demonstrated that I’m fluent in your language, then I will see you as terribly insecure and / or just plain mean. (The latter situation has only happened a handful of times, including one in which I got THIS *makes hand gesture* close to telling someone off very rudely)

There is one exception I’ll make: if your native language has painful memories associated with it (e.g. my memories of that Jewish school of hard knocks weren’t always very nice in the slightest, and hearing Yeshivish-English at times gives me very uncomfortable feelings, I’m sorry to say). I’ll find it out eventually one way or another and I’ll understand it. Oh, and if you forgot your native language later in life (which DOES happen, surprisingly!)

 

  • Saying that “dying languages should just die off and we should only care about those that are still alive”

 

I think if your family were dying, or if a family member of yours were dying, or if your species were dying, I bet someone would want to save him/her/you/them, right? How do YOU like it?

 

  • Saying that Only Political Powerful Languages are Worth the Effort

 

This is a big one that the press and journalism is largely responsible for, including “which languages to learn to earn the most money”, “which languages are the most ‘useful’”, and other clickbait mind-controlling garbage of this sort.

I understand if you only want to learn global languages. I’m even okay with that! As long as you respect the choice and the possibility for OTHERS to learn whatever languages they want. Several of my friends wouldn’t consider learning endangered languages but have been very thankful and supportive of my efforts to encourage other people to do so.

There is this one YouTuber who is not my friend and who I’ve never met and whose opinions I do not respect. He pretty much does nothing but insult several of my friends and acquaintances who have inspired thousands all over the globe. He pretty much said in a comment that only learning languages that give you a “bang for your buck “are useful, proceeding to list languages of the UN as the gold standard.

Does he know how often I got solicited by translators who wanted stuff from Greenlandic, Icelandic, Yiddish, Faroese (back when I knew it) and even the Melanesian Creoles, and it got so “bad” when I had Lyme Disease that I even CLOSED MY ACCOUNT on a translation forum because I was getting so many messages? Do you think that if I chose the UN official languages (English, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, French and Spanish) that I would come ANYWHERE CLOSE to how many solicitations I got?

This troll obviously never worked as a translator in which the odder pairs and choices will usually be more hunted after, judging by my experience of having people beg me “pleeeeeaase don’t turn this job down!” (When I had Lyme Disease, well…I sorta had no choice…but I didn’t know I had the disease at the time, I just knew that I was feeling very weak and “not feeling up to it today. Sorry”).

I probably made more money off my languages that he has in a lifetime over his. And I’m probably half his age. But that’s none of my business in the slightest. (I would say that Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish have netted me the most earnings, followed by Greenlandic and Hebrew…translating from all of these languages into English, of course)

If it sounds to you that I am discouraging you to study global languages, don’t take it that way.

Just be aware of the benefits that various languages will net you on a market (e.g. Spanish will give you a lot more material online and many opportunities to speak it in person, but not much leverage as a translator or in employment markets in which “every idiot learns Spanish”. Small national languages like Danish or Bulgarian will be more balanced in this regard, fewer materials and opportunities to speak it but more leverage as a translator and in employment markers. And then, of course, the glass cannon of the endangered or minority language. May not have almost any opportunities to use it, depending on where you are, but it will you will STAND OUT to your employers because of it. And there are probably many other categories that fall between these, and whatever you choose is good as long as you choose it from the heart and not for the sake of conformity or “money” or “job opportunities” in a vaguely defined sense).

In conclusion, I realize that there may not be a lot I can do to assist with attitude changes in the language-learning community. But this post is a start. And whenever I hear opinions the likes of which I have heard, I feel like an arrow shot me in the gut.

Maybe the world will come to know healing. If so, I want to know that I’ve been a part of that.

And you can, too!

ga

Knowing When to ”Pause” Language Studies

Sometimes you have a hobby or duty that you feel is actually more like a heavy stone than like a source of genuine joy.

Throughout my time learning languages, many of them have brought immense joy to me. However, sometimes one (or some) of them end up “losing the spark”, and sometimes this really happens with languages that I used to know very well (Russian and Northern Sami come to mind immediately).

But as a polyglot myself, sometimes I feel it genuinely hard to “say goodbye”, even for a while.

I really want to learn languages from the Pacific, and I’ve been making small progress. I’m very happy about what I’ve been doing with Palauan, Tongan and Gilbertese.

However, whenever I tried to refresh Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Russian or Ukrainian, it felt hard for me. It felt that, at least for the time being, that the spark is gone. And if you speak one of these as your native or fluent languages, I will let you know that it has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with you.

Ever since writing this blog, I’ve become a lot more aware of dynamics on how people make choices.

Often people get trapped into jobs or relationships that they don’t particularly like, ones that they keep just because a logical part of them says that it is a “sensible” or “right” thing to do.

I’m giving up global languages for small languages of developing countries. It isn’t a logical decision in the slightest but I know it will make me happy.

What’s more, I know that, should the spark ever “reignite”, I could easily choose to come back to any of the languages I’ve studied over the course of my life and have an excellent head-start.

Above all, you just really have to ask yourself: “what do I really want? What does my heart want? Would I feel relieved if I dropped this hobby or language or other thing or relationship that provides a lot more pain than it does joy?”

I remember exactly how painful it was when I decided to become less religious than I was (and it was a LOT more painful than choosing not to study a set of languages. It felt, in a sense, like losing the trust of a family member, feeling betrayed and greatly confused). But above all, I made the decision because it was something that my heart wanted. I wanted to live my own life without a fear of punishment, thinking that every little sinful thing I did was somehow going to result in a punishment of sorts (bad grade, computer problem, illness, rejection of any variety, etc.)

But since then, I’ve learned to make what I want the primary goal in my life. And I’ve been better off for it.

The little child inside me wanted to learn more about places that I knew nothing about. The logical brain inside me told me to focus on projects I’ve already invested in. And the little child in me always wins, because no matter what happens, my deepest dreams and desires have to go first.

I’ll still hold pieces of my forgotten or “paused” languages with me forever, even if I’m not studying them actively, and of course I can always return should I feel that I feel that same longing for them that I used to.

We live under such extraordinary pressure a lot of the time. A lot of us, being trusting sorts, often give in to a lot of that pressure, and as a result we live a life that isn’t really ours.

I didn’t want that for myself, I don’t want it for you.

So in regards to language learning:

If you want a language, anywhere in the world, then go ahead and begin with it!

If you know a language, to whatever degree, and somehow feel that it isn’t serving you, you are under no obligation to keep it, especially if it isn’t making you feel happy or bringing great joy to your life.

You deserve that great joy. Nothing less.

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