My Finnish Language Journey: Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland!

finnish ain't hard

Yesterday and today buildings throughout the world were illuminated with blue lights in honor of the birthday of a country that has developed a stellar reputation well outside its borders in recent decades.

My journey with Finnish has been an interesting one, because it’s one that I learned how to speak well while leaving me in complete mystery in exactly HOW I pulled it off.

I’ve used all of the following:

  • Reading dialogues out loud
  • Reading grammar notes out loud from textbooks
  • Watching Disney film snippets and Pokémon in Finnish (dubbed versions)
  • Clozemaster
  • Transparent Language
  • Writing exercises
  • Later on (once I acquired B2 level) teaching the language to other people.
  • Language Exchange Groups (I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Finnish with real people in comparison to Swedish, Danish and Norwegian [especially the first two])
  • Songs (including passively, with lyrics and actively with karaoke)
  • Radio
  • Let’s Play Videos with Finnish commentary
  • Writing to people who speak the language.
  • Video games

 

Too often I get asked the question “what do you use to learn so many languages?”

The question should not be “what do you use to learn” them but “what DON’T you use to learn them?” I became successful with Finnish (despite the fact that I still feel as though I have a long way to go with it) because I threw EVERYTHING at it.

And that’s what a successful attempt to learn a language LOOKS LIKE! You don’t’ just expect to use “Duolingo” and get fluent (it’s in all likelihood not going to happen). You need to use AS MANY tools as possible to make a language a part of your life. The most successful of my language missions have had that, while those that were / are lacking are those in which I still have yet to use EVERY available means of using the language.

Looking back on the journey, here’s what I wish I told myself in 2012 when the Finnish Language and I seemed like we had a future together (which we DID!)

 

  • Throw Out Limiting Beliefs Immediately

 

Too many people are stuck with ideas that they’ll never be good, or that they won’t even be manageable. Others are stuck with ideas that they’ll just get answered in English all of the time. Yet others enter the world of Finnish and other target languages with a negative mindset, thinking that it is something they intend to lose as soon as they enter it.

I entered at first saying “I’ll see what I can get. I can always learn something and I can always learn more later”. But all the while I never DREAMED that I would be capable of mastering the grammar of the language, both colloquially as well as formally, the way that I did. And I should have thought even more than “I’ll manage”, I should have thought “I’m going to be GREAT!!!”

And this leads into another point…

 

  • Finnish (or any other grammatically rich language) is a giant feast. Savor each ingredient separately and don’t expect to gulf down EVERYTHING at once.

 

Many of the cases are straight-up prepositions (as is the case with the other Finno-Ugric Languages), but some other elements are more idiomatic. One that trips up my students regularly is the –ksi ending, which indicates that you are talking about a noun, and more specifically “given that it is that noun” or “into that noun” (e.g. transformation).

 

englanniksi sanoja – English(ksi) words(partitive)

 

English words, or, more accurately “given-that-they-are-English” “words-some-of-them”.

Okay now you have ONE concept, now see if you can manage personal endings for nouns (Kaveri [friend] + ni [my] -> “Kaverini” – “friend(s) of mine”) or the fantastic conjugating “no” (en -> I … not, not I. et – you (sing.) … not, not you, ei -> he/she/it …. Not, not he/she/it, etc.) usage of nuanced suffixes, verb conjugation, AND variant forms of verb conjugation and other grammatical features in colloquial speech! (These might not be in your textbook!)

Oh, and manage all of these concepts at once spoken by a native speaker at quick speed. Sure, the fact that Finnish words are always accented on the first syllable is going to help you, to some degree, as is the fact that some Finns speak very slowly in comparison to Romance Language speakers, but the grammatical buffet of Finnish is going to OVERWHELM YOU.

Unless, you take it in, bit by bit, and count every single one of the small victories.

This is true with other languages, but this is even MORE true with languages in which you might struggle with forming a simple sentence for weeks!

 

 

  • Use Flashcards and Other Similar Apps WITH Immersion for Progress

 

Memrise helped me reach my goals with Finnish but I couldn’t have done it with only them. I also had to use YouTube Finnish in order to bring words that I “vaguely” memorized in the app into a genuine context where they made sense.

Often when I was watching any amount of fun things in Finnish I would remember a word that I had seen in Memrise matching the context EXACTLY.

Unless a language is VERY closely related to one you know, or one that you’ve had experience being exposed to but have gaps in it (as is the case with Polish for me, for example), the flash cards by yourself are not going to be ideal.

But pair with other methods, everything builds off each other.

 

  • Being disappointed with your language progress means that you’re either studying too much or using the language without studying too much.

For all of my languages regardless of level, I noticed that there are some languages that I’ve STUDIED too  much to the exclusion of using them for fun (Irish) and others that I’ve USED too much without studying too much of them anymore (Greenlandic). To correct this imbalance, apply one or the other, depending on what you HAVEN’T been doing.

For much of my Finnish studies, I managed that balance PERFECTLY, more than with any other language I’ve studied. And I’m glad I did.

  • Small words mean a lot in making you sound like a fluent speaker.

 

Thanks to me having watched a lot of Pokémon in the Finnish dub (more than I care to admit) as well as a lot of gaming channels in Finnish, I’ve really learned how to use simple one-word expressions that make me sound believable when I put them in my speech (some of these qualify as “filler words” but not always).

 

Think about it: how often have you heard non-native English speakers say “very good” as opposed to “cool beans!” or “that’s great to hear!” (the latter of which are very American indeed, I think).

 

I got a lot of simple expressions like these thanks to me using Finnish in these “controlled environments”. They didn’t make me fluent, but they made me confident and believable with great regularity.

 

  • No language is too hard.

 

I don’t necessarily say “no language is too unlearnable” because I’ve tried to find some languages to learn in which I can almost seldom find ANY materials for them.

But even though a language like Greenlandic (and Burmese, later on) got me to almost doubt this, you need to keep in mind that, especially with more politically powerful languages, your L2 is learnable, even to near-native fluency. You just need to find methods that work, and utilize EVERYTHING you have in order to make it work.

The apps themselves are great, but they won’t make you fluent alone. Same for the books, videos and TV shows. Bring them altogether, and you’ll become someone who impressed almost EVERY native speaker you’ll meet.

 

That day can be yours! Go ahead and take it!

 

Let’s conclude with this, now, shall we?

 

How to Do Polyglot Karaoke, Even If There are Only English-Language Songs in the Catalogue

I’ve performed Karaoke songs in a total of thirteen languages to date, not only have I done languages like German and Swedish but also Breton and Greenlandic. In an era in which English-language songs seem to be taking over everywhere, how do I do it?

This piece has been requested for a long time no one has ever written a piece on this before, so I’m going to relate my procedure as best I can.

For one, let me detail the variety of karaoke events I’ve been to thus far in my life:

  • The ones that take place in a bar with many people that sign up and take turns. (In some Chinese ones, you also pay one dollar per song).
  • The room that you rent with your friends, and
  • The living room variety in which you and your friends scramble for what you can find on YouTube or other video services.

For (3), the process in singing songs in other languages can be fairly straightforward. Find songs in your target language that you know happen to exist in Karaoke versions and just sing away (given that I’ve never heard a Breton-language cover song, this is how I got that language on the list).

For (1) and (2), as I already mentioned, you’ll usually need to rely on foreign-language covers of English songs, although you may be lucky and find songs in western European and East Asian Languages in your catalogue (e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). This is particularly common in establishments in international cities owned by people from Latin America or East Asia.

If you are in another country, you will usually expect to find hit songs not only in that country’s language(s) but also in the languages of nearby countries. (One example that is hardly surprising is that Swedish songs can be found in many Finnish karaoke establishments. I have a vague memory of Polish ones having some German- and Russian-language songs as well, and had I been more astute at the time I might have noticed ones from other Slavic-speaking countries as well, such as Czechia or Ukraine.)

You can use your smartphone in order to have the lyrics on reference, or otherwise you can memorize them beforehand if you’re feeling committed.

So, where do I find foreign-language cover songs?

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

Ah, yes, these have been covered in a vast host of languages, almost all Asian and European (although The Lion King was dubbed in Zulu and Moana / Vaiana was dubbed in Tahitian with a Maori dub on the way). What’s more, these covers are due to the official localization efforts of the Disney Corporation.

You can find many of the lyrics for these versions available online, and even if you can’t find them on lyric websites, you could find them in videos (in which the localized language in subtitled) and then you can type them out and post them online or just e-mail them to yourself.

These are usually by go-to songs in multilingual karaoke, although there are some things to know about:

 

  • Some songs require very fast-paced singing or chanting (“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, “You’re Welcome” from Moana / Vaiana). Unless you’re okay with messing up in front of other people, rehearse these beforehand. Obviously the better you know the language the more readily you’ll be able to use it quickly.
  • Some languages are “latecomers” to the Disney localization game (the Baltic languages [Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian] as well as Vietnamese come to mind). Interestingly many of the Nordic dubs (and some from former communist countries such as Hungary) were actually done in the 1990’s. Interestingly while the voice of Bianca the The Rescuers was a native Hungarian speaker (Eva Gabor), she could not actually voice the character in the Hungarian localization because she was deceased by the time it was in production. Some of the localization collections cover the whole collection of Disney films (even Icelandic, oddly enough) others start from a certain point (I think the Baltic Languages were from 2010 onwards).

 

  • YouTube / iTunes Store Fiddling Can Actually Turn Up Some Interesting Song Covers Across Many Languages

 

Yesterday I purchased a Burmese music album (10 USD for 101 songs, that is NOT a typo!). Across that album (entitled “Greatest Hits”), I encountered past Eurovision Songs, Britney Spears, “You Raise Me Up”, and ABBA…in BURMESE.

I’ve come across a number of very surprising covers, including Chris Brown in Tok Pisin, “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a host of languages, and “You Raise Me Up” in GREENLANDIC:

 

 

There’s seldom a chance that typing in “covers in (INSERT LANGUAGE HERE)” is actually going to turn up meaningful results. You’ll just have to play around with recommended videos, playlists and what-have-you until something interesting comes to you. When I bought that Burmese album, did you think I was getting a bunch of cover songs? Well, it was in the iTunes store, but I don’t have the time to listen to 101 song previews and I hadn’t purchased any new music since early July.

This is one way that the fact that English songs are “taking over the world” can be used to your advantage: you can find fan-covers and fan-translations of a lot of these online. Sometimes you may encounter “singable translations” via lyricstranslate.com or even find them in YouTube Comments(!) And this time, you have many, MANY more languages represented.

Also, one thing I should mention is that a lot of English-language pop songs are commonly translated with singable versions into Irish, which probably has among the richest collection of cover songs out of any market out there (except for maybe Myanmar or other East Asian countries that, as of the time of writing, I don’t know a lot about).

 

 

A lot of these Irish songs also come with full lyrics and English-language translations of these Irish-versions.

 

Other Comments

 

You’re probably wondering, “won’t people think I’m a weirdo for doing this?”

Well, let me tell you, in the United States, I’ve got NOTHING but positive reactions from doing this (from the audience, at least). Some organizers have had mixed reactions but nothing wholly negative (one encouraged me to “sing in Klingon next time”)

I’ve even got some prospective students and friendships out of it, not also to the mention the time I was stopped by a stranger in a bar saying that he saw me sing the Lion King in Icelandic…five months ago! (I do an awful job at being forgettable…)

And, of course, if you’re together with your polyglot friends, you’re with people who think like you, so what more is there to want?

Also, people are not going to be judgmental about your accent, even if you encounter native speakers of the language (happened once when I sung a Polish song), you’ll actually get more enthusiasm from THEM than from anyone else out there.

One of my big life lessons from a few years ago was that “different always does better in the store”. In the store of life, as long as you abide by the social contract, being different and doing it differently will only do you wonders.

Happy singing!

Wesleyan University: A Reflection

Ten years ago today, I enrolled as a freshman at a place of local legend in Middletown, Connecticut.

Here I am today, a long time after that fateful day, and one degree and many, MANY transformations later, I am going to think about how the place and the people there (both the faculty and the students) affected me on the long term.

In short, looking at the journey I’ve undertaken thus far, what part of it was made possible by the red and black?

For those of you who probably stumbled on this page wondering exactly who I am (and who have no intention on clicking the “about” button at the top of the page), allow me to explain: I’m Jared Gimbel, I graduated in 2011 with a High Honors degree in the College of Letters Program and Classical Studies (with a Jewish Studies Certificate side-order).

Right now I do a lot of work with language learning and teaching, primarily with Jewish and Nordic languages (keep in mind that there was no department of Nordic Languages [e.g. Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic] when I was there at Wesleyan and I doubt that there will be in the near future, but I can dream…). I translate from many languages into English, primarily Danish and Yiddish, I have had conversations in 30+ languages over the course of my life and I haven’t even hit my 30’s yet as of the time of writing.

As to the “how many languages” question, I usually have to keep the number artificially deflated lest I encounter skeptics. But in a setting with people from many nationalities, the skepticism never lasts for long…

Most importantly, I’m working on a video game which is like a Pokémon  / Earthbound / Undertale / Final Fantasy set in a cute-cartoon version of contemporary Greenland. Set for release next year “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” promises to be a real treat and I and my team promise to deliver!

Okay, enough about me, more about college:

What did Wesleyan make possible for me?

 

  • The Kaleidoscope of Truth

 

Thanks in part to my religious education doubled with high school “teaching to the test”, I had been instilled with the idea of absolute truth, especially in the humanities.

Later on it occurred to me that, much like the kaleidoscope on my father’s coffee table, truth was something that could be adjusted. Much like I spin the kaleidoscope and I get a different image, I can spin the perspective and get a different truth.

The understanding that there is uncertainty in all things is liberating, and it also serves to eliminate limiting beliefs.

What’s more, it also helped me undo the shackles of my religious education that tried to tell me that there is a truth in all things and that it is absolute and genuine (and interestingly, I think the idea of makhlokiot [arguments and contentions] are an essential element of Judaism, something that rabbis I encountered later on in my life, including those at Wesleyan, made sure to deliver to me!)

Any system could be unmade and reconstructed from the bottom up. It taught me how to be a revolutionary, and this blog and my many ideas about language learning would have not been possible without it.

 

  • The Value of Exploration

 

So many people at Wesleyan University, especially the students, were endlessly curious about other cultures, other topics, other fields and were truly willing to try new things.

Granted, thanks to me being more socially conservative then than I am now (I almost never partied in college at all…) I wasn’t an explorer in every sense.

People were willing to look at all details, to make quaint observations, to bring up their life experiences and assist other people on the journey upwards.

At JTS, I didn’t find this exploration present to the same degree. Nor did I find it in Heidelberg as often. The same was true for Hebrew University. It is true that exploration was an essential part of the educational experience in all of these places, but Wesleyan’s curious student body outdid all of them.

I think most people in the world would like to be like that, except for the fact that they have limiting beliefs and low self-esteem that is preventing their true flourishing.

You deserve to flourish. No “I can’t”, no “I won’t”.  I’ll help you.

 

  • The Idea that the Road Less Travelled is Actually the Better Career Choice

 

A lot of insecurity pervaded people at Wesleyan, given how many jokes were told about liberal arts majors and how a lot of us were probably headed to unemployment directly after graduating.

But interestingly, what the education really did (for me, at least) was that it enabled me to become dynamic. It enabled me to see opportunities, not only related to employment and financial gain, but everything else, on a consistent basis.

A lot of people from other universities probably found themselves sucked into more predictable paths. I didn’t. I’m very glad that I didn’t, even though a lot of pain and self-doubt sprinkled the way to my current path.

People on predictable paths don’t tend to shake things up, plainly put. And you, regardless of where you went to school (or even if you didn’t) still have the possibility to live your dream life, just by thinking differently!

 

  • To Embrace a Quirky Personality While Maintaining a Social Contract

 

A lot of people are truly afraid of expressing who they really are. A lot of people at Wesleyan were not afraid of expressing who they really were.

A lot of personality showing is discouraged the world over, especially on the “way up”.

I could have gone somewhere else and become more conformist. I could have said fewer jokes or tried to reference pop culture more often or watch and consume the same media as many other people.

Instead, I decided to emphasize who made me different, knowing that I was the main character of the novel that is my life. I wanted that character to be memorable, funny and an experience-collector. Wesleyan enabled me to come to the realization that it was not only what I wanted, but that I wasn’t alone in wanting it.

The effect of the peer group at Wesleyan University was very, very powerful. And I am grateful for it every day.

 

  • Realizing that Taking in Wisdom from Multiple Fields is infinitely better than narrow focus

 

 

This is a big one, and one that served as a “gift that kept on giving” later on down the line. In my classes, I learned to apply various forms of wisdom from one discipline to another. In my professional life, I can notice patterns in successful projects and apply them in a completely different manner in projects of a completely different nature.

More simply put, even something like successful video game design can teach me about how to be a good teacher (e.g. knowing how the mind works and using that to create a more engaging class).

I took on a lot of projects throughout the years, including:

 

  • Concert Pianist
  • Educational YouTube Channel
  • Let’s Play YouTube Channel
  • Synagogue Cantor
  • Karaoke Master
  • Celeglot (Celebrity + Polyglot)
  • Language Teacher
  • History Teacher
  • Preschool teacher (when I was in Poland…don’t ask!)
  • Translator
  • Video Game Designer
  • Tabletop Game Designer
  • Comic Book Author (Really!)
  • Novelist
  • Blogger
  • Person who draws cute baby seals for a living (Okay, maybe I was joking…or was I?)

You can guess that I got a lot of experiences from all of these. What’s more, I gained wisdom from each and that wisdom strengthened all of my collective projects.d

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Higher Education serves a sinister purpose at times. It crushed my confidence significantly. It serves to  convince us that we have no choice but to be smaller than who or what we really are. What’s more, some educational systems have poisonous ideas in place to further competition, and the fact that the Dean’s List came to Wesleyan University during my last year was an extraordinarily bad idea.

It serves to create conformity, to really convince you that you’re not good enough and that obedience and learning to think like your teachers is the most important thing.

I’m not going to lie, Wesleyan did have these ills present from Prussian-style education systems as well. A lot of those ills did significant harm to me and continue to do so, but that’s a post for another time.

But hey, grades (whether they’re good or not) and whatever social standing you had in college (whether that was good or not) matter very little to you when you’re a 20+ language hyperpolyglot with the admiration of your friends, community and beyond, so there’s that.

That said, I realize that degrees are very valuable for career-building and connection-making, and Wesleyan did a very good job and minimizing a lot of the necessary evils of our conformist educational system.

What’s more, I wouldn’t have become a truly exploratory soul without the people I met there and the environment fostered there.

And despite everything, I’d like to ask for forgiveness and say thank you.

Wes U