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!

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8 Important Lessons I Learned Speaking Elementary Burmese in Myanmar for 2 ½ Weeks

My goal: learn Burmese well enough to get by. Did I succeed? Yes I did! Did I leave fluent in Burmese and being able to talk about philosophy and politics? No, but that’s okay.

More importantly, I did pick up some very important lessons.

Shortly before taking off, I got a message from one of my friends who is a native speaker of another East Asian Language, saying “now we’ll see how our Western polyglot fares with our Eastern languages!”

(Full disclosure: my only other Asian Language up until that point was Hebrew. Even then, there are those that would consider the languages of the Middle East, Central Asia or even most Indo-Aryan Languages as “Western”)

Burmese was VERY different from every other language I’ve studied (although interesting it had grammatical similarities to the Melanesian Creoles like Tok Pisin [of all things], which gave me an advantage, as well as odd similarities to many other languages I can speak as well). It was a challenge. Obviously I would have fared better with languages more similar to those I knew already, but it is what it is and I’m glad that I did it.

 

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Victory. Is my Destiny.

 

It seems that, after this enchanting experience, I’m likely to want to pick up more languages from outside Europe in the future. That is…if I could even manage the whole maintenance thing or have the heart to actually abandon some of my previous languages…

Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!

 

  1. Just because English isn’t widely spoken where you are, doesn’t mean that your chances of being answered in English are any lower. Actually, you’re probably MORE likely to get answered in English in such a country!

 

“Burmese people speak terrible English”. That’s what I read once on a Swedish-language travel site. Part of me was surprised (former British colony? Bad English? Really?), part of me wasn’t (all that isolation is probably responsible for that). But I thought, “I don’t need to worry about getting answered in English at all! Yippi”

WRONG!

Actually, looking at it neutrally (and this is taking into account the fact that I am a white person who would, under almost all circumstances, not be mistaken for a Myanmar local), I got answered in English more frequently in Myanmar than in SWEDEN.

(And, looking back on in, Sweden wasn’t really all that bad in that regard, unless I hesitated / made a grievous grammar mistake / did something very un-Swedish. Even with my English-speaking family members nearby and even when I handed the cashier my American passport at Systembolaget, I still got answered in Swedish!)

I did encounter fluent English speakers in Myanmar, but only near high-end places in Yangon (and these were the richest areas of the whole country).

With most Burmese (including these fluent speakers as well as those what spoke elementary English), it seems that they wanted to prove that they knew English (to whatever degree they did). In a place like Sweden or Iceland, with heaps of hackneyed articles being written on why they speak English so well, it seems that most feel no need to prove it.

In Italy and in France (back when my Italian and French was even worse than my Burmese was when I took off), the situation was very comparable to that of Myanmar, with the English of the locals usually being a lot higher than most areas of East Asia.

That said, all hope is not lost, because…

 

  1. With the exception of places where global / popular languages are spoken, few foreigners will even attempt the local language. This, already, makes you stand out.

 

In Myanmar, it is common for local to greet tourists with “Mingalarbar”(မင်္ဂလာပါ).

Some tourists respond in kind (and only once did I hear a group of tourists profess any knowledge of Burmese beyond that, my only interaction with expatriates [who , according to my knowledge, spoke Burmese about as well as I did], was at the “Myanmar Shalom” Expatriate Shabbat. Yes, there are Jews living in Myanmar! More on that some other day.)

But I noticed something whenever I would interact with restaurant staff or locals on the street and there were other tourists nearby. Often they would stare at me with amazement. Locals would also react differently to me, even though I was travelling with people who didn’t even know a lick of Burmese. Even if I had trouble understanding what was spoken back to me, or even if I got answered in English, I still got complimented very heavily.

In Iceland, I also had a very similar reception as well when I spoke Icelandic to locals. This is what knowing the local language does (even if you speak a little bit, which would mean “I can order food in this language and ask how much things costs or ask for directions”). It gives you an aura of enchantment that those who don’t make the attempt and even those who have been speaking the language since birth. This is even truer with languages that are more rarely studied.

 

  1. Your Skills Fluctuate as a result of Travel, as well as of the Learning Process

 

At some points during my Myanmar trip, I was “on a roll”, I was getting all of the tones right, I was not making pronunciation errors, no hesitation and sometimes didn’t even need to peek in my books for a vocabulary refresher!

Sometimes I was too tired and “wasn’t feeling up to it”, and therefore wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic, able or confident. But interestingly, if I had to interact in a language I was consistently good with (like those that I teach), I wouldn’t have had an issue even if I was tired or sick or being eaten by bugs (this didn’t happen to me, thankfully).

Only once or twice was I so “out of it” that I defaulted to English.

But only a few hours later did I use my Burmese skills that actually resulted in me getting free water bottles! (This was at Shwedagon Pagoda, no less!)

You are learning. Until you are consistently good, your skills are going to fluctuate wildly. And even with your native language, your ability to apply grammar or come up with meaningful expressions is going to fluctuate (to a lesser degree). And this is true even if you are a monoglot who only speaks your native language.

 

  1. Use What Resources You Have. Obviously for Less Politically Powerful Languages, You’ll Have Less. But Take Your Disadvantages into Account in the Learning Process.

 

I looked at the Google Translate App in frustration, wondering why on earth I wasn’t able to download the Myanmar / Burmese translation package (the way I was capable of doing with Icelandic).

If I were headed to somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, I would have had my work cut out for me more easily, with more books, more tips and more technological resources to deploy.

My books for learning Burmese, however, weren’t nothing (and I had two that I carried on my person at all times).

One thing I learned to do within the first few days was keep a ready mental note to use the index if I saw a certain situation was coming up. For the Lonely Planet book, this was easier. But for the Kauderwelsch book, I often had to remember page numbers where I encountered certain phrases or use the mini-images at the top of the page in order to serve as a guide to when I would need to use what.

And speaking of books…

 

  1. Use your books or your tech resources during your downtime (at the hotel, waiting for a meal, etc.)

Something to note: as of the time of writing there are a lot of people, especially older folk, that will get visibly irritated if you use your phone excessively. Interestingly, they will have no such reaction to you referencing a book (unless you are really engrossed in it).

That said, keep in mind that whenever you are having an “I’m bored” moment, get out your book and look at something you think you may need or otherwise look at something related to a consistent weak point.

For Burmese, one consistent weak point I had was numerical classifiers (fail to use these well enough and this means you’ll get answered in English in a yap). For those who don’t know what a classifier is (they exist in a lot of East Asian Languages across the board), it is a word used to indicate a number of a measurement of something. That something comes in various “flavors”, and you choose what “flavor” depending on what class of thing you are talking about.

So when I was in a hotel or waiting for a meal, and it seemed that conversation was slow or that there was an aura of laziness in the air, I would take out my book, review classifiers, and do so until circumstances required me to do something else.

But just reading the words off the page isn’t going to do much…so you’ll need…

 

  1. Memory Devices are your Best Friends. I used (1) similarity to words I already knew in other languages and (2) using the memory palace technique in order to mentally “place” the word where I knew I would use it.

 

 

Let’s look at the Burmese classifier list on Wikipedia, shall we? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_numerical_classifiers)

Now, how exactly would I remember the first entry in the list (ကောင် / kàuɴ), a classifer used for animals?

Well, it sounds like “cow” and I would remember a cow falling, but there’s also an “င်” at the end which is pronounced like an “ng” sound. I kept in mind “kong” (whether exactly you may be thinking of King Kong of Hollywood Fame or the Kong Family of the Nintendo Franchise is entirely up to you)

Then, of course, there were my first evenings in a restaurant where I was required to remember words for what I wanted to order. I took in the surroundings and I “placed” the various words on the tables in my mental space. That did the trick.

 

  1. Discouragement and “Why Did I Even Try This?” May Come. Resist these feelings and don’t dwell on your mistakes.

 

You are almost certainly going to be making mistakes on your immersion journey. Back when I was in various European countries from 2011 until 2014, I sometimes dwelled on my mistakes too often. Now I’ve known better.

Misunderstood? Eh.

Answered in English? Bleh.

Didn’t know how to respond in a conversation? Meh.

I usually don’t get too vexed when I’m playing a video game and I lose a life. I expect losing lives to be the natural course of playing a video game. Similarly, I don’t think I should overreact when the same thing happens in language learning.

And this leads to my final lesson…

 

 

  1. Be easy on yourself and take what you can get.

 

I didn’t leave fluent in Burmese. That’ll take a while yet. What I did get, however, was motivation, practice, and tips for the road forward.

Knowing that one day I will look back on these days when I was making mistakes more frequently, knowing that I would remember “back when I couldn’t speak Burmese all that well”, and that I would probably laugh at it with a smile…fills me with determination.

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I know. I said I would knock off the Undertale Jokes. Come to think of it, I think I made the exact same joke some twenty-odd posts ago?

It’s easy to compare yourself to other learners, including those who have lived in the country for a brief while and left fluent (I can only think of a handful of instances, I think Benny Lewis in Brazil was one such occurrence, but obviously learning Portuguese as a Native English speaker is going to be nothing like learning Burmese as a native speaker of … any European Language, actually).

Take what you can. You have plenty of time to get to the rest later (and “the rest” is actually of infinite volume, and this is true for any language). And even if you don’t return, you’ll have the chance to interact with native speakers, wherever you meet them, for the rest of your life.

myanmarsaga

I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.

On Having Had Bad Experiences with a Language

 Interestingly, the Queens Library System has proclaimed this week “Broken Heart Week”.

Also interestingly: Finland’s Valentine’s Day is actually called “Ystävänpäivä”, or “friend day”.

(One could imagine the conversation. “I’m sorry”, said Finland to 14 February, “but I don’t see it like that…”)

Anyhow, this article is about something tangentially related…and it is one that a lot of my language-learning blogger friends haven’t touched on, namely…

What if, for whatever reason, you may feel emotionally weighed down by the thought of a certain language, even if part of you wants to learn it (or re-learn it)?

just-visiting-in-jail

This can come in many forms:

  • General negativity associated based on past experiences. Some of you know that I had a very stringent Jewish education in my teenage years (not from my parents). While I am grateful for a significant amount of knowledge given by this experience, in the long run, especially emotionally, it caused a significant amount of harm in too many ways to count. Luckily, I am repairing my relationship with my Jewish roots not only with Yiddish and Hebrew but also with various events in New York and beyond catered to curious open-minded young people like myself. Sometimes I couldn’t read certain Hebrew texts without being vexed or irritated.
  • Cultural dissonance. My relationship with American culture has been difficult, given as due to the fact that I never really understood it from the inside. I deliberately avoid a lot of contact with English-Language entertainment and news and, as a result, my accent has sometimes shifted to a hodge-podge of everywhere that I’ve lived, not also to mention the many languages I’ve studied.
  • Being bullied by speakers of a certain language at one point.
  • Having gotten out of a relationship with a speaker of that language and having the end go badly.
  • Having studied that language at school and having had bad experiences learning it there (everything from discouraging teacher to having done poorly in the class or on a standardized test.)
  • Having been discouraged by other learners or native speakers along the way. Spanish and Swedish were among the worst for me in this regard, with some speakers telling off my efforts as well as, in the case of some Swedish speakers, either refusing to use the language or belittling my efforts. Thankfully, and I should make it clear, these are a minority among human beings! I want to let you know that anyone who treats you this way in regards to language learning is painfully insecure about his or her own goals!

 

In my polyglot journey, I’ve felt all of these at one point or another. These feelings are difficult, ones that almost administer an electric shock whenever you want to somehow cure them or even look at the problem.

Here are some possible things to keep in mind:

 

  1. Sometimes you need to take a break.

Perhaps you may need some time apart from the language or culture that you may have had bad experiences with. Recognize these feelings, and then consider separating.

It doesn’t have to be forever! You can easily come back to it when you “calmed down” significantly, when time has healed you a little bit (or a lot) more.

During this time (and I should know, given how many languages I’ve learned to high levels and then forgotten), you may have memories pop up now and again about the times you had together.

Perhaps one of these memories may be strong or meaningful enough so that you may want to come back. And coming back is always an option when you feel up to it.

 

  1. Learning a language to a level lower than sturdy fluency is okay.

 

I play favorites. Back when I was a less seasoned polyglot I tried to pretend as though I couldn’t, and let me tell you that any polyglot who says that he or she doesn’t play favorites is almost definitely lying.

I like Scandinavian and Celtic Languages a lot better than a lot of popular global languages. That’s okay.

I feel that I may not know Spanish to the same degree that I know Yiddish or Bislama or Swedish because of the pain of a significant amount of discouragement form learning throughout the years. And that’s okay. Who knows? Maybe it will be my favorite language one day…

I may have been attached to Russian culture in the past and have moved onto new horizons. My Russian is nowhere near as good as it was and now it’s quite pathetic. But that’s okay as well.

 

  1. Each Culture has many cultures within it, and one of them will fit you somehow.

 

This also ties into another issue I didn’t mention before, which is “I can’t speak or learn language X because of historical baggage Y”.

This also ties into the other unmentioned issue which is “I can’t have a resonance with language X because of the actions of a certain government or political figure”.

Within any culture, no matter how small, there are many more subcultures than the ones seen in guidebooks or in the history books.

If the issue of cultural resonance is lacking, look for another culture or subculture associated with that language.

This may serve to change your view of that language completely.

 

 

  1. School Performance and Grades have constantly diminishing importance as you get older.

 

The sort of bad performance that brought me to tears a decade ago would be something I would laugh at now.

If you so will it, you can change your view of the world, so that the tests means nothing, the negative feedback of any of your peers mean nothing, and that the only thing that really does matter is whether or not you are on the path to acquiring the dreams you want.

 

  1. You’ll show them one day!

 

That one time that was told my “Norwegian accent was awful”?

That one time I was told that I spoke “a bit of Swedish” when I was putting together complete sentences?

That one time I was told “you obviously don’t know any Spanish, she told me you couldn’t be understood?”

And the many, many times I got answered to in English?

I just turned around, with some bitterness, and I said, “I’ll show them”

And that is what I did.

And that is what you will do as well.

And you know that if you encounter those people again, with your hyper-leveled up skills, they will not treat you the same way they did before.

 

  1. You don’t need discouraging influence in your life, much less have it affect you in the long wrong.

Here is something I want you to read carefully, okay? Can you remember it?

The people who discourage you from language learning of any sort are always wrong.

There.

Okay.

No more worries about that.

There may be the time in which they may genuinely want to help you, in which case that is okay and they will make it clear from the outset that that is what they are doing. But as to mean behavior, belittling your skills, they’re wrong. And this is Jared telling you to let you know that they’re wrong.

And that your dreams are right.

“How Do You Get the Time for That?” My Secret: Revealed!

 

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A clock in Napoli that is actually a “weathervane”

The List of my languages  is long enough that I usually forget one or two when listing them from memory. Not only that, I sometimes carry a napkin around me with the list, just in case I get asked that dreaded question again.
So that you know, I get asked it about as often as what my name is. But being as the question usually follows when I mention something about an understudied language (anything from Dutch to Northern Sami in terms of cultural breadth qualifies in this regard as “understudied” in my book).
This is my last post on this blog when I am living in Heidelberg (there will probably be a lot fewer posts for the next few weeks), and so I decided to ask a question that usually follows:
“What? How do you even have the time for all of that? Do you even sleep?”
Or something along those lines…
Well, I answer the question as directly as I can when I receive it, and I’ll answer said question directly right now:
We all require some form of entertainment, some down-time. There has to be some time spent doing something positively silly—not exactly a guilty pleasure (although those certainly exist, too!), but some areas of the time budget that make it clear that no one person can spend all of his or her time working.
I realized this one fine day on my travels, although I cannot remember exactly where or when:
What would happen if I use all of this downtime for the purpose of maintaining my languages? Instead of silly YouTube browsing in English, I could very well do it in any other language that I know, or, even better, one that I am learning to a significant degree.
That way, even my down-time serves a purpose.
Then the response usually comes, “well, that means that you can’t always understand all of the downtime TV time, can you? It just isn’t the same”.
True, but here’s something that I have noticed:
When I tried watching many of the same genres (children’s shows, animated movies, etc.) in English (or, in many cases, the English original), I didn’t feel as though they had the magic completely intact…
I associated the English language with most of my life. I associate it with my college education, and my struggles and gains for the first twenty years of my life or so.
It wasn’t always like that, however.
I remember when I was a child, getting exposed to bright characters and enchanted worlds on a daily basis, usually through some television screen (or home video). I didn’t understand every word of English then, the way that can most certainly be said about my present self.
Likewise, this downtime television enables me not only to maintain languages but also to relive my alternate-universe childhood many times over.
I’ve noticed that sometimes with certain languages that I know very well (mostly those that are on the top of my list), that I don’t particularly enjoy watching the downtime-television in them, unless I can feel my control of these languages slipping away, in which case I can savor it to relive earlier stages of my learning process.
There is so much time spent watching television and leisure activities—and this is true for many, if not all, of us. However, this leisure can also serve a purpose.
And if you’re wondering how I have the time to maintain a lot of these language projects, now you know.
And now you can do the same for your own world with little worlds.

The Legend of Isabella the Italian

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

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

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

Your Handy Guide to Never Being Answered in English during your European Travels…Ever Again!

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Skansen, Stockholm–taken by me, as with all photos on this blog except when otherwise noted.

The feeling of trying to speak the local language and being answered in English has given me more ego-crushing blows than almost anything else on my intellectual journey. I realized in retrospect that a lot of said ego-crushers can be very easily avoided!

And therefore this post is to ensure that you can realize what I did and ensure that you not go through this similar downtime. However, I cannot tell you that it is going to be super-easy…

The most important thing, above all else, is to be convincing. This means that you have to employ the following methods:

(1)    You must speak without hesitation. Using pauses is okay, but you must employ an air of confidence in your speech. Don’t feel like you are shaking upon the words coming out of your mouth. Possibly smile (if it makes you feel better) and deliver your request as firmly as you can, and if you are a tourist, you may want to set aside any anxieties you may have.

 

(2)    Which do you think is more likely to be more convincing:

 

“Excuse me, where is X?”

 

Or…

 

“I arrived to this city a few minutes ago and I think that I’m lost, I want to go to X, do you know where I could find it?”

 

Without question, the second answer (in any language) communicates a willingness to speak the language and not an “I flung open Google Translate for a few minutes on the train while the connection lasted” mentality.

 

Don’t prepare the genuine phrasebook material. Okay, use that as a starting point, but if you want to be answered in the local language you may need to use more complicated sentence structure.

 

Confidence by itself may be enough, and even when I was in Stockholm and still putting on my polygot shoes and getting them to fit, I usually wasn’t answered in English while ordering in Sweden as long as I firm enough. But in those rare cases in which being firm just won’t cut it, using complex sentences definitely will…and surprisingly, I don’t think that it is much work!

 

(3)    One thing that people may tell you that honestly doesn’t matter: even if you are easily identifiable as an English speaker, you can still pull yourself off as a local!

I’ve done this in Stockholm’s Systembolaget every time I was in the store. For those of you who don’t know what Systembolaget is, it is the state-owned alcohol store chain in Sweden—any alcohol higher than 5% may only be sold at one of these chain stores.

 

You need a passport or a valid ID in order to purchase something. I had one of two choices: either my American passport, or my Swedish Residence Card (both indicated that I was a foreigner)

 

Guess how many times I got answered in English after handing over the American passport while using a few words of Swedish? Zero! Even after I got the passport handed back to me!

 

I’m used to saying that there were only two countries that I visited in which I was regularly identified as a foreigner on sight: Israel and the Netherlands. But in these countries, as well as any other, this needs to be stressed: trying to use the local language will only bring you good results!

 

(Interestingly, while I have learned French as a child, I have forgotten it, nor have I visited Paris, although I have heard multiple accounts, from foreigners, of a certain degree of language chauvinism coming from French people. I should say that my French-speaking friends, whom I hold very dear, are supportive of my very slight attempts to mangle their language via oral repetition. I can’t comment on these things as of the time being, but when the time comes, I will definitely write a post on it…)

 

(4)    Another thing that may help is, if you have trouble grasping the local accent, use another accent that is very clearly not English.

 

Back when I was struggling with the German Language (and who doesn’t struggle with the German Language? Or with any other, for that matter…), until around March 2014, I put on a host of Scandinavian accents to disguise the fact that I was not German (I mostly used an Eastern Norwegian accent for this purpose). Interestingly, at times I heard that my accent sounded like that of a native!

 

I do not recommend using this tactic among your friends, however, who may insist that you speak in your normal voice. However, with servicepeople (waiters, flight attendants, etc.) their primary goal is making you feel at home, and they will address you in your language if they feel that will make you the most comfortable.

 

Speaking of flight attendants…

 

(5)    I used this tactic on many flights, especially with Finnair, Lufthansa, and KLM: when the flight attendants address you in English (they do that to everyone), address them in the local language instead. Even if you stutter, you’ll be convincing just by virtue of this. Just don’t mangle your speech too much.

 

During my flight to Helsinki, I used this to pass myself off as a native Finn instantly! Not a single one of the stewardesses spoke English to me during the whole flight, even though I didn’t particularly understand their quick chatter amongst themselves (note: not all Finns are reticent and super-quiet).

 

(6)    If you are with a person who doesn’t speak the local language, and you do (even not very well), it is very easy to convince servicepeople (and others) that you are the local who is guiding them around town. Use this to your advantage if you can.

 

(7)    The rarer your language is, the more likely it is to get others to speak your language with you when you are outside the country that the language is spoken.

 

I don’t think that I speak Dutch particularly well (yet…), but interestingly I felt it was easier for me to get Dutch people to talk a bit with me in their language when I was outside the Netherlands than when I was in it (…them?).

 

(Interestingly, I feel that with Flemings it was the reverse, I’ve been told that my accent indicates that I had learned the language in the Netherlands [I did so in a bunch of places, but not really in the Netherlands nor Belgium]).

 

(8)    You should really keep yourself to using complete sentences, filler words, and a pinch of slang. These make you convincing. Just using incomplete sentences and standard phrasebook material won’t do you well if you want to be convincing. If you are at that point, it is easy to fix it, even just by using Google Translate and a notebook.

 

(9)    If you are in a country with lots of immigrants that learn the local language (Sweden is the example par excellence, as there are immigrants, from various countries, who learn Swedish before even touching the English language), you are in luck, and it is a lot easier for you to be addressed in the local language, because they understand the struggle with learning more than most.

 

(10) The most important lesson of all? Don’t be discouraged! If you are getting answered in English, this is a problem you can fix. Just read through my guide again and take it to heart. These principles hold true everywhere—in Italy, in Belgium, in Malta, and everywhere else I can name, both where English is widely spoken and where it may be a rarity.

 

What are you waiting for? Don’t use the “they’ll just speak English back to you” as an excuse! If you want to learn languages from countries with such reputations, don’t let it stop you! Now get learning!