The Biggest Mistake People Make at Language Social Events

come back when you can put up a fight

I have been going to language exchange events for years now (although I’ve been showing up at them less frequently in 2018 due to reasons I cannot disclose quite yet). In some respects it actually teaches me more about human psychology than it does about languages in general.

(It reminds me of the fact that, when I play Interactive Online / .io games, I actually learn more about human psychology rather than strategy as well. I will also never forget the time that someone named his/her character “press ctrl-w to go faster”.)

I’m sorry to have to say this but it really needs to be said: more often than not, seeing people interact at Language Exchange events makes me understand that most people don’t really know how to learn languages very well, for multiple reasons. I’ll go into why shortly.

If you attend a language exchange social event, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor if you want to learn (1) the local language (e.g. if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have many opportunities to learn Icelandic with natives, given as they’ll be the most commonly represented demographic) and (2) English (even if it isn’t the local language).

But concerning someone who wants to learn Mandarin or French and only speak a little bit of that and nothing else but English? You’re going to need to read this…because otherwise you may leave that event broken and discouraged, not also to mention demotivated from ever returning.

Now, you’ve come here for the biggest mistake, so here it is:

The biggest mistake that people make at Language Social Events is not seeking to make gains with their languages when they interact with native speakers.

And EVEN if there are no native speakers of language you want to speak present, feel free to bring some small books along that you can use to play “show and tell”. I did this most recently at an event aimed primarily at learners of Asian Languages (I turned out, not surprisingly, being the only person representing any learner of Southeast Asian Languages. But hey, maybe a Burmese or Lao enthusiast would show and I needed to account for that chance. Besides, I could easily learn about other people’s cultures or even pick up words from languages I haven’t been actively learning).

I had some books on my person and one of them was a Jamaican Patois book. One of my friends who was a Mandarin native speaker didn’t speak Patois and didn’t have any interest in it, but I told him that Chinese languages influenced Jamaican culture in general, showed him the book, read him a few phrases and showed him pictures of Jamaica. That way, I made gains with a language that NO ONE there spoke. I also met someone at a party who was learning Malagasy and HE did very much the same thing to me (despite having no book). I really appreciated it because I have to say I don’t know much about Madagascar at all!

But if you meet native speakers of a language you are actively learning, let me tell you what I most often see versus what you should be doing:

What you should be doing: even if you’re not fluent, ask them to help you put together sentences or even form sentences in your target language while they “feed you words” (they’ll be happy to do this, I’ve done it with English and even with other languages I’m fluent in like Norwegian with other learners). Also ask them to provide details about their language as well as sentences or cultural tidbits that are likely to impress the NEXT native-speaker you meet.

What a lot of people do instead: ask small talk questions only using English. Use a handful of pre-programmed sentences in their target language(s) and spend most of the time using English instead. Use language exchange events as a means to flirt rather than to actually rehearse languages.

The primary key is that you leave having gained something. That something could be cultural know-how, phrases that will help you put together sentences better, or tips on improving your accent. You can even make gains with languages you aren’t actively learning! (I know because I’ve done this with languages like Japanese that I’m not learning at the moment nor do I have any plans to in the immediate future. I’ve also taught people basic phrases in languages like Burmese and Norwegian that they may never see themselves learning at all).

And now one thing I would consider: even if you intend to focus only on one language, I would recommend learning at least a LITTLE bit of a variety of other languages (feel free to do this even if you have no intention to learn them to fluency). This way, you’ll actually be able to start conversations more easily.

If you’re the only one who knows any Khmer, Oromo or Danish, you’ll have people asking you about it even if they have no intention to learn the language themselves. Even if you speak only a LITTLE bit, you can actually be the “local authority” on that language (as I’ve done WAAAAY too often).

You can even use this as a means to learn how to “teach” through an L2 you’ve been working on (and you may discover vocabulary gaps along the way). Most people who show up to these events are curious people and this is even MORE true if it’s a paid event.

A lot of people use English (or English + their native language) 5/6th of the time at language exchange events and wonder why they’re not making gains and why other learners are overtaking them. It isn’t about raw intelligence, it’s about the fact that language learners that put more in get more out. And you have to put effort in from EVERYWHERE in EVERY area of your life if you want the coveted prize of “near-native fluency” or even anything close to it.

Don’t enter without a plan as to what you want and how you’ll get it. Yes, I know you can’t control who will show up (maybe that Finnish speaker will be there, or maybe there won’t be anyone with whom to practice! Who knows?) But you should prepare for a wide range of situations based on what you’ve read about the event series and how you’ve experienced it before in the past.

For most language exchange events in New York City, I’ll expect to use the Romance Languages with regularity. Speakers of Chinese languages, especially Mandarin and Cantonese, will be present with consistency, alongside speakers of Russian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, languages from throughout South Asia and Arabic dialects that will usually lean towards Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Somewhat rarer than that but still frequent are Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Persian Languages. Rarer still but showing up about once every two months or so are speakers of Nordic Languages, Turkic Languages of Central Asia (such as Kazakh and Uyghur) and languages of Southeast Asia. The rarest that I’ve encountered are speakers of African Languages, usually from South Africa and Ethiopia. Only once or twice have I encountered speakers of native languages of the Americas. I have never encountered anyone from Oceania at any language exchange event to date.

So think about who you encounter frequently and develop plans for what languages you KNOW you will practice there, what languages you are LIKELY to, and which languages you will probably NOT practice, but would LIKE TO.

Tl;dr always make gains with your L2 whenever you speak to a native speaker. Even if you’re not fluent, you can make those gains. The key is to get SOME progress on your language-learning, and you can always do that.

Have a good weekend!

Fijian After One Week: Progress Report!

One week ago, with the start of February, I decided to devote this month to improving my Greenlandic and my Fijian. Greenlandic has been going by better and the new video you’ll be getting at the end of February promises to be a real treat (and better than the December 2017 one on multiple fronts, or so I hope).

Fijian is interesting in the respect that it falls squarely in the middle of the difficulty curve for all of the languages I have ever attempted. It also incorporates English loan words in ways similar to those of Japanese or Burmese. Fijian radio also uses English code-switching to various degrees, making it possible for me to understand what’s “happening” more easily. (For example, on a piece about climate change, while almost all of the dialogue is in Fijian, some phrases like “do your part” or “hard to say” may find their way in, sandwiched between perfectly good Fijian sentences).

I’ll say that there is, in my opinion, NOTHING WRONG with English-code switching, and certainly not in a place where English is the language commonly seen on signs.

Allow me to explain: during British colonial rule there were Indians taken to Fiji as indenture servants. The language that developed in this community became known as “Fiji Hindi”, sometimes described by some of my Hindi-speaking friends as “Hindi with no rules”.

You can also watch my attempts to learn Fiji Hindi here:

Alongside them, of course, were the inhabitants of Fiji present from before, and their language is an Austronesian one, Fijian. Some call them Native Fijians, and ever since 2010 they have been referred to in officialdom as iTaukei (whereas Fijian refers to any citizen of Fiji regardless of ethnic extraction).

I would imagine the dance between the various languages in Fiji to be somewhat similar to what I had encountered in Greenland with Greenlandic and Danish last year (except this time with three languages, English, Fijian and Fiji Hindi, and with English having a more pronounced presence in Fiji than in Greenland). I wrote more about my experiences speaking Greenlandic in Greenland here.

Anyhow, yesterday I helped myself to this wonderful book and it has been hacking away steadily at all of my problem points with the language and I haven’t even owned the book for more than 30 hours yet!

vosa vakaviti

So, what have I done?

  • I got a basic understanding of the foundations and many of the ways to greet people, form sentences and alter verb tense.
  • The difficult-to-translate particles aren’t much of a problem anymore thanks to the Lonely Planet book clarifying exactly what “sa” and “se” mean. (Sa -> denotes a change of state or action and se -> denotes a state or action that is being continued).
  • The patterns of what sort of words I should expect to be English loan words is clarified
  • The patterns as to what English loan words look like in Fijian are clarified. Nurse -> Nasi. Jared -> Jereti.
  • How to passively recognize certain morphology patterns. Katakata -> warm. To turn an adjective into a verb meaning “making something that adjective”, add vaka at the beginning and taka at the end. Hence, to warm up becomes “vakakatakatataka”, which is EXTREMELY difficult to pronounce quickly (and given how often climate change comes up in Oceania, it’s a word I’ve ALREADY heard quite often).
  • Customs and cultures of Fiji, including relations between the iTaukei and the Findians.

 

Where I still have yet to go:

 

  • Distinctions between informal and formal language (Fijians may speak differently to foreigners than to each other, my Lonely Planet books tell me that certain words are used in excess in foreigner-speech and left out in proper speech).
  • Varieties (“dialects”) of Fijian
  • How the language sounds when spoken quickly (I remember that with Gilbertese last month I had an EXTREMELY shocking wake-up call when I realized exactly how fast I-Kiribati speak!)
  • Putting together sentences with ease.
  • Speaking at a natural speed (note that I did NOT say “speaking quickly”)

 

Where do I go from here?

 

Well, I think that right now I have the phrasebook and I will need to master each section individually. I think that if I learn all of the phrases in the book by heart, it will not make me absolutely fluent but enough so that I could reasonably claim BASIC proficiency.

 

From then, I could easily acquire more knowledge and vocabulary through reading, radio and even possibly doing the Huggins International 30-Day Challenge with Fijian at one point. I think that last one…it would have to come down to that before I leave, and if my plan to visit Fiji materializes, it will likely be in the summer. But even if I don’t, I’ll have gained many experiences with the language to cherish not also to mention advantages in learning other languages from Polynesia.

 

This is the beginning of something legendary!

Is it a Waste of Time for Americans to Learn Foreign Languages in 2018?

Way too often have I encountered this idea that, for native English speakers, especially from North America, time spent with languages could best be done doing “other things that are more important”.

(But given that a lot of American youth I’ve really lived with, with noteworthy exceptions, did spend a lot of time on English-language TV and YouTube more than pretty much anything else outside of the workplace, I’m extremely skeptical when it people making such claims, certainly in this country. Fun fact about me and video games: whenever I play them, I have educational podcasts or language-learning materials playing in the background!)

Indeed, I think if a lot of people from English-speaking countries would be fully aware of the realities and histories of other places in the world, they would be in a state of permanent shock.

With each new language I study the more I realize (1) how awful human beings truly can be and (2) how imperialism and colonialism are almost COMPLETELY responsible for virtually every single conflict present in the world. What’s more, this imperialism and colonialism is consistently rooted in shallow greed.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language on the surface without getting to the core elements of the culture(s) attached to that language, but to TRULY be good at any given language you need to understand many elements of local history and cultural mindsets.

For international languages, picking one country to anchor that cultural knowledge will usually suffice (it will also make your accent better so that it doesn’t sound like a mixture and your knowledge of colloquialisms can be deeper and more believable).

With that cultural knowledge comes a willingness to discover the human experience beyond your immediate surroundings.

Now let’s get back to the original question: is learning languages, for Americans, a waste of time in 2018?

Let’s get this over with:

No.

Here’s why not.

The first reason is that, given how FEW Anglophones truly want or even try to learn languages in detail, you will consistently be given fantastic treatment from native speakers.

Granted, some languages are more susceptible for getting you special treatment than others (In the United States, speaking high-school or even college Spanish isn’t going to have the same effect on your Venezuelan bartender as speaking even basic Hungarian with your new acquaintance who speaks it as a first language. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now Spanish in a place like Southeast Asia is an entirely different manner!)

But regardless if you want to learn Spanish or Hungarian or Fijian or Mandarin or anything else, there’s one thing you’re doing that is ESSENTIAL in maintaining the United States’ general health right now:

You’re bringing down barriers built by a system that wants to keep people permanently confused and embattled.

Donald Trump peddled fearful rhetoric about Mexicans and Chinese during his campaign and more recently rhetoric of a similar nature towards Haitians and residents of Sub-Saharan Africa.

His rhetoric was appealing to a large portion of the electorate because of a system that we as American language learners have the power to fix!

When I speak languages or even relate some of my cultural knowledge or even, heaven forbid, ask questions, I get people to open up.

My Taiwanese-American friend who is also Jewish told me that in his entirely life (he’s 30 at the moment) he never heard anyone ask meaningful questions about his identity until he met me. An acquaintance from West Bengal told me that I was “amazing”, “knowledgeable” an “brilliant” because I…knew that Assamese was a language (“You’re probably one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!!!”)

People from small countries the world over are told by liberals and conservatives alike that their culture aren’t important and that they and the languages associated with them don’t mean much to the world (or that they’re not “economically useful”).

When I speak languages like Finnish or Icelandic with these people, it has an almost therapeutic effect, as if to say “your place and your identity have value to me”.

More people giving up their culture in favor of becoming more Americanized only benefits the same system that has created income inequality more great than human history has ever seen.

Even if there might have been someone who wanted to use English with me instead, even the fact that I TRIED to use their language may have caused them to rethink the idea that becoming more like a powerful culture is the road to success or happiness.

Now imagine that every American learned languages of many sorts. Let’s say every American learned at least a little bit of a series of languages the way that Professor Alexander Arguelles recommended (e.g. a language close to your own, a language far away from your own, a personal language of your heritage, a personal language relevant to the history of your passport country or countries and/or your area, etc. For me, those could be Swedish, Greenlandic, Yiddish and Irish)

Not everyone has a time commitment to become readily fluent in five languages or so, but perhaps a few phrases in five languages would be something easily manageable by anyone. Even ONE PHRASE in five different languages. (I know I get impressed by, let’s say, Polish people rehearsing the five Finnish phrases they know on me)

In that world, Americans see the world as a collection of cultures and a collection of peoples.

In contrast to this there stand the idea that the world is, first and foremost, about money and monetizeable skills, that the world is to be exploited and that the winners of that wealth are to be celebrated, that places on the planet that don’t provide money are as good as dead. (“Who the hell cares about Nauru?” says someone who isn’t aware of the fact that that attitude may have lead to an entire country being reduced to poverty and ruin and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees from powerful countries.)

An activist friend told me that thanks to Manifest Destiny and other factors set in place earlier in American history, the country has had “shallow values” for centuries, namely the philosophy of “more, more, more!” and of entitlement (much like the idea that all of the land from California to the Atlantic coast is OURS and deserves to be OURS).

There are other elements of American culture that I believe to be noble. The open-mindedness I see among young Americans is unparalleled by the youth in other places. The curiosity of these same young people is also unmatched. Americans living in cities are globalized story-collectors that are the envy of the world and rightly so.

Well, you may say, you’ve made a case that learning languages even to a simple degree and learning about cultures is certainly NOT a waste of time for Americans and may actually end up SAVING THE WORLD, but what about learning a language to fluency?

And here comes something:

The better you learn a language as an outsider, the more readily you gain someone’s trust.

Even if they do speak English fluently, they use that language to communicate with outsiders. They CAN’T go on outsider mode with you, in using their L1 they have NO CHOICE but to address you in the same dimension that their cultural insiders are in. Granted, there are some light exceptions to this (e.g. some languages may have modes in which locals speak to foreigners or foreign-looking individuals, I believe Japanese and many East Asian Languages are guilty of this, not also to mention Fijian and Samoan having different modes of speaking depending on whether or not you’re an outsider). But even if someone is engaging with me, in any degree, in their native tongue, this means that I am the guest with special treatment.

It’s like getting premium access to an entire culture. And with it come invitations, free drinks, people asking you questions and wanting to do business with you, and even romance.

On top of that, you may encourage another person to become a polyglot (or even a hyperpolyglot) as well. If not that, then maybe someone like Ari in Beijing who devoted himself to near-native fluency in one language, one that (because near-native fluency as an L2 is so unbelievably rare) provided with him celebrity treatment in Chinese subcultures EVERYWHERE.

But most importantly, our system of destruction in the name of profit depends on making us teams of humans fighting against each other, distracting us with infighting while they commit unspeakable acts of destroying the planet.

The infighting starts to disappear, to however small a degree, when you decide to learn the language or languages of your dreams.

come back when you can put up a fight

How To Be a Good Presenter

Between Thanksgiving and my Birthday I had few opportunities to write new pieces, but today I‘m going to reveal some more fantastic secrets!

Today (weighed down by a throat illness and unable to make videos because of that) I‘m going to open up my full inventory on how to be a good presenter (which also ties into how to become a good teacher).

Summarized in one sentence, my teaching and presentation techniques can be summarized as follows: „think about what all of the boring teachers in my life have done, and do the opposite!“. A corollary: to become an encouraging and positive teacher, do the opposite of what the discouraging and negative teachers do.

(My friend Ulf, who is a priest in the Church of Sweden, was taking courses at Yad Vashem with me in Jerusalem [namely, ones about Holocaust history]. He said that „some teachers opened doors for me, and others closed doors for me instead]. I expanded this idea to pretty much everything in your life: advice, articles, friendships, or anything similar that OPEN doors are right, those that CLOSE doors are wrong. You can usually tell within reading one paragraph of an article, if not the headline, and the same applies to presentations).

Okay, you wanted insider tips so here you are:

 

  • Be very animated

 

I‘ve looked at the most subscribed channels on YouTube in multiple languages, and they all have many aspects in common. One of these is the fact that there is almost NEVER a moment that is emotionally „blah“ or otherwise stale.

If you are giving a class, it is YOUR job to keep other people engaged, and you can make ANY topic engaging.

Speak with a theatrical voice, use gestures if possible and DON‘T assume that putting information on the screen or just reading off facts is going to be interesting to most people.

BUT if you bring life into those facts with the tone of your voice, your body language and a general spirit of enthusiasm, you could make the most dreary topics in existence something to be remembered.

Be a lot less formal. Be a lot less like a typical college professor and more like a YouTube superstar. (I‘m sorry to say it, but there‘s a reason that the latter tend to be more well-known. I‘ve copied the techniques and learned from them. And even if you don‘t feel very animated right now, it is a ROLE you can grow into, no matter who you are!)

And here‘s another pointer…

 

  • Keep the Audience Engaged

 

„How many of you have heard of…“

 

„I‘m curious if there are people in the audience who know of…“

 

„Here‘s [name of memory technique / video game / learning app]. How many of you here have used it before?“

 

One thing that my Jewish background has taught me is the fact that performance heightens memory. Use your senses, your movement and your voice and beyond…the more aspects you use, the more you‘ll be able to (1) engage yourself in an activity and (2) truly create lasting memories of the experience.

 

If you ask a number of questions to the audience, especially at the beginning, you get them involved on a deep level, rather than too many presenters who often „talk at“ their audience rather than engage them.

 

And in line with that, there‘s another point of importance. Namely…

 

  • Know that Everyone is a Genius about Something

 

This is ESSENTIAL to being a good teacher. But also in Q&A sessions, I‘ve too often encountered to many people who have been shut down. In one particularly horrendous incident at Hebrew University, I was told to my face, „I would really have to say that you‘re wrong and I agree with him [indicating someone else]“. Jared: „Can you articulate that further?“ Teacher: „That‘s just how I feel“. (You can imagine how this made me feel inside).

 

In My Q&A session during the Polyglot Conference, I heard questions about LOLCat and Upside Down English (this had to do with the fact that I had listed the complete list of languages that Minecraft was translated into). I didn‘t know a lot about it, and so I asked the people who asked the questions to provide more. I remember telling one presenter that he should „submit a proposal for next year‘s conference“ on LOLCat.

 

In line with that: be willing to admit you don‘t know, and encourage your students to explore topics on their own and „let me know what you find“.

 

  • Assume Your Audience Knows ABSOLUTELY NOTHING About the Topic [But Don‘t Talk Down to Them]

I speak several languages very, very well. I was an absolute beginner in all of them once. I made silly mistakes with all of them frequently (including with my native tongue of American English, one such example was when I was 13 and I called „Freud“ of psychoanalytic fame „Frood“).

Sometimes when I‘m „not feeling up to it“, I CONTINUE to make silly mistakes with them (including my native language!)

Friday evening before the Conference opened with the 30-Language DJ set, I set aside forty minutes to give a „run-through“ presentation of my talk on Video Games and Langauge Learning. The target audience was, of course, my parents in Connecticut, super-excited for me as good parents should be. My father hasn‘t played a video game since the early 1990‘s, and let‘s not even discuss my mom‘s ability (or lack thereof) to play „Kirby‘s Return to Dreamland“ („If you‘re player 2, no matter how many times you die, you always come back!“).

Basic things that a video gamer would know (the Steam Store, Minecraft, etc.) and basic things that a polyglot would know (what an Indo-European Language is) would be things that I would need to explain very concisely in a sentence each. My prarents are monoglots who know nothing about memory palaces, video game design, fan translations, or anything else relevant to the topic. But by building on their knowledge base in a polite way bit-by-bit, they said that it was „excellently done“ (and many people attended my talk despite never having played a video game almost ever and walked away feeling EXTREMELY glad that they came!)

 

  • If there are visual elements, include pictures of yourself in them as well as a good dosage of „Easter Eggs“

 

Also feel free to briefly mentioned that the PowerPoint presentation has „a lot of surprises“ and tell the audience to „see how many they can get“.

My Video Game presentation had screenshots from game localizations in many languages (including Hebrew, Polish, Swedish, German, Esperanto, Japanese and Cornish [!!!]). They also included screenshots of games that may be „vaguely familiar“ to most people, even if they‘ve never played a game in their life (Super Mario Maker, of course!)

Your presentation can become a mystery trove that can keep people engaged, wondering if the next slide will be something that will cause the room to burst into laughter.

 

  • Use Extremely Positive Language Referring to the Audience

 

„Super-smart people like you guys out there…“

„Wonderful students like you…“

„People committed to their goals, just like you are…“

Very, VERY few teachers or presenters do this, and it is an EASY fix that gets people super-engaged because they associate your talking with positive feelings. Don‘t overdo it, though, because only once or twice did someone tell me that I was an expert in „buttering up“ other people.

Am I? No, I just think that there is a lot of criticism in the world and I think that there needs to be positivity to balance out the omnipresence of limiting beliefs. If I don‘t do it, who will? (Well…now there‘s you…I suppose…)

 

  • Draw Analogies Very Often

 

Analogies, metaphors and usage of the phrase „that would be like…“ bring out the inner explorer in the student. You want that explorer as present as possible.

 

  • Use Jokes and INDIRECT Pop Culture References Often (especially with US Audiences)

 

This will take work, no doubt. But once you‘ve got the previous seven points down, this shouldn‘t be very much effort at all. Also, watch the sort of presenters and personalities you would like to speak like, because, whether you like it or not, you are what you listen to.

 

 

CONCLUSION:

 

The only imperative is „don‘t be boring“ Oh, and another one, namely „don‘t be predictable“.

 

Those don‘t tend to help by themselves, but the above points certainly will help. And even if you don‘t see yourself as the variety of person(ality) that can encompassed with ease all of the points above, you can TRAIN yourself to be the presenter that never bores everyone and is super-informative as well, much like I did!

 

Happy Teaching!

I am brilliant lol

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.

 

 

ga

The Tongan Way

It was my life’s dream to begin learning languages of the Pacific since I was a kid. The fact that I haven’t done so for decades is confusing to me, but perhaps one reason I started it this late was because I needed to hone my techniques and confidence, both of which are required in greater depth if you want to take on languages that virtually no one you know of is likely to learn or speak.

Granted, I have been speaking Tok Pisin since 2014 and Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin since 2016. What I mean when I say “Pacific Languages” are those truly indigenous to the region, and this year brought me into the arms of three of them specifically: Palauan, Tongan and Kiribati / Gilbertese. I’ve been extremely fascinated by all of them (and I would say at this juncture that Palauan is the hardest and Kiribati the easiest).

But today I’m going to talk about Tonga, because today is Tonga National Day.

Tonga is a country that continues to hold very strongly to its traditions, being an absolute monarchy even today, as well as one in which Christian identity is taken very seriously. What’s more I would venture that most people learning the Tongan Language might be doing so because they are missionaries.

The language itself is fascinating on every level and works unlike any other language I’ve seen. Let’s hop in!

The pronunciation, like many Austronesian languages (or “Languages of the Southern Islands” which stretch all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island / Rapa Nui) is extremely straightforward. You have a, e, i, o and u, pronounced virtually the EXACT same way as they would be pronounced in Spanish. If you see a line over any of these vowels, hold it a little bit longer. This principle, thanks to Finnish (which employed lengthened vowels very similarly but uses “aa” instead of “ā”, was not foreign to me.

Tongan also has a glottal stop, noted as the “ ‘ “ character. This is trickier, and it is pronounced with something like the breathing sound in the middle of “uh-oh”. (In singing this is extremely difficult to hear!)

Now let’s introduce you to what is probably the most commonly known Tongan word abroad, an interjection that literally serves ALL purposes (surprise, joy, anger, excitement), “ ‘oiaue!” Yup, all of the vowels and a glottal stop. Also super fun to say!

The consonants will not be slurred and, much like in a language like Hebrew, always have the exact same pronunciation! Given how similar they are to English that’s not something you need to worry about.

One aspect in which Tongan has really caused me to enter a word of mental gymnastics is the fact that, instead of indicating a tense with changing a verb, you use a “tense marker”.

Let’s give an example. “ ‘oku” is a present tense marker, so if you see it, a verb that follows it will be in the present tense. And PRONOUNS also change with tenses accordingly!

 

Ou -> present “I”

Ku -> past “I”

U -> future “I”

 

‘oku ou -> I am (lit. present-marker I-present)

Na’a ku -> I was (lit. past-marker I-past)

Te u -> I will be (lit. future-marker I-future)

 

You put verbs afterwards

Now there’s yet ANOTHER version of “I”, one that is utilized when it goes at the end of the sentence after a verb. “au”

 

‘Oku ‘alo ki kolo ‘a au. = I am going to town.

Present-marker go all-purpose-preposition town verb marker I-post-verb-version

 

The various pronouns in Tongan are all calibrated in various ways according, complete with exclusive and inclusive versions “we” as well as a singular / dual / plural system.

 

Much like some other languages, Tongan also has an interesting way of asking “what” you ask “Ko e hā e meʻa” = “what is the thing …”

It can be set up in other ways:

 

Ko e hā e lea faka-Tonga ki he _____?

What is the Tongan Word for _____?

 

The word “ko” is translated in so many ways and used is so many constructs that it’s dizzying to even think about how I would begin to describe it on paper. After all, I just got into Tongan a few months ago.

But you probably noticed something about “faka-Tonga”, which translates to “the Tongan Way”, something that is, obviously, at the center of the country’s national identity. Lea faka-Tonga, speaking in the Tongan Way, refers to the Tongan Language (of course).

Faka- as a prefix can also turn any noun into an adjective of the noun. Tonga is, of course, the Kingdom we all know and love (or, at least, we NOW know it and love it!). faka-Tonga turns it into an adjective. Not just Tongan, but an adjectival word that encapsulates everything that is the Tongan Way.

Another thing I didn’t find on the internet so far was how to say “why” in Tongan. That would be “ko e hā … ai” (and it is a sentence construction, with the thing you are asking the “why” about goes in the area with the three dots).

In summary:

  • Pronunciation is extremely easy
  • Verbs don’t really change but you note the tense of a sentence with a word that indicates tense.
  • Pronouns also change for tense too, they also can change depending on sentence structure (there are four forms of the word “I” covered above suited for different situation)
  • I didn’t touch upon it here, but possessives come in two classes. Read more about it on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongan_language#Possessive_pronouns
  • Idiomatic differences and learning what constitutes a “natural” construct will be your biggest obstacle in learning Tongan (more than anything else would be.

 

What’s more, Tongan also (unsurprisingly) has a lot of English Loan Words, and much like in Japanese, they will be adopted to local spelling conventions. This includes NAMES sometimes!

 

David – Tēvita

Mary – Mele

Science / Scientist – Saienisi

 

Tonga has great music that makes you feel as though you’re on an island (no, REALLY!) as well as a history that features it on center stage locally many times (it has been described as “expansionist”). Pieces of Tongan culture have been featured on the global stage, with the national drink, Kava, having its name COME from Tongan, as well as having costumes from Disney’s Moana / Vaiana modelled after the dress from the Tongan Royal Family, not also to mention it having been a playable mini-civilization in a mode of Civilization V (No joke!!!)

Polynesia as a whole (not to mention the Pacific Island cultures as a group) has been featured in many aspects of both American and Japanese popular culture (it was the colonial frontier for both of them!) As a result, many aspects of any of these cultures will be oddly familiar to you, given how both American and Japanese popular culture have impacted the world.

I have a long way to go with speaking the Tongan way, but it’s been SUPER fun (as well as challenging!) and I can’t wait to see how well I speak Tongan in a year’s time!

And now a song that will get stuck in your head!

Happy Tonga Day, world!

LEA FAKA TONGA

30-Day Speaking Challenge, or The Gift of Lao

Just the right thing I needed in order to drill the “ONE LANGUAGE AT A TIME” thing home: came across a link to a 30-Day Speaking Challenge in a Facebook group and decided to get in on the action before the new month of November came in.

You can read more about the challenge here: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/

For those of you who probably don’t want to click on the link, I’ll share the concept here: film / record yourself speaking a bit of your target language for thirty days in a row, publish the results in a group and get feedback / encouragement / what have you.

Now interestingly the language that I chose was Lao and there’s a strategic importance behind it:

  • It’s small enough for me to be passionate about it, but also is close enough to Thai to the degree that maybe a speaker of it could help me even if he or she hasn’t made much exposure to Lao. From what I know: they seem to differ in their pronoun usage as well as in some key words, not also to mention the fact that they use different (although similar) writing systems. What’s more, Lao tends to include pronouns in sentences and speech more often than Thai does (which can omit the pronoun the same way that Burmese or Japanese ordinarily would do. In layman’s terms: in Burmese I would say “have food” in order to indicate “[I] have food”, “there is food”, “we have food”, etc. That’s not passable in English [except in VERY casual speech] and in that respect Lao resembles English in which the pronouns are commonly used.
  • It’s tonal and if there is ANY language I would strongly need a community for, it would be a tonal language.
  • I correctly predicted that most people doing the challenge would be doing European Languages, wanted to get “other continents in on the action”.
  • I’ve had more exposure to my other tonal language, Burmese, as well as significant practice using it. That said, I may consider doing Burmese in a future 30-day speaking challenge.
  • I’m not an absolute beginner in Lao (A1 at the moment)

 

I just submitted my second recording to the spreadsheet and may consider publicizing the 30-day result depending on how much I like it. Hey, it seems that I’m 1/15th of the way done!

Here’s how I predict the challenge will affect me:

 

  • It will make me take my construction of the “Temple to Lao” more seriously.

 

When I was interviewed by Ari in Beijing in April, I mentioned the fact that the most important thing for learning a language is the fact that you need to build a “temple” to your target language within your time routines.

 

The only real way I’ve been doing that so far is with my YouTube channel. Sure, reading Lao dialogues out loud with some funny commentary and messing up the tones can be entertaining, but there’s so much more I could be doing.

 

I could become as immersed in Lao culture the same way I was with Greenlandic or Yiddish. I could truly feel as though understanding this poor and “forgotten” country is something I shouldn’t back away from.

 

My peers in the group have been very supportive of me thus far, and I’m thankful for that.

 

  • I Will Learn to Have More Mercy on Myself

 

I don’t speak languages from East Asia very well (although Burmese is by far my strongest out of…two…). I should expect to make mistakes and realize that I’m not getting any Lao trophies or getting to watch any Free Lao YouTube movies without any subtitles without a lot of work. And that work is going to involve discipline, learning how to make sounds I’m not used to, and, very importantly, on the importance of tones.

I hold myself to extremely high standards. A lot of people in the group are uploading recordings upwards of three minutes on the first day. Most of them are learning European Languages and are native speakers of European Languages so they have an advantage that I just don’t have. It’ll take me longer for me to make progress in Lao than it will for an English speaker to make progress with French.

And that’s okay.

And sometimes I worry that I mess up the tones entirely and completely.

And that’s okay too. For now!

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Explore Lao Culture and Identity as a Hobby as a Result of This Challenge. That will Enforce my Desire to Learn It More.

 

Already within these two days I’ve begun  to see it happen. I’m monumentally increasing my exposure to Lao and commitment to learning more about it, even if it involves reading books and travel blogs in English.

 

I’m beginning to see more of what the world looks like through Laotian eyes. And with each new culture I feel more human, more fulfilled and more righteous.

 

  • I Will Be More Inclined to Focus On One Task

 

I have a bunch of languages to improve, but I think that if I give the lion’s share of my focus to one task, I’ll be able to gain confidence more quickly and that will carry over to my other languages, both ones that I speak fluently and ones that I don’t speak as well.

Come to think of it, I’m feeling a lot better focusing more on improving just my Lao rather than improving Lao alongside Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and Tajik. I can maintain those on the side (or what I know of it), but I think that this focus is helping me fall in love.

And it seems that this is the beginning of something lovely!

LAO