5779: The Most Important Lesson I Learned

The most important lesson I had over the course of the (Jewish) year was the following one:

After giving both of my presentations in Bratislava, I was genuinely dissatisfied with them. I thought that I was too nervous, didn’t speak well enough, spoke with grammatical errors and that my accent wasn’t good.

I was so upset after they happened that I was on the verge of communicating with my family members in tears, thinking that I was a disgrace to my polyglot legacy and professional career.

I was genuinely scared for the talks to be posted online this week, but I was pleasantly surprised to recieve many messages saying how inspiring I was as a presenter, bringing my heritage languages and knowledge of places, languages and cultures threatened by climate change to one of the biggest conferences of its kind in the world.

There was genuinely nothing to be afraid of and I was judging myself way, way, way, way too harshly. And all the signs pointed to me having done a better job than my abysmal rating of myself.

I will have to cultivate self-mercy over the course of the coming year. Too often I have looked at my creative work sketches for “Nuuk Adventures” and thought “there is no way that this will sell at all”.

But the lessons of this year shows that we all have more strength than we estimate and that people are more forgiving than you think.

May Divine Mercy and self-love be with us all and a sweet 5780 to my Jewish friends!

 

Here are the presentations:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you do about it?

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

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

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

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

In summary (with some added tips):

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

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

kegn dem shtrom

90 Days of Greenlandic: 45 Days Left

So I tried out My Language Challenge for the first time (http://mylanguagechallenge.com/) and perhaps I should write a bit more about what it entails and how it has helped me speak Greenlandic better (and to what degree).

Here’s how it works (as of the time of writing):

At the start of the 90 days, you make a contract with yourself to study a certain amount every week (I had 30 minutes every day and so far I have only missed one day which so happened to be my father’s birthday). You register your progress on a spreadsheet as well with “Yes”, “No” and “Break” cells.

There are also Micro-Challenges sprinkled throughout, in which you are asked to complete a certain task 15 minutes every day for a week. The most recent one was “watch something for 15 minutes every day”, thankfully Greenlandic YouTube content is not only present in spades but also surprisingly good (and some of it comes with English subtitles!)

What’s more, the participants are put into groups to compete against each other, as well as groups of people studying the same language (as well as the “everybody else’s languages” category).

It somewhat reminds me of a project I did when I was 12 to study holy texts every day for twenty minutes in the memory of children murdered in the Shoah (this was when I was in the Orthodox Jewish day school, back when I knew VERY little about Greenland or the Arctic in general).

Lastly, the challenge entails a video component in which you are to make a video on Day 0, Day 30, Day 60 and Day 90, and they increase gradually in length depending on the level that you started at.

So how has my Greenlandic improved?

Well judging from the comments I’ve received on my videos and my increasing ability to read them better, I’ve been making “silent progress”, in a sense. My motivation still is in a state of emergency, my ability to read stuff has improved a lot, but I somehow still feel lost when listening to news broadcasts or things without a lot of context clues.

A lot of the studying I have been doing has largely been passive, with the exception of the Huggins International 30-Day Challenge with which I combined it so I would feel more natural speaking in front of a camera than I was previously. That has HUGELY improved my ability to put sentences together and also made me more aware of many of the suffixes.

Greenlandic native speakers usually tend to use more of the suffixes and stack them more readily, as opposed to foreign speakers from (Denmark / France / USA / elsewhere) who usually tend to use more discrete words. This sometimes creates something of a “foreigner-speak” in my opinion, although I haven’t nearly heard as many foreigners speak Greenlandic to get a scientific view of the process.

What’s more, I decided to satiate my desire to try out a lot of languages (many of which I’ve savored already) by using the prompts from the 30-Day Speaking Challenge to have three different ten-day challenges for languages I want to “flirt with”.

In another fifteen days I will probably have to make a longer video but at least this time I have a topic: a lot of Greenlandic followers have been asking me about my background so this next video will likely be about my life story.

Mother of the Sea and Me

My Motivation is in a State of Emergency

I just uploaded my Day 30 video for Greenlandic on Facebook (the final installment for the 90th day will be a conversation with a native speaker. And before you ask, yes, I have access to them. Many of them, in fact).

But I can’t help but notice over the course of the past month that, with the exception of financial earnings (and, to some degree, even that), my motivation is virtually gone. It has gotten so bad that I’m not even motivated to have fun anymore, oddly enough.

What exactly is going wrong?

20171023_135507

I can theorize.

  • The routines are not helpful at all

My retention from Memrise is virtually nil at this point, minus some occasional passive-understanding bonuses. It feels like a chore to me, almost, even for languages that I really, really want.

I remember when I was in Jewish school that there came a point in which I asked myself what the big idea about reciting the prayers every day was, given that I had recited them so often that I can (still) remember all of them. Now if only I could memorize OTHER languages with the same efficiency.

Which gives me another idea…

  • Create new routines

In Orthodox Judaism there is the idea that one should pray three times every day. A set of texts that are recited, partially out loud, partially silently, and also regulated by time constraints (the morning prayer, afternoon prayer and evening prayer all have to be recited at certain times).

Perhaps in some respects I should treat my phrasebooks like prayer books, and read through them, even silently, on a daily basis. That way, I can actively memorize a lot of the material very well even if I have only passive understanding of it.

  • I want to build other areas of my life, too

I want to be a better game designer, better at understanding relationships at all kinds, better at connecting with people with whom I have nothing in common. I love languages, but sometimes I feel that too much of them blocks other areas of development in my life as well and I have to be conscious of that.

 

So what do I do know?

Well, on top of the 30-day Speaking Challenge which I’ll be doing tomorrow for Greenlandic and likely either Hawaiian or Tahitian (I’m leaning towards the latter), I think I should follow the prayer book routine at least for a while and see where it gets me. I’ll probably do it with my Greenlandic phrasebook, recite one portion of the book in the morning, another in the afternoon and another in the evening. (Like in the Jewish understanding, sometimes I can stack the afternoon and evening sessions back-to-back).

That way I’ll have everything memorized before I know it and internalized with the exact precision with which I remembered the prayers.

This should be fun.

Oh, and the half-way point of 2019 is upon us.

See you in July!

People Who “Hate” Their Native Languages: My Perspective

Beware the Ides of March!

IMG_4473

Today’s topic is an interesting one that I’m surprised hasn’t been touched on in almost any language-learning blog I’ve encountered.

For many years I’ve heard comments like these:

 

“(Speaker’s native language) is the most useless language in existence”

“(Speaker’s native language) is only useful 0.1% of the time.”

“I suppose there are a lot better things to do with your time (rather than study my native language)”

“Why the fuck do you want to learn (speaker’s native language)?”

“I think my native language is boring”

“I would trade my native language for…”

 

I should mention two things:

  • I’ve been guilty of this myself. Part of me wishes that English wasn’t my native language. That was literally the second blog post I ever wrote about on this blog, actually!
  • Almost all of the people who made comments like these were westerners (although I’ve heard some people from Asia or the Americas do the same, too—but not as frequently. From Africa and the Pacific, not to date).

 

Before I continue I’m going to say that I do NOT include people who actively dislike their language due to trauma. (e.g. “my grandmother was a native German speaker from Nazi Germany and after she left she refused to speak German ever again”. Disclaimer: this describes neither of my grandmothers). That’s beyond the scope of what I feel qualified to talk about, and in the event you DO encounter someone like that, avoid that language altogether without questions. End of story.

 

But as far as ordinary people who somehow feel that they could trade their native language (or one of their native languages) for another one, there are some things that I’ve noticed.

 

  • Sometimes they just say that in order to get you to validate their native language.

 

YES. This has happened to me. Enough for me to write about it.

 

Only yesterday was I in a Talmud class and we had a discussion about the fact that, according to Jewish law, prospective converts have to be refused three times (in order to show that they are genuinely serious about becoming Jewish, regardless of what liabilities it may bring them in the future).

 

Sometimes someone who says “why bother learning (my language) if so few people speak it / everyone in my country speaks English anyhow / it’s ‘useless’” may actually want you to justify your decision passionately. Or they may actually want to hear your story in detail but don’t want to ask directly.

 

The more fluent you are in a language, the LESS this will happen, especially if your accent is good.

 

There’s a reason for that, actually. Because if you speak it well enough, it shows that you’ve had a good enough reason to invest a lot of time into it, so your reason will almost CERTAINLY not be within the realm of questioning (e.g. having done business there, married to or dating a native speaker, etc.)

 

  • If they use ANY amount of the language with you at all beyond basic greetings, they really DON’T hate their native language. Especially if they show telltale signs of enchantment.

 

If they did (and yes, I have encountered a handful of cases in which they did), they wouldn’t smile if you speak their language, they would instead appear disgusted and a tad confused. They wouldn’t be continuing the conversation in the “useless language” and playing along with you with smiles as they do it.

 

This is the case with me and English. I may have extremely conflicted opinions about American English, but if someone wants to learn it from me, I’ll usually play along rather than act frustrated (especially if someone really needs help with his or her English). Because whether I like it or not, American-ness is a part of who I am (in addition to my other identities).

 

  • Sometimes this attitude can reflect a certain sense of jealousy (that we ALL have) about speakers of certain languages.

 

I’m hugely jealous of Greenlandic native speakers. I make no secret of that fact. (It still remains the hardest language I’ve ever attempted to learn, bar none, to the degree that if someone lists a major language as the hardest to learn, I’m secretly scoffing on the inside.)

 

Throughout Europe I’ve met many people who view American English native speakers as lottery winners and view them with a certain sort of jealousy that they can’t hide. And yes, you will make friends JUST by virtue of that fact alone, especially with people who feel that they need the conversational practice or even knowledge about American culture (this is true no matter WHAT your native language is, actually! Someone out there is looking for you! This can also be the case if you’re a fluent speaker of a language, even non-natively).

 

My knowledge of whatever native languages I can’t have and I can’t catch up with will almost certainly never be on the level of a native speaker. But I can try and keep learning. And if it is of any comfort to you, my knowledge of other English-speaking cultures and their idioms are also going to be out of reach in terms of “perfection” as well.

 

But you don’t need to be a native speaker to be good. Far from it, in fact.

 

  • Unless someone brings up a traumatic incident or shows signs of vexation, do NOT take “I hate my native language / I think it’s useless” comments seriously.

 

And there also is a chance that you just MIGHT need to get better at their language in order to get them to warm up to you!

 

One last thing: you can actually use this to your advantage to keep conversations in your target language (which I’ve noticed is becoming less and less of an issue the more experienced I get. It was a noteworthy issue back in 2014 and is almost NOTHING now, but we’ll see how Austria and Slovakia fare later this year on that front). Benny Lewis famously would bring up his English-language Catholic school experiences in order to guilt people away from using English with him in places like Spain. I’ve never had to go to that length but I’m certainly willing to describe the darker sides of my American experience (which I won’t go into right now).

 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

The Mindsets of a Young Hyperpolyglot

A lot of people ask me how I managed to acquire working knowledge of 10+ languages despite my young age.

Even seasoned professors managed to wonder how I could present on many topics before college classes with such clarity…or, as I often get, “how does all of that information fit in your head?”

Well, I don’t believe in keeping secrets and so today I let forth everything that I did right and, more importantly, that I did DIFFERENTLY.

2015-08-18 13.23.59

  • I make efficient use of “dead time.”

This is probably the MOST important thing that will net you results with your time. Do this within a week, and you’ll notice significant results in any goals you have your heard on attaining.

If I’m on the subway and standing? I’m listening to audio in one of my target languages.

Am I working out? I’m doing very much the same.

Waiting for an appointment? Flashcards or books. Easy.

This is the difference between someone who struggles with their second language and someone who becomes a hyperpolyglot. This is, to some degree, the only difference. But there are other ones worth mentioning.

 

  • I focus on what I REALLY WANT.

How do I manage to learn many things succinctly? Easy. I find things that I like and I focus on them.

This results in a situation where I focus more on the languages I care about than those that most in society would deem “useful”. But so what? Better to have knowledge of something you care about DEEPLY than to have forced knowledge that someone else thinks or says is a good idea.

Obviously, if your “language love” is a global language, choose that. If it’s a small national language or minority language, choose that too. But remember this: the very thought of studying it should be like getting a treat to you. If that isn’t the language you’re learning right now (or ones you’re maintaining), pick ones that DO fit that bill.

 

  • I have an ego (and I’m not afraid to admit it. On here, at least).

 

I have a drive to be the best and be a legend. Admittedly not everyone has that drive. And that’s okay.

What really drives me to accomplish things is a sense that…I’m not ashamed to admit it, I like attention. And it’s not a bad thing, as long as you use it for HELPING others in your community and building yourself in a positive way. (Make yourself into a hero, not a villain who tramples on others for the sake of puffing themselves up.)

In line with that: while I am not a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I am a descendant of pogrom survivors and, to some degree, I see that I have to life a good life as much as I can for the sake of my distant family members (including other Ashkenazi Jews as a whole) who didn’t get that opportunity.

 

  • I’m fluid in my identity.

I post about Pacific Islands regularly, as I do with Greenland, Jewish culture, Scandinavia, video games, stupid puns and countless other topics besides. I see a gift of living in the contemporary world with infinite masks.

Making someone curious about the world is one of the SUREST ways to make the fluent in several languages. And the fact that I’ve found myself confused about who I am for most of my life (including as I write this) helped with that, even though it harmed me in many other respects.

And another important thing is…

 

  • I don’t ask myself “what do I use to learn a language?” Instead, I ask myself, “what DON’T I use to learn a language?”

 

I think of my life as in need to “mobilization strategies”, as what the United States did during the Second World War and also what I hope it (and all of human civilization) will do for the sake of saving the climate and the human future.

If I have a goal, I have to warp my life as much as possible to point towards the directed outcome. Make sacrifices. Build habits. Make the right friends. Join the right groups. Surround myself with material conducive towards fulfilling that goal.

There’s a difference between using one method to learn something (what many people do, especially with apps [and those apps are usually more invested in their profit than getting you to learn and this is no secret at all]) and those who use almost ANY method they can get their hands on to learn something.

And it doesn’t all have to be book-learning either!

If you want your life to change, you will have to change your life.

And the good news is that anyone can do that. At any time!

Onward!

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

Happy February everyone!

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

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

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

Fotka Jareda Gimbela.

WHAT MY COSTUME SHOULD BE:

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

WHERE I GET INSPIRATION:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy costuming!