What Criteria Do I Consider When Choosing a New Language?

First off, let’s start by listing the variety of things I do NOT consider. And you can probably already guess what the first one is:

(1) Number of native speakers. Doesn’t mean anything, isn’t necessary in building an emotional connection to the culture. All languages have their worth and it shouldn’t be measured depending on how many people on this planet speak it. Sure, it might be easier for you to find people to practice with, but in the age of the Internet, does finding people to practice with, even in person, really matter?

(2) Lists of Articles on Publications Like Business Insider Telling Me That It’s a Good Idea. I don’t outsource my decisions to giant publications and I don’t think you should, either.

(3) Any charts that point to a language or a series of languages being “the most lucrative” or “the best to learn”. Especially in the United States where most people don’t learn ANY language (interestingly among Jews this really isn’t the case given how many of us have some passive knowledge of Hebrew at the VERY least), ANY language is a boon and it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Palauan. Come to think of it, given that 60% of high school students study Spanish, maybe just MAYBE Palauan and Spanish might be fairly equally waited. Again, do which one you like the most.

(4) What other languages people are learning. The world doesn’t need more followers. Nu uh. The world follows the lead of the leaders. And leaders do what is different and unexpected. (Again, don’t take this as discouragement from wanting to study a language like French, just don’t consider the crowd as the sole deciding factor or even ONE of the deciding factors.)

So here’s what I consider:

(1) Am I Healing the World by Choosing to Engage In This Culture? One thing that I’ve used to decide several of my languages in the past year (such as Gilbertese or Lao) is the fact that I realize that I can use my language to bring about healing.

With Kiribati, looming climate change and rising sea levels is something that defines the cutlure at the moment, and by choosing to learn Gilbertese I have committed to keeping their culture alive AND letting other people know about the realities of these threatened areas.

With Lao, I got to glimpse a country (that I haven’t visited yet) with extreme poverty that also has the distinction of being the most bombed country in all of human history. (More bombs were dropped on Laos by Nixon and Kissinger than all of the bombs by all sides in WWII everywhere COMBINED).

With a language like German, Polish or Hungarian, all associated by some more close-minded Jews as “languages of people who have anti-Semitism in their blood” (saying that hatred is embedded in someone’s culture is extremely offensive, in my opinion), I actually realized how many Jews (past, present and future) strongly identified with these cultures, and how much they’ve influenced the Judaism I’ve known for my whole life.

Thankfully German-Jewish relations have drastically improved during my lifetime, and I’m doing work to help Jewish relations in both directions with the other two (and many others!)

(2) Do I Have Music or Other Media that I Deeply Like in This Language? I fell in love with Greenlandic music and it became a motivating factor in wanting to studying it more. With music in other languages like Tok Pisin and Burmese, I found a lot of songs that I really liked and it caused me to have not only motivation to learn the language but also positive feelings when learning it.

Some languages, like Tajik and Lao, I haven’t found REALLY good music that I like. Yet. But with Icelandic I also remember having that struggle for months, and eventually I found Icelandic music that I really, REALLY liked. Or, if you know anything about this, you could give me recommendations, maybe!

(3) Will Engaging with This Language Make Me More Knowledgeable about a Culture I Don’t Know a Lot About?

Some languages, like Finnish or Palauan, I learned as exploratory journeys into “places” that I didn’t know very much about at all. I’ve never regretted learning a language for this reason.

(4) Is this language spoken in my immediate neighborhood? Hence the reason I learned Jamaican Patois ‘n friends. In Crown Heights it genuinely feels like a pan-Caribbean neighborhood, and especially given our zeitgeist of cultures distrusting each other, I felt as though “being a good citizen” involved me learning Patois. So glad I did!

(5) Did my ancestors speak this language? Hungarian and Swedish were both on the agenda precisely because I had great-grandparents who spoke both as their mother tongue (on opposite sides of my family)

(6) Do I need it for business, travel or romance? I think this is fairly clear. Sometimes (like my travels to Italy in 2014 and in Jordan in 2015) I felt as though I was half-hearted in my attempts to learn the local language and my trip felt genuinely lacking in comparison to when I did know more of it (such as, most notably, my recent trips to Greenland and Iceland). This is the reason I’m learning Fijian right now (and Fiji Hindi is also on the agenda in a month or two, and preparations for it were underway for a while).

(7) Have I dreamed of finding out what this country or culture was like since childhood?

Some places, like Greenland, Laos, Burkina Faso or Ireland, are places that I’ve wondered about since early childhood sometimes for silly, sentimental reasons. Somehow within my unconscious I feel as though places like these would be “good fits” for me. And I’m almost always right.

Between these seven reasons, a combination of all of them dictates which languages I choose to have in my life and which ones I devote time to. Feel free to share some of YOUR motivating factors below!

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Re-Evaluating My Language Learning Priorities (and Dropping Languages): February 2018 Edition

I’ve noticed that whenever the seasons are on the verge of changing I seem to think about what sort of languages I am enjoying (or not) and I make changes accordingly.

Some languages like Dutch and Northern Sami I used to have impressive command of but now they seem to have dwindled to nothing. Others I really enjoyed learning but it occurred to me that, for whatever reason (some of which couldn’t be articulated), I didn’t really feel as though I “had the spark anymore”. Faroese, Estonian and Russian were all obsessions of mine that fell by the wayside as a result (although I still speak a bit of all languages in this paragraph and, if the need arises, I could revive them).

So I’ve decided to clear my list of all of the following. The most noteworthy clearances are Breton and French just…don’t do it for me anymore. And French I mostly learned for peer-pressure reasons anyhow. It would be one thing if I were actively planning to go to the Ivory Coast or French Polynesia instead of Fiji in the summer (and if I were even headed to Vanuatu I would make it a priority). But right now, I’m just not feeling it. Same with Breton, and I’m glad for the times we’ve had together, but for some odd reason I feel as though I need a break. (Cornish I’m still undecided about, given that St. Piran’s Day is coming up on March 5. Cornish is probably the one language that I’ve been on-again off-again the most).

I also really need to start focusing on quality, especially as I continue to enter the global spotlight with both my polyglotism AND my video games being released later this year. I’m already getting more messages than I can humanly deal with… a day that I DREAMED of seeing as a high school student.

Anyhow, on my languages page I reduced it to 31, and all of my fluent languages (B2 or higher) got to stay except for Breton which I hadn’t been practicing too much as of late anyhow. Also while Spanish and German get to stay, they are, along with English, the ones that I have the least amount of emotional attachment to (sorry).

Anyhow, let’s go through my list from A0 (a few words) to B1 (intermediate plateau) and I’ll go through the reasons I decided to keep those ones in particular.

A0

First off, Guarani is my opportunity to glimpse an indigenous culture of South America (Paraguay) that may be under siege. I devoted a lot of time on my YouTube Channel last year and I actually met a fluent speaker in Fall 2017 who absolutely refused to use it with me for some reason (I’m not going to lie, I felt snubbed and borderline offended. In an age of mass language death, you should be sharing with anyone willing to partake of your culture.)

Despite that, I shouldn’t let one bad interaction with a speaker get me down and I’m gonna be up again because it occurs to me that I need to know more about indigenous South American than I already do (it’s probably the one continent that I know the least about, actually, even if you include Antarctica).

Given that I’m headed to Fiji later on this year, Fiji Hindi is also a priority despite the fact that I’ve struggled with this one more than any other Indo-European language that isn’t Celtic. Resources are scarce and ways to rehearse it are difficult, but I’ll attempt an “attack plan” once I feel as though I’m a solid B2 in Fijian, which may be sooner than I think (a “Why Fijian is Easy” post is coming soon!)

Given the relations between the native Fijians / iTaukei and the Fiji Indians have been difficult at times, it behooves me to learn about them both, especially given that I’ll get to see close up hand. I’ve heard that Fiji Indians are prominent in the tourist industry and my chances to interact with them will be many.

Next up on the A0 list is Uyghur. I’ve gotten so much fantastic feedback from attempting this language on YouTube, not also to mention the deep pride that many Uyghurs have for their culture, that I’m going to continue it. It would be, in a sense, one of my first Chinese Languages (and I still haven’t forgotten about Mandarin quite yet but I’ll reveal everything in good time. With both my one surviving grandparent coming from a Hungarian family and my Oceania venture, I feel time-crunched from multiple sides. It seems that Uyghur is not going to be too much of a serious investment in the near future, but I’ll see what I can do with it and I have no plans to drop it completely).

Last among the A0 list is Tuvaluan. While Tongan has been dropped for the time being (too close to Fijian for me to actively work on both at the same time, as is Tuvaluan), Tuvaluan is something I want to at least be able to use in SOME capacity before heading to Fiji (if I even end up going there at all) by virtue of the fact that Fiji’s only endangered language is Tuvaluan (y’know, the expatriate community). Also given that Tuvalu is in a similar situation to Kiribati with the whole climate change thing, it’s something I believe is a moral duty. If only there were readily available good textbooks for it, otherwise I’ll have to write my own from dictionaries, grammar books and Bible translations, not also to mention help from the Tuvaluan sub-Reddit (I believe the Kiribati sub-Reddit is by invitation only. I applied to join. No answer. Hey, mods at Kiribati, can you approve me? Kam raba! [Thank you guys!])

A1

Probably the language for which I have been lauded by native speakers the most, Palauan gets to stay and will be a constant feature of my programming. You guys have fantastic music and have given me very concrete and useful advice and not a DROP of discouragement! Also that Palau Pledge and that movie with the giant is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve read / seen all year!

Probably not at A1 anymore because of months of not practicing, but I’ll have African languages in part represented by Mossi (Krio’s still on my list, don’t worry). My first tonal language from outside Asia, I think I really need to learn more about Burkina Faso, given how Christian and Muslim traditions (not also to mention elements of traditional African religions) really blend together. There’s a lot on my plate right now so no actively working on Mossi now, but at least you get to stay on my radar as opposed to the many languages that I decided to drop.

Probably my favorite Caribbean Creole is that of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I discovered Vincentian Creole through Bible recordings and one of these days I’ll make sure to spend more time with you. You’re probably the one Caribbean nation most Americans know the least about. Can’t wait to start spending more time together!

Lastly among the A1 category (I dropped Arabic but I’ll probably be putting it back later this year when my Fijian and Fiji Hindi is secure), Tajik. Everything about you is fascinating and also very distinct from the Western Culture I experience every day in the United States. You and Uyghur will be my Central Asian projects for the not-too-distant future.

A2

Burmese music is something I have in huge doses and that I’m fascinated with. Also the Burmese-American community here in New York City, not also to mention plenty of professional opportunities with politics and translation work should I choose to get good enough. Alongside Tok Pisin, Burmese really gave me a glimpse into a country that was severely wrecked by imperialist meddling (you could pretty much say this for…well, almost everywhere on the planet, which is why I believe learning languages from these areas of the globe is a morally correct decision for all of us who want to learn some).

Irish is a language of my ancestors and one I’ve dreamed of learning well for a decade. I used to be better but I slumped terribly in progress leading up to the Polyglot Conference in 2017. I still don’t consider myself that good despite the fact that I remember having some manageable conversations in it. Probably my most poorly managed language learning project.

Gilbertese of course gets to stay. As does Fijian.

 

B1

Greenlandic is the language I’ve struggled with the most and STILL the hardest I’ve attempted. But given that I’m working on a video game set there I’m going to continue this fantastic relationship I’ve had with my favorite language (even though it is now tied with Gilbertese for my favorite).

Despite the fact that I SERIOUSLY need good music that I like in it, Lao is staying around too. I’ve seen heartbreaking homemade films in Lao that I will never forget for as long as I live, and this is the first language I’ve learned from a genuinely communist state. A truly meaningful experience…besides, I really like the sound of the language despite the fact that the tones still “get me”.

Lastly, Hungarian and Polish get to stay around. Hungarian is an ancestral language of mine and my deepest regret in my polyglot life is having not chosen to study it earlier. But luckily I still have time…as long as I focus. Among European Languages, Hungarian has THE most supportive native speakers (although I’ve met one or two who gave me a hard time on the surface but then gave me vaguely reluctant support…sort of?) Polish is the second-most commonly used language on my Facebook feed. Being able to speed-reed it is something I should really learn sooner than later.

 

So my current list reads like this:

 

A0 – Guarani, Fiji Hindi, Uyghur, Tuvaluan,

A1:  Palauan, Mossi, Vincentian Creole, Tajik

A2 –  Burmese, Irish, Gilbertese, Fijian

B1 –  Greenlandic, Lao, Hungarian, Polish

B2 – Hebrew, Finnish, Krio, Jamaican Patois, Icelandic

C1 –  Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Spanish (EU), German, Trini

C2 – Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin, Tok Pisin

Native: English, Ancient Hebrew

 

I haven’t been having the best month and so I may have under-practiced some of these but I think a good dosage of focused Saturdays should get me in shape, especially with my priorities straightened out.

February is almost on its way out, and with it my Greenlandic 30-Day challenge (cut to 28 days, or so it seems) in addition to Fijian. Next month is more Fijian and another language on this page that I haven’t decided yet!

May you only know fulfilled goals!

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Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

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!

Learning Endangered / Minority Languages to Fluency: Is it Possible?

Learners of languages that have little political support (like Breton or Palauan) struggle more than those who learn politically powerful languages (like French or Japanese). The reason behind this has actually very little to do with the grammatical makeup of “difficulty” of the language.

For English speakers, Fijian (a language I’m currently learning) is easier than Finnish if one takes ONLY grammar into account. Within a little more than a week I’ve mastered many of the elements of Fijian grammar and that same task for Finnish took me at least A YEAR.

Of the languages I’ve done for the Huggins International 30-Day speaking Challenge (Lao, Greenlandic, and Hungarian–I’m doing Greenlandic again in February), I would say Hungarian and Greenlandic are about equal in terms of grammatical complication but Greenlandic is harder for me in general because (1) not as much support in technology and Internet usage (2) the words are longer (3) ways to engage with the language are more scarce and (4) Greenlandic doesn’t have as many Latinate / English cognates as Hungarian does (and Hungarian has significantly fewer than its Finnic bretheren further north).

Make no mistake: learning a rarer language can seem like an uphill battle at times, and that’s without taking into account what people may say to you (if you even care what sort of reactions other people have towards your project at all…part of me has really learned to stop caring).

Finding written material in Bislama was difficult, despite the fact that it was probably one of the easiest languages I encountered (given the fact that it is Vanuatu’s English Creole with French influence). I had no shortage of listening material, however, and that really sealed my journey to fluency. That, and putting the comprehensive vocabulary (about 7000 words, including place names from Melanesia and the Bible, in the WHOLE language–as in, every known word in it) into Anki.

With multiple rarer languages, I defied the odds and got fluent. It seems that I’m on track to do it again with Fijian! But why do so many language learners struggle and fall (note that I did not say “fail”) when it comes to learning rarer languages?

Have no fear!

Mother of the Sea and Me

 

(1) A lot of people getting attached to their language-learning materials.

This is a big one, and I addressed it a while back here.

Point is, language learning materials are to be grown OUT of, not grown ATTACHED to. And even when you’re fluent, feel free to use them as a reference now and then, but fluent speakers engage the language with material intended for native speakers.

What usually happens is that people sometimes get too attached to their books and their apps and use them as a recourse to engaging with the language when they should hop into the real world of that language…as QUICKLY as possible.

 

(2) A lot of people getting attached to needing to use the language with real people.

I became fluent in Bislama without even having SET FOOT in Vanuatu or in any other country of Oceania. How did I do it? I made a “virtual Vanuatu”. I had Ni-Vanuatu radio stations playing regularly when I needed a break from teaching and had to play mindless video games. I employed dozens of other methods across language-learning disciplines.

I used it actively by singing Bislama songs to friends and even recording myself.

Using the language with real people helps, this is beyond any hint of doubt. But don’t use “I need to be surrounded by people who speak it!” as an excuse to deny yourself a language you’ve been dreaming of, and certainly not in the age of the Internet.

Fun fact: up until I met Greenlandic speakers for the first time, a few minutes before boarding the plane to Nuuk in Reykjavik, there was a TINY nagging voice in my head that tried to convince me that Greenlandic was actually a conlang that was only used on the Internet and in a handful of books (given that I had never, EVER heard it spoken or used by real people up until that moment).

Turns out, the language as it was used in Greenland was every bit as real and authentic and MATCHED UP WITH everything I learned with books, music, radio and online studies.

You can fool your brain into thinking you’re pretty much anywhere on the planet at this point with immersion even with a language you haven’t heard ONCE used by real people in person.

 

(3) A lot of people begin learning rarer languages with a losing mindset and no intention to shed it

“I’m probably not going to be fluent in this language anyhow. There’s just no way. But I’ll try it…”

Hey.

Stop it.

If you WANT to learn your dream rare language to fluency, it may take more effort and LOADS of more discipline because giving up is the path of least resistance, especially with a language that others may actively be discouraging you from learning.

But you’re a winner, right? You want to be fluent in that language, right? So why believe the dream killers or that internal voice saying you won’t do well?

 

(4) They don’t build emotional attachment to the language

One of the first things I did when I learned rarer languages successfully (Yiddish, Tok Pisin, Fijian) was FIND MUSIC that I liked in the language and put it on all of my devices and my phone.

That way, I would build an emotional attachment to the language every time I heard the song and it would, on some level, increase my motivation.

A lot of people don’t really do this. Instead they slog away at books or classes and seldom if ever do they actually “get to know” the language or the place where it is spoken.

Also for Kiribati / Gilbertese in January, I tried searching for music that I liked and my first impression was “this country has ABSOLUTELY no good music whatsoever!” But interestingly enough, I found YouTube channels that collected Kiribati music and I sampled fifty different songs. I acquired the songs I liked and I put them in a folder and there are so many Kiribati songs that I find myself wanting to hum while walking on the streets of Brooklyn that, right now, I actively needed to be REMINDED of the time in which I thought that Gilbertese music was “no good”.

Also feel free to use the national sub-reddits for smaller countries to get music or radio-station recommendations. (There may be a handful of countries with no subreddits or, in the case of Kiribati, one that is locked ot the general public. I applied to get in. Still waiting. Hey, administrators, if you’re reading this, could you approve me, please? I have videos of me speaking Kiribati on the Internet!)
(5) They don’t learn about the culture behind that language in detail.

 

Pretty much every human alive in the developed world has some knowledge of what French or Japanese culture is like. I knew very little about Papua New Guinea’s cultures before learning Tok Pisin, despite the fact that my father had stories from his time there. So one thing I did was I headed to libraries and bookstores where I found travel guides to “PNG”, and read up about what the political systems there were like, the history, the cuisine and important things that travellers to the country should know.

Without that cultural knowledge, even with global languages, you will be at a disadvantage to (1) native speakers and (2) learners who have that cultural knowledge. So get reading!

 

(6) They may believe limiting advice from language gurus, the vast majority of who have never learned endangered or minority languages and have no intention to do so.

 

And not having that intention is okay, I should add. Personally I really like learning the rarer languages and I’ve embraced it fully. I understand that not everyone has that drive.

That said, a lot of gurus in the language-blogging world may insinuate things that you could possibly interpret as discouragement from wanting to learn Mandinka or Bislama or other languages that don’t have millions of people clamoring to learn them.

Disregard any advice that makes you want to run away from your dreams. And embrace any advice that encourages you to make them real.

I think I couldn’t end on a better note so I’ll just stop with that. Have fun!

 

”What Do You Use to Learn Languages?” Is the Wrong Question. And the Right Question is…

Before I begin, I would say that it is in a more tongue-and-cheek manner that I refer to “What do you use to learn languages” as a WRONG question. But too many people see processes as something that can only have (or can only need) a handful of ingredients.

I look at my most successful language-learning missions and, as it turns out, the most successful that I have had overwhelmingly had one thing in common, whereas my least successful language-learning missions also had the exact OPPOSITE of that one thing in common.

Before going further (gee, I really know how to make cliffhangers, now, don’t I?), I should also say that the “what do you use to learn language?” question is something I achieve with GREAT FREQUENCY. From my students. From my distant family members. From people who met me five seconds ago.

I also hear variations of it, such as “what’s the best way to learn a language?” or “what apps do I need?” or “what do you do to learn languages?”

But here’s what I always say:

I don’t ask myself “what DO I use to learn languages”, but rather “what DON’T I use to learn languages!”

The fact is, when I look at the most successful languages I have, I’ve used EVERYTHING.

 

Cartoon shows.

Music.

Studying.

Grammar review.

Forums (Fora?)

Let’s Play Videos.

Radio

And dozens upon DOZENS of other factors.

 

To give some examples from my own life that have been successful, Finnish (the one that won against all odds) I used ABSOLUTELY all of these elements I listed above. Others on that list would include: Danish, Bislama, Yiddish, Swedish, Tok Pisin and Norwegian. (Note I did not use Let’s Play videos for Bislama, Yiddish and Tok Pisin given that, as of the time of writing, none of those exist in any of those languages)

Ones that I failed to deploy AS MANY resources for? They fell down by the wayside. The languages I learned that got harmed the most because of this included: Fiji Hindi, Lao, Irish, Welsh and Tajik.

Then there are others in which I usually tried to use an excess of cultural immersion (Greenlandic and Burmese) or an excess of book studying (Hebrew and Spanish) and as a result some of them have been imbalanced with varying results (I can still speak Hebrew well and Spanish manageably most of the time, despite my self-admitted begrudging apathy towards global languages).

I go on to tell people that I see language learning like a strategy game. The more pieces and resources available to you that you USE, the more likely you are to WIN. Sure, it may take a lot of time to win and some “levels” are going to be easier than others (Bislama’s grammar is easier than Finnish’s by any stretch despite the fact that both of them use vowel harmony [Bislama only does it with some of its verbs, though]).

I can tell if people struggle with a language (even myself) and it’s almost ALWAYS because their “diet” has been (1) imbalanced (e.g. too much studying, not enough immersion or the opposite) or (2) inconsistent (e.g. I didn’t rehearse Irish for a month before the 2017 Polyglot Conference and it SHOWED, sadly, having been the “biggest loser” of my collection during that particular conference).

In antiquity, health was believed to come about through a perfect balance. My father (who holds an MD) believes very little about ancient medicine but this balance idea is helpful regarding mental discipline.

If you are struggling with a language that you’ve been working at a long time (certainly a year or more), that means that there is either an imbalance OR untapped resources you still have yet to apply to your own journey.

Keep in mind that I’m guilty of having these imbalances and untapped resources myself.

So here’s an idea;

  • What language(s) do you feel weakest in?
  • What sort of routine have you been using to learn or maintain it?
  • What is LACKING in that routine and what can you do to restore balance to it?

Happy fixing-upping!

come back when you can put up a fight

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!