Venturing into Languages Highly Dissimilar to Your Own: Helpful Tips

Many of you will have the feeling of beginning to learn a new language in which you recognize almost nothing. Vocabulary you know is scant, the grammatical patterns are different and you feel that the path of least resistance is to give up.

I highly recommend you don’t give up…because learning a language highly dissimilar to your own (whether it be your own native language[s] or ones you’ve already learned as an adult) IS possible. You will need to adjust your ways of thinking ever-so-slightly.

The good news is that you can harness various skills you have used to acquire your native language (or other languages you know) to learning your new language that seems as though it belongs on another planet.

Given that my native language is English, let’s look some of my languages in terms of “how different they are” from English on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 is very similar to English, 5 is very different. Keep in mind that this is NOT the same thing as difficulty per se.

 

1: English Creole Languages, Languages of Mainland Scandinavia, Spanish, German, Yiddish

2: Icelandic, Fiji Hindi

3: Hungarian, Finnish, Fijian, Hebrew, Irish

4: Kiribati / Gilbertese, Palauan, Tuvaluan, Burmese

5: Greenlandic, Lao, Khmer, Guarani

 

The further you get away from the West, the more likely you are to encounter languages that go up the scale. The languages in (1) are very tied to the west on multiple fronts (e.g. Atlantic Creoles, German, Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish all influencing American culture to profound degrees) the languages in (3) have all been profoundly impacted by Germanic-speaking cultures but still maintain a lot of distinctness. With that said, the English influence (add German in the case of Hungarian and Swedish in the case of Finnish) is undeniable in a language like Fijian or Hebrew (given that both were under British rule).

A friend of mine was diving into Korean and he found himself struggling to remember words. And that’s NORMAL. I had that experience with all the languages 2 and higher with the higher numbers requiring more of it.

That said, there ARE ways to remember words in languages highly different from your native tongue EVEN if it seems impossible now.

 

  • Make Connections Between Words in the Language

 

Instead of looking OUTSIDE the language for connections to words you already know (as would be the standard practice in Romance or Germanic Languages if you’re a native English speaker, or even Indo-European Languages further afield), look INSIDE the language.

 

In Hebrew I encourage my students to look out for “shorashim” (or root words). These are sets of letters that will encapsulate similar meanings when seen in a sequence. Like in Arabic, the letters will dance around various prefixes, suffixes and vowel combinations that will change the meaning ever-so-slightly.

 

A more concrete example is with Fijian. The prefix “vaka-“ indicates “possessing the characteristics of, possessing …”. As such, you can collect additional words by looking at words with this prefix and then learning the form of the word without “vaka-“ in the front. Let’s have a look:

 

 

Wati – husband, wife, spouse

 

Vakawati – married (vaka + wati -> possessing a spouse)

 

 

To find words that are similar in this respect, one method you could use is to have an Anki Deck of an extensive vocabulary (what is “extensive” would depend on your short- and long-term goals with the language). Look up a root in the deck and you’ll see all words that have it:

 

palopuhuja lol

 

The folks at Transparent Language have said that, minus memory techniques, you would need to see a word anywhere between five to sixteen times in order to remember it permanently. A huge advantage is that you can get exposed to one root and its derivatives very quickly in this regard.

 

Even with a language like English, you can do the same with a verb like “to take” which is idiomatically rich when combined with prefixes (to overtake), suffixes (to take over) or direct objects (to take a break).

 

Out of all of the languages I have learned, the same principle holds and can be taken advantage of.

 

  • Do the Words and Expressions You Want to Learn Tell Any Stories?

 

Let’s take the Lao phrase  ຂໍ ໂທດ (khɔ̌ɔ thòot). It would mean “I’m sorry” but it literally means “request punishment”.

 

Various languages don’t have a very “to have”, instead they would say something like “there is upon me” (Finnish) “there is by me” (Russian), “there is to me” (Hebrew, although Hungarian also does something similar sometimes) or “there is my X” (where X is a noun – Fijian, Kiribati / Gilbertese and Hungarian do this)

 

Arcane sentence structure can actually be an ADVANTAGE in some respects. Greenlandic’s mega-long words can be a great conversation starter AND something for you to remember.

 

Words, phrases and idioms tell stories in your native language too, but chances are you probably won’t be aware of them and if you do eventually, it may be after a decade or two of speaking it, if not more.

 

  • Associate Various Words with Entertainment or Things that Have Happened in Your Life

Scene: a synagogue event.

I got “Colloquial Hungarian” earlier that day. I met a Hungarian girl and the only thing I know is a basic greeting. I ask how to say “pleased to meet you” and she says “örülök hogy megismertelek”. You can imagine how much I struggled with this simple sentence on day one, much to her laughter and those looking on.

The fact is, I never forgot the phrase since. Because I associated it with that incident.

You can also do the same with individual words and phrases that you may have heard through songs, song titles, particularly emphatic scenes in movies, books or anything else you consume for entertainment in your target language.

The over-dramatic style of anime actually helped me learn a significant amount of Finnish phrases as a result of “attaching” them to various mental pictures. Lao cinema also did something similar. Pay attention ever-so-slightly to the texture of the voice and any other details—these will serve as “memory anchors”. It’s a bit like saving a GIF to your brain, almost.

  • Hidden Loan Words from Colonial Languages.

The Fijian word for a sketch / painting is “droini”. Do you see the English cognate?

It’s the word “drawing” –Fijianized.

Do be aware, though: some English loan words can mutate beyond their English equivalents in terms of meaning. Japanese is probably infamous for this (in which a lot of English loan words developed lives and meanings of their own, much like Hebrew loan words in Yiddish sometimes found themselves detached from their original meanings in Hebrew).

Another example: Sanskrit and Pali words in languages of Southeast Asia in which Theravada Buddhism is practiced. Back to Lao. The word ປະເທດ (pa-thèet) may be foreign to you as the word “country”, but you’ve probably heard the word “Pradesh” before in various areas of India, even if you know nothing about India too deeply (yes, it is the same word modified for Lao pronunciation). The second syllable in particular may be familiar to you as the “-desh” from “Bangladesh”.

Which brings me into another point…

  • Do You Recognize any Words through Proper Nouns?

 

Tuvalu is a country in the South Pacific. It means “there are eight”. The Fijian word for to stand permanently or to be built is “tu” and the word for eight is “walu”. Fijian and Tuvaluan are not the same language but they are family members. You can recognize various other words by determining what place names mean or even names of people you know (whether well-known historical characters or your personal friends).

 

Another example: Vanuatu. Vanua in Fijian is a country or a place. Tu is the SAME root that we have in “Tuvalu” (yes, the “tu” in “Tuvalu” and “Vanuatu” mean THE EXACT SAME THING!) Vanuatu roughly means “here is our country” (or “country here”)

 

Again, this is something you can do for many languages. I remember doing in in Germany as well.

 

Lastly…

 

  • Embrace the Differences in the Grammar

I was amused by the fact that the Tuvaluan word for “to understand” is “malamalama”. I posted it in a small polyglot group. A friend of mine who studies mostly languages from Western Europe and the Middle East asked me to conjugate it.

Tuvaluan doesn’t have verb conjugation. It instead puts particles before a verb to indicate tense. “Au e malamalama” -> I understand -> I present-marker understand.

Surprisingly this system (not entirely foreign to me because of having studied other languages in that family) was not foreign to me. But I learned to like it. A lot.

Feel free to tell interested friends about what makes your different language very different in terms of grammar. Some may even be intrigued about the fact that many languages don’t have an equivalent of “to have”.

There are some things that are a bit difficult to embrace, such as Greenland’s verb conjugation that has transitive forms for each pair (in normal English, this would me an I X you form, an I X him / her / it form, an I X all of you form, an I X them form, a you X me form, a you X him / her / it form … FOR EVERY PAIR).

That said, your love of your new language will find a way.

I’m sure of it!

ga

May 2018: Sometimes Losing Focus is Necessary (and Plans for June!)

Not all plans are realized, and that’s okay. Especially given that May was considerably tumultuous for multiple reasons. For one, I needed to go into overdrive concerning “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” as well as the fact that I found myself more often without the motivation to rehearse languages and doubted myself more than I usually do.

That said, any variety of victory is to be celebrated. I devoted the first third of this month to Rotuman, a minority languages of Fiji, and it was very difficult for me to make recordings due to the fact that sometimes making a simple sentence took ten minutes that I had to cross-check from several sources. (THIS is what it is like learning a minority language with extremely few resources, this warrants its own post).

There is a new website devoted to Rotuman and I may glance at it at some point in the near future or even devote videos to it.

In addition to that, I got sidetracked a bit too often in May. Kiribati for the beginning, Hawaiian in the middle, and above all I had Fijian hogging almost all of my time to the detriment of any new “acquired” languages.

What’s more, rehearsing languages like Spanish and German feels like a dull chore (and Jewish and Nordic Languages, well, I sort of have to in order to continue teaching and so that really renews my motivation. I make no secret of the fact that I “don’t love popular languages any more than I have to”, although maybe the Jared of the future will be different in this respect).

May was a tornado for way too many reasons to count, and I got sidetracked and I did make a lot of new videos or new blogposts and that’s okay.

But this really enables me to clearly define my goals for June:

For one, I’ve decided to priority for the REST OF THIS YEAR one of my prominent heritage languages, Hungarian. 30 Minutes a day, every day (excluding emergencies, illnesses, travel, etc). If I don’t, I delete my blog. I may miss one day if I make up the minutes the previous day.

I’ll also let on the fact that it is my intention in the more distant future to raise my children multilingually (ideally in English / Spanish / Hebrew and two heritage languages from both my side and my spouse’s side). That’s a topic I’m not qualified to speak about quite yet.

For June, in addition to 30 minutes of Hungarian every day I’ll most likely choose to focus on a Southeast Asian Language (given that my Fijian is probably good enough to join the ranks of my conversationally fluent languages). The likely candidates are Lao and Khmer, the less likely candidates are Burmese and even Thai (which would be close enough to Lao to not be stressful, I can understand a significant amount of some of the Disney Animated Films dubbed in Thai because of my Lao studies). Vietnamese, while I like it, would probably be too stressful at this point, not withstanding my promise of no new languages for this year (I did study Thai previously, even with an exchange teacher, so I can re-activate it if necessary but it seems unlikely now that I’ll do so).

The biggest challenge for me right now is not only maintenance but also learning to believe my good fortune. Thanks to some unsavory encounters online I’ve actually learned to lie about my language skills–by downsizing them or claiming I speak fewer than I actually do. This is true even in person.

I also feel right around the time that there are certain languages that I “don’t feel the spark with” anymore, and I may have to drop some accordingly. I’ve noticed this happens right around the time that the seasons change.

In addition to this, I think I do need to devote at least ten minutes (if not thirty) to each of my fluent languages every week. Ones I teach are exempt from this (given that the classes count towards this quorum). This will almost certainly be time spent in public transport or waiting for it rather than anywhere else.

Here I am in Milwaukee at my grandmother’s house, bidding you greetings and wishes for success. Now I’m going to ponder as to which Southeast Asian Language I like the best. 🙂

20170520_122138

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!

My First Post of 2018: Looking Inside My Soul (+Happy Birthday, Slovakia!)

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Let’s just do the lazy thing and get the list of goals for 2018 over with. Yes, it’s large, but I set very high standards for myself. Even if I don’t make them, I’ll ensure that I’ll still do very, very well!

  • Master Hungarian, Lao and Greenlandic (B2 or higher)
  • Get the Scandinavian Languages to C2 (understanding virtually EVERYTHING written or spoken)
  • Make significant gains with Hebrew, Finnish, French, Breton, Icelandic, Jamaican Patois and Sierra Leone Creole.
  • Gilbertese and Uyghur at B1 or higher
  • Learn Comorian to A1 at least.
  • Vincentian and Antiguan Creoles at C1 or higher
  • Brush off Russian, Irish, Cornish and Ukrainian (B2 in them would be great!)
  • Tongan, Palauan, Mossi, Welsh, Persian and several Indian languages to A2 or higher.
  • Learn Swahili, Khmer, Haitian Creole, Basque, Fijian and Fiji Hindi in earnest.
  • Colloquial Arabic dialects (esp. Sudanese) to A2
  • Diversify my language practicing materials.
  • Gloss articles in languages I speak and read and put versions of them online for learners making them “learner-friendly”.
  • Continue that same work of throwing away limiting beliefs and practice all of my languages for 3 minutes a day at least one day a week.
  • Come out with a new polyglot video every season (Winter / Spring / Summer / Autumn). They don’t have to showcase ALL of my languages at once, but at least show something.
  • Start a “Coalition Blog” with folks like Kevin Fei Sun, Miguel N. Ariza and Allan Chin and … anyone else I forgot! Guests welcome!

Also, no new languages for 2018. I will make exceptions for picking up new languages for travel, business purposes or relationships that sprout up as a result of various happenings.

Anyhow, with each passing year it occurs to me that what becomes more and more important is not so much learning new words and expressions but rather developing mental strategies.

I could be fluent in a language but if I’m in a negative headspace words will elude me. I’m certain that anyone reading this has also had them happen when speaking their NATIVE LANGUAGE.

Anyhow, here are some difficulties I’ve been noticing;

  • I remember from “Pirkei Avot” (a Jewish text about ethics and life in general that I’ve periodically mentioned on this site) that it is said that “the reward for a good deed is another good deed, and the reward for a bad deed is another bad deed”. Namely, positive feedback ensures that you’re likely to continue to speak and act in your most optimal manner, and negative feedback will drag you down in a similar way.

I’ve noticed this at Mundo Lingo. I speak the Scandinavian Languages “very, very well” (that’s what Richard Simcott told me, so I believe him). So when there’s a Swedish native speaker who shows up, I’m in a good head-space and then I speak languages that I usually am not so good at (French, for example) better than I normally do.

 

On the other hand, sometimes I’ve heard racist comments at Mundo Lingo (yes, it does happen!) Or people disparaging me for my choice of languages. As a result, I’m in no good headspace to do anything, because it feels like I’ve been “wounded” and will act accordingly.

 

I think one way to counter this is to usually start the day with some good feedback. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to post daily in a closed group called “Polyglot Polls” (you can join if you’d like! Just let me know) Given that a lot of open-minded and curious people are in that group, ones who mutually support each other with their missions, it helps put me in a good headspace. It is a good thing to start any day with.

 

  • Imposter syndrome in the polyglot community runs a bit like a fear of turning out like Ziad Fazah, the polyglot who claimed to fluently speak 59 languages and, on live television…well, he was asked what day of the week it was in Russian and said that he couldn’t understand it because it was Croatian.

 

Only this past weekend I was asked to count to ten in Tongan (a language that I am weak at) and, sadly, I couldn’t do it. But I don’t claim to speak Tongan fluently. But still I felt down.

 

I think moments like these are good for recognizing my weak points. Even in our native languages, we have them. It’s not a reflection that you’re a fake, it reflects on the fact that you have something that needs patching. That’s what life is. Telling you where you aren’t doing well and bringing you on the path to recovery.

 

Unlike Ziad, I don’t claim to have any divine gift for languages. I just spend a lot of time struggling with things until I get them. The contemporary schooling modules have taught us that learning isn’t supposed to be about struggling. That’s not true in the slightest, certainly not at the advanced levels of anything.

 

  • The last one: sometimes I feel that I’m falling into the trap of thinking that I became a polyglot for the sake of others rather than for my own sake.

Again, to tie in Jewish themes, in studying holy texts and observing ritual we use a phrase “Leshem Shamayim” – literally, “To the name of Heaven”, figuratively, “for heaven’s sake” and more figuratively “doing something for love of the subject-matter rather than for acquiring validation, reputation, praise or any other contemporary form of social currency”.

Every dream chaser has felt poised between doing something “leshem shamayim” and doing something for the sake of personal gain or admiration of others. I have to resist that, now more strongly than ever.

20171027_173837

Professor Alexander Arguelles (right) and yours truly, Jared Gimbel (left)

On a side note, I’d like to wish my Slovak and Slovak-speaking friends a happy Independence Day!

May 2018 be full of blessings, everyone!

Why Lao is Easy

It seems that it wasn’t long ago I heard someone in my general studies class at my Jewish “middle school” pronounced “Vientiane” as “vee-ent-tee-ane” (it’s pronounced “vee-en-chan”).

Many years later, I fell in love with the Lao language after having encountered it in my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia Phrasebook (which I primarily purchased for Burmese but in 2014 [YEARS before I even deemed it a possibility that I would set foot there] there wasn’t a standalone Burmese language guide that could fit in my pocket).

November led me to great strides in Lao, and today is December 2nd, which is Laos’ National Day (an anniversary of a communist takeover, no less). Given my tradition of writing pieces on national holidays (despite the fact that I sometimes have forgotten a few), it seemed appropriate for me to just take this opportunity to write this piece.

Take a look at the intro for a German-Language Lao Book:

lao easy yaa

“Laotisch – Wort für Wort”

Translation: “Barely anyone believes it at first: Lao is easy to Learn! The new letters seem too hard, the six tones seem barely learnable and the completely different-sounding vocabulary inscrutable. After many years’ time as a resident in Laos, I would, on the contrary, offer this to those interested and wanting to learn it: Lao is, for German-speakers, really quite easily learnable! It’s worth it!”

 

My 30-Day Journey in the Lao Language aligned PERFECTLY with this understanding, despite the fact that I’m not fluent in Lao (yet) and have significant gaps in my vocabulary.

But as far as grammar is concerned, Lao is very simple.

I remember one time that I was leaning on a bar during Language Exchange NYC. A middle-aged woman had told of her troubles with Spanish verb conjugation and asked me what language I was focusing on. I told her about Lao, and she proceeded to tell me exactly “how hard” it would be to learn an Asian language.

I told her that I could literally summarize Lao verbs in ten seconds. So I said this:

 

“Verbs never change.

To indicate past tense, put “ແລວ” (lὲεw) after the verb.

To indicate future tense, but “ຊິ” (sī) or “ຈະ” (já) before the verb.

DONE”

 

No need to plaster your apartment with conjugation tables (as I’ve seen many students of languages like Spanish, French and German do during my college years).

 

Lao has no grammatical gender either, and a lot of the gendered language that Thai (its sister language) has (namely, that men and women will say hello differently) was done away with (yada yada yada, communism). While languages like Thai and Khmer have “pronoun zoos”, Lao’s pronoun system is significantly simplified, making it similar to that of English.

There ARE some honorifics left, but the royal language that still exists in Thai was made illegal by the communist regime.

Some languages like Yiddish have a wealth of possible plural forms (I mentioned Yiddish because it has the most possible, I think, of any language I know of, given that they draw from Germanic, Slavic AND Hebrew sources). Lao doesn’t change any of its nouns, instead using classifier words.

In English, you can say “two coffees” but it would be more proper to say “two cups of coffee”. The “cups” is a classifier words that you use in order to indicate things that come in small drinkable containers. It also has another meaning (classifier words are wont to have other meanings).

 

Much like languages like Spanish, there are two verbs meaning “to be” in Lao, but they are divided along different lines.

One of them is used primarily for objects “ແມ່ນ” (mε̄εn) and another is used primarily for people “ເປັນ” (bpen). Oh, and between nouns and adjectives, you can just leave out a verb altogether! (This would be like saying “it very good”.

 

There were also pieces that reminded me of other languages that I had studied. Much like Bislama, Lao uses the word “to say” in order to mark an indirect statement (like the “that” in “I know that Lao is beautiful”.) Much like languages with strong influence from holy religious languages (Yiddish, Tajik and Burmese also qualify with influence from Hebrew, Arabic and Pali respectively), Lao also has loanwords from … Pali, a holy language of Theravada Buddhism. Pali words are also used in Burmese, Thai and Khmer (despite the fact that these three are spread across THREE different language families).

Because Pali is Indo-European, that meant that I noticed some similarities and cognates to words from the Indo-European family tree (spanning from India to Iceland), not to mention more direct cognates to Burmese (via Pali) which I had previously studied (and am focusing on right now!)

 

Articles in Lao are…compeltely non-existent, as is the case with many languages throughout the world. I’ve also noticed that Lao news broadcasts are significantly spoken more slowly than those in many other Asian languages. I could more readily recognize English loan-words and place names (despite the fact that loan words from European languages are significatly rare except for place names).

 

Above all, the Lao language is fascinating and already I’m starting to use it on YouTube in order to enjoy a wealth of independent films (and I can’t wait for the day in which I’ll be using it to read literature in depth!).

Lao films tend to be interesting because I’ve seen a significant amount of them that work the Hollywood formula in reverse: everything is going fine, and then everything falls apart IN THE WORST WAY POSSIBLE (that doesn’t involve monsters or special effects). Again, I have a lot more of the Lao independent cinema to explore, so there’s that.

To many more years with you!

Lao 30 Day Wow wow wow

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

Last Weekend in the US Before the Polyglot Conference: Where Do I Stand?

Monday I head to Iceland, Wednesday I head to Greenland, and here I am writing this piece from Brooklyn, wondering if I’m going to leave my language missions abroad (and the Polyglot Conference itself) with a great sense of relief or accomplishment or covered with clouds of self-doubt.

More recently I’ve been having nightmares in which I bring my security as a polyglot into question (e.g. online comments popping up [in my DREAMS, mind you] that tell me that my accent is bad and that I’m a fake, or in which I’m asked to speak to people in their native language and, well, these have been all over the board. Some have been stutter-worthy, other instances in which I’m practicing in my dreams have involved me doing WAAAAY better than my conscious self could imagine.)

Also, I’ve had dreams more recently in Burmese, Tongan and…Gilbertese! (My Burmese is probably at around A2 right now, Tongan at A1, and Gilbertese can be A2 if I can do EVERYTHING right in the next few days.)

In the meantime, however, I’ve decided to hit the “pause” button” on my studies of Fiji Hindi, Guarani and Khmer (although I’ll continue to do them after the Conference and, of course, in my YouTube series).

A huge break for me is the fact that I’ve been capable of mastering spoken Jamaican Patois in nearly a week (!!!!!!) Granted, Trinidadian Creole and Sierra Leone Krio are EXTREMELY close to these (Krio has more African influence, Trinidadian Creole has more English influence, and then there’s my stunt with Belizean Creole [or “Bileez Kriol”] that also really helped with solving the Jamaican Mystery more quickly than I had expected. Also, for many Americans, Jamaican Patois is hardly anything foreign, thanks to the influence of Jamaican music and culture all over the globe.)

The only “weak” language I’m working on (I have to focus on ONE in order to get it good enough at this point) is Gilbertese.

So here’s my currently lineup right now! (ESTIMATING my levels:)

 

A1 – Gilbertese, Tongan

A2 – Lao, Burmese, Hungarian, Polish

B1 – French, Irish, Greenlandic, Cornish

B2 – Hebrew, Finnish, Breton, Spanish (EU), German, Icelandic, Krio, Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole

C1 – Tok Pisin, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish

C2 – Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin

Native – English (US)

 

That’s a total of 27 (And I usually don’t tell people that Solomon Islands Pijin is my STRONGEST foreign language!) I may have underestimated my B2’s and overestimated my B1’s.

If I count those I forgot (which I MAY be inclined to use on various occasions, no idea how I would manage with any of them given how seldom I’ve studied them for MONTHS), this brings the list significantly higher (30+), but most of those I forgot are in the A1-A2 level.

My study routine before this conference was significantly less organized and less effective than my study routine before the 2015 conference. It was extremely scatterbrained but this time I have the added advantage of having an immersion environment for three different languages before the conference (Greenlandic, Danish and Icelandic). Again, that is likely to prove a big confidence booster or a confidence wrecker. Whatever the case, I’ll manage with significantly more wisdom after the fact.

The biggest gift I’ve had this year for language learning has been the fact that I have return to Anki.

I was struggling a lot with Spanish especially over the course of multiple years and I’ve noticed that extensive vocabulary lists in languages that I have already mastered the grammar of have turned my mind into an unbeatable machine (whenever I’ve had significant practice with Anki earlier than day in the relevant language, that is).

The only reason I adopted Anki at all was because I was expecting to go on a Trek with no Internet in Myanmar (it didn’t end up happening, although I did visit the country back in May) and knowing that I had to resume teaching right afterwards meant that I couldn’t show signs of being “rusty” upon returning from my trip. Luckily I got the consistent practice and a lot more.

Goals right now:

  • Get a good accent in the languages I may have not been exposed to as much (Gilbertese and Tongan especially). Listening to music and radio will help.
  • Get a FLAWLESS accent in the Carribean Creoles.
  • Hone tones in Burmese and Lao
  • Complete my Lao Anki course (DONE!)
  • Complete my Krio Anki course (probably not going to happen but I’ll try!)
  • Complete my Gilbertese Memrise course (REALLY not happening but the more progress I’ll make, the better).
  • Devote time on transport to memorizing words as best I can.
  • Develop a morning routine in which I can get exposed to all languages in less than an hour (to be used the mornings before the days of the conference, may choose to skip languages that I’ve been using frequently or if I’m feeling REALLY secure in them).
  • Ask my friends to write comments in the languages in the lists above.
  • MENTAL DISCIPLINE. I have to let go of all my previous failures and be more forgiving of myself. No one’s going to be “out to get me”, either among the locals of various places and certainly NOT the people at the conference. I did fantastically at the last conference and I’m sure I’ll do it again.

 

In 2015, the languages I significantly underperformed with were Spanish, German, Irish and Finnish. I’ve gotten a lot better at all of them since then. The Languages I significantly overperformed with were Yiddish, Swedish, Faroese (since forgotten) and especially Norwegian (the super-duper winner of the 2015 conference, got regularly mistaken as a native speaker by pretty much everyone!)

Since 2015 I have paused my studies of Dutch, Faroese, Northern Sami, Ukrainian, Russian and Portuguese (and probably a number of others I’ve forgotten).

Whatever happens, I have to stay optimistic and determined.

Hope to see you there!

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