5775: Where I Am, Where I Was, and Where I Want to Be

Two nights hence Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins. It is a time for me, and all others of my faith (heritage?) to reflect and consider the year to come.

This post will just be about my language acquisition/maintenance life, so don’t expect anything else besides.

For one, I think about where I was earlier this year, I feel that I have changed in the following regards:

  • Especially when in the United States, I don’t feel insulted anymore when someone chooses to speak English with me over another language that I know.

 

Earlier this year I used to take it as a personal insult to my skills if someone didn’t want to speak anything in English with me.

 

Luckily, thanks largely to the polyglot bar, this has changed. Even with many of my friendships, I balance the various languages used to all degrees so that “everyone is happy”.

 

It is true. There are some friendships that begin in something other than English and then it just feels awkward using any other language that the one I first used (Yiddish, German, Scandinavian Languages, mostly). But regarding ones began in English (let’s say, back when I began living in Sweden and really struggled with the Swedish Language), I didn’t have a hard time breaking out of English when I proved my skills in the language well enough (forming sentences without flinching is usually the best way to do this, as is a healthy degree of colloquialisms)

 

Maybe it is living New York, but there are plenty of polyglots to go around. I heard more Danish spoken in the past few weeks than I ever had heard by pedestrians in Heidelberg in over a year. Even in Paris I encountered Danes, Swedes, Israelis, Finns, Germans, Dutch, Flemings, Brazilians, and too many more to list.

 

I’m confident enough in my abilities now that I don’t take it as an insult. I used to be insecure, but after starting this blog and seeing my true potential in this American Metropolis, I don’t need to feel insecure anymore.

 

Now the real test is if I can keep that security when I leave this country…

 

…I expect that a year from now, I won’t even need to ask it or even consider it.

 

  • I felt afraid of judgment from people who spoke certain languages. I was actually afraid of the day that I would meet a real live Dane because I was certain that my pronunciation would never be good enough.

 

As it turns out, this past year I met both Danes and Danish learners from elsewhere in the world, and there wasn’t a hint of being judgmental from any of them.

 

And even when I met Finns back when I wasn’t particularly good with Finnish, they genuinely appreciated my efforts, perhaps sometimes with a laugh and always asking a question beginning with “miksi” (why) and another with “miten” (how)

 

And my funniest story with Finnish (back when I visited the country and knew it to a rudimentary degree, but impressive for a beginner):

 

“Wow, you really know a lot about the Finnish Language. When did you get here?”

 

“…just a couple of hours ago…””

 

I may have encountered some degree of judgment, but literally never from any native speakers over the course of the past year. Before that, I might have, but that was a different Jared who definitely wasn’t as confident as he is now.

 

  • I learned to stop thinking that everyone saw me as a “stupid American” by default. When I shed this attitude (although sometimes it came back at unpredictable moments), then it worked wonders for my German conversational ability. Back when I had it, it hindered me every step of the way, and sometimes it was so bad that I felt that I couldn’t even hold any basic…anything…

 

I broke out of this almost near the very end of my stay in Heidelberg, although sometimes I used English in messages with bureaucrats because some of my friends, local and otherwise, told me that would be a good idea. But even then, the fact that I did that doesn’t say anything about the skills I may or may not have.

 

Those are the three major problems I had over the course of the past. I can say that, while some shred of these problems exists, I have sent them on their way.

Now for my own desires for the next year:

  • Stop worrying about what other people think is possible.

 

I worry that if my multilingual adventures reach a certain level, then people will cast doubt on my ability to have learned anything (although you are more than welcome to go ahead and test me in the comments).

 

With my current collection of languages, I’ve encountered people wondering “HOW THE HECK DO YOU DO THAT?!!?” and assume that I’m some variety of superhuman genius. Here’s the thing: I may forget a handful of my languages that I have now, but I’m not stopping learning new ones, certainly not now.

 

(Note to world: I really dislike it when you put me on a pedestal. Please, any of you can learn 15+ languages, too. Flash cards, Phrasebook [especially for a very rarely spoken language] and media intake, you know the drill…so what are you waiting for?)

 

What will my employers think? What will the folks on the “How to Learn Any Language” Forum think? What will my friends think…? (Well…actually, my friends are always very supportive of me…thanks, friends!)

 

What will everyone think?

 

As we say in Greenland, sussat! It doesn’t matter to me.

 

  • I Have to Follow my Desires

 

How did I learn Greenlandic, people ask me?

 

Simple: I had a desire. I acted on it.

 

The act of learning Greenlandic (or any language) is never complete. There may be a finite amount of words in the language (billions of them, actually), and, on a more realistic note for a human to learn, there are a finite amount of word pieces in the language (Oqaasileriffik lists 20162, to be precise).

 

I have plenty of other desires to act on as well. I don’t want my life to be complete without learning a bunch of other languages, most of which I haven’t even listed on my list in the “flirting” category (a reference to the aforementioned “How to Learn Any Language” forum).

 

Again, I didn’t care what people thought when I was learning stuff like Faroese or Greenlandic or Northern Sami. Now that I feel that I might have a bit “too much on my plate”, even with closely related languages, I’m beginning to rethink the “there’s always room for one more”.

 

But you know what? Sussat! There IS always room for one more! And even if one has to go for whatever reason, my passive understanding of it isn’t gone.

 

Only earlier today was I watching an episode of Pokémon in Polish and I understood a lot more than I knew I had active control over (and my active control of Polish may be enough to impress my Polish friends, but I deem it quite pathetic, especially in comparison to the languages I know well).

 

 The same occurred for the songs in my Russian music collection.

 

Now, I could convert that passive understanding to an active one just by virtue of switching my media input. I don’t need to relearn the grammar. I can recognize the parts of speech on sight or just by hearing the words.

 

But even if I have to forget some languages, I can rest assured that my passive understanding will remain strong, even through years of disuse, provided I gave it enough nurturing.

 

In Conclusion: right now I am living the polyglot life that I’ve been dreaming of since I was a kid. It will only get better from here. Even with my best languages (English included!) there is a lot more for me to always learn, but I have to savor the fact that I’ve come a long way, one with discouragement, despair, and doubt.

 

And now I’m here.

 

But the journey doesn’t end.

 

The journey will continue, until the end of 5774 and well beyond it!

 

L’shana tovah!

The Polyglot Barrrrr!

Good thing I forgot to write this yesterday, otherwise I would have realized the wonderful title opportunity too late. (Happy International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day! Arr! True story: I first heard about International Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day through a Playbill for the New York City Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance)

The second time at the NYC Polyglot Bar didn’t nearly have as many Yiddish speakers, with German- and Spanish-speakers dominating instead (although Yiddish did have a significant presence).

Apparently there was someone who interviewed me for a story. More on that later, because this post is about my reflections from Wednesday Night:

  • I remember Ernest Hemingway having noted that in every port of the world there are at least two Estonians.

 

No Estonians were present at this gathering, and I was the only Estonian-speaker present, but there were at least six other people who said that they knew/lived with/met with one Estonian (or more).

 

Some things don’t change…

 

  • This time I wasn’t the only speaker of a Native American Language present (there was a Quechua speaker who was very intrigued by Greenlandic. True story: if I were on the 2013 Peru trip with my family instead of in a German Village, I probably would speak Quechua very well by now. But I didn’t, so I had other interests. Maybe one day…who knows?)

 

  • Nor was I the only speaker of a Scandinavian Language present. There was a fellow Danish-speaker present as well. Fairly interesting: he found Swedish and Norwegian quite elusive (given as he didn’t study either of them), despite the fact that these languages are so similar. So similar, in fact, that I made a discovery this week that the singing voice of “The Little Mermaid” was done by the same person (Sissel Kyrkjebø, a Norwegian singer) in the Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish dubs.

 

  • While on the topic of Scandinavian Languages, I had my tag on and I was speaking in Hebrew with a colleague on the subway on the way back. Apparently I got asked by someone leaving the subway if I spoke all of those languages. That someone was a Swede, who was extraordinarily overjoyed that her mother tongue was on my tag. And you can probably guess what language the remainder of that conversation was in (hint: not English)

 

  • My command of Danish and German I felt was strong, I wasn’t grasping for words although I might have slipped up some grammar points (did that in English, too). Yiddish was slightly weaker but still good (despite one time in which I misheard something and answered a completely irrelevant question). My Spanish and Hebrew leave a lot to be desired. Specifically, I felt myself pausing too often and making grammatical mistakes more than I would in any of my comfortable languages. Confidence, too, was an issue. My ability to understand everything in all four of these languages was perfect, however. There were at most three words that I missed between the four as far as the conversations went.

 

  • One nickname I got was “the guy with the Faroese book”. It made its appearance when people asked me how I learned the language. Obviously the book wasn’t the only thing.

 

  • The Northern Sami phrasebook also seemed to be quite popular. Interestingly, nobody asked me to speak any of it. The one language I get most commonly asked to speak for people to hear is, obviously, Greenlandic.

 

  • Apparently someone told me that spoken Dutch sounds like someone talking with a potato stuffed in his or her mouth. Any Scandinavian will definitely recognize this idea as having been applied one-too-many-times to refer to the Danish Language. Asked to say something about Danish, I recalled the not particularly politically correct observation of one of my German colleagues that “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

 

  • Portuguese and Dutch were a lot better off than Spanish and Hebrew. I made significant progress with both ever since I got back to the United States. I’m at a point where if I don’t have enough media of both in my life, however, my knowledge of both will lapse significantly. I was told with both that my accent is really good (heard the same for Yiddish).

 

  • I was asked what my favorite language is. I gave an answer in multiple capacities. That is a post for another time.

 

  • Got asked my favorite language for cursing. This one I can give: Finnish. Without a doubt. I’m not going to teach you any Finnish bad words here. Send me a private message or, better yet, meet me at a polyglot event. But if you know me in person and spent any time around me, you’ll definitely recognize a few (unfortunately, I tend to use them quite frequently when agitated).

 

  • Now here’s the biggest improvement: I wasn’t mixing up any German and Yiddish this time! Boom! But while German/Yiddish and Swedish/Norwegian are out of the picture, now I have a new culprit: Spanish and Portuguese. Who knew?

 

There were some people who took my picture / interviewed me / asked me questions etc. Quite exciting! If anything comes of such things, they will make their way to this blog in due time.

 

Anyhow, a diagnostic on what I need to do from this time until the next:

 

  • Make Spanish and Hebrew television a part of my life, and keep it that way until I feel that I get good with both. I did this with the Scandinavian Languages for the past year and I don’t regret it one bit. Now I have to do the same for the languages I learned in school.

 

  • To a lesser extent, given as I have only recently gotten quite good with both Dutch and Portuguese, I need to cement their “entrance into the echelons” with media as well, and training myself to think in these languages in all situations.

 

 

  • My skills in Russian, Polish and Northern Sami really, REALLY leave a lot of room for improvement. I’m not even close to conversational anymore, and a lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve neglected them for other buddies. Plan 1: Ođđasat (the News in Northern Sami) every day. Plan 2: Bring back the Russian and Polish Music. Plan 3: Don’t skim the Russian and Polish posts on Facebook. Plan 4: don’t shy away form Slavic YouTubing. Plan 5: Don’t neglect my Nothern Sami Notes (from Gulahalan, etc).

 

  • Now it comes for a time for me to really wonder: how many languages do I actually have time for? Do I have time for learning a new one? Can I actually maintain close to twenty languages and be ready to converse in them readily on a casual level? Will people even believe me? Will people doubt my resume?

 

My local friends (and many others) tell me that I can definitely manage this, and already I seem to have skewed the odds in my favor by choosing languages in various family groups (Scandinavian / West Germanic / Finnic / Romance Languages).

 

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll know when it will be time to drop one of my language projects when I fall out in love with it.

 

For now, however, I won’t stop my new acquisitions. And if the day comes in which I lose my attachment to one of my projects, then I will find no major problem with letting them go (I could relearn them whenever I want, and a “good head start” will certainly be useful should I choose that path).

 

But I’ve noticed that one video a day in various languages is usually enough for me to ensure that I don’t forget anything (or…as much). And the journey of learning new vocabulary never stops…not even for my native language…

 

For that matter, my journey of peering into new worlds won’t stop either…