Tips and Resources to Help You Begin Learning Yiddish

Virtually every American knows something about Yiddish whether they know it or not. 100 years ago, Yiddish newspapers were so mainstream and respected that they often received election results before ENGLISH newspapers. The Yiddish literature rush that occurred from the 19th century up until some decades after the Holocaust is considered by some the largest outpouring of human thought in all of history, anywhere.

Yiddish has changed countless lives, and not just those of Jews. Isaac Bashevis Singer spoke of it as a language never spoken by people in power (you are welcome to debate this accordingly). In comparison to languages of nobility and large, established countries, Yiddish established itself as “mame-loshn”, a mother’s language, not necessarily tied to any earth or ground, but transcending the Jewish experience wherever it may go.

In online Polyglot Communities, there’s one Yiddish-speaker or Yiddish learner that seems to get everyone enchanted with one Yiddish phrase, or at least cause others to take another look at it.

Well, today we’re going to teach you exactly how to BEGIN that journey.

Before we begin, however, let’s outline exactly how Yiddish is different from High German (with which it shares a lot of words):

  • The pronunciation of words is different. Yiddish has a distinctly more Slavic lilt to it, and those who speak languages from that area of the world can often just use their “home accents” and be passable (e.g. Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, etc). There are vowel shifts that are followed with great consistency. German au becomes Yiddish oy. In many Yiddish dialects, the German ei sound is pronounced like “ey” (to rhyme with “hey”).

 

  • The grammar is also closer to that of English or even that of a Slavic language at times, although it can also follow German conventions. “Du herst?” (are you listening?) makes complete sense as a question, even with the subject first…much like the casual English “you hear?!!?”

 

  • Some common words in German have vanished completely and replaced with Hebrew / Aramaic or Slavic equivalents. Surprisingly I’ve noticed that linguistic borrowings from liturgical languages follow similar patterns in language throughout the world (e.g. Tajik uses Arabic loan words in many of the same places that Yiddish would, such as the word for “maybe” being an Arabic work in Tajik (Mumkin) and a Hebrew one in Yiddish (Efsher).

 

  • Using too much German pronunciation and / or Germanic loan words in your speech results it what is called “Deitschmerisch”, which was a variety used by some Yiddish speakers in more enlightenment-related spheres to make it more acceptable. Throughout most of its history Yiddish was deemed the language of “women and the uneducated”.

 

  • German can help, but using too much German influence in your Yiddish can have negative effects. Knowledge of Jewish Liturgical Languages definitely helps, especially given that “Yeshivish” exists (or, roughly put, English spoken amongst some Orthodox Jews with the Hebrew / Aramaic Loanwords from Yiddish intact). Knowledge of Slavic Languages can also prove helpful, especially given that some gendered nouns in Yiddish can lean more towards Slavic than Germanic (not also to mention many Latinate loan words end in “-tziye”, which shows obvious Slavic influence).

 

Keep in mind that there is also a lot of incomplete and flawed material out there, but you probably knew that.

 

Yiddish also has no centralized academy. Among secular Yiddishists, the prestige dialect will be Lithuanian Yiddish (which I speak). Among many Hasidic communities, the prestige dialect will vary depending on the sect. For example, among the Satmar Hasidim, Hungarian Yiddish will rule (which sounds slightly more like High German and a very, VERY distinctly Finno-Ugric rhythm to it. In areas of Williamsburg you can hear it spoken on the street with regularity. Did I also mention that you can order your MetroCards in Yiddish in various subway stations in New York?).

 

Oh, and one more thing! With the exception of Yiddish texts from the Soviet Union, the Hebrew and Aramaic words will be SPELLED the way they are in Hebrew and Aramaic, but the pronunciation is something you’ll need to MEMORIZE! And I bet you’re wondering, “oh, if it’s the Hebrew word, I could just memorize its Hebrew pronunciation, right?”

 

Nope! Because Israeli Hebrew uses the Sephardic pronunciation (precisely so the Zionists could detach themselves from the “Diasporic” pronunciations of Hebrew words) and Yiddish’s Hebrew and Aramaic components use the Ashkenazi Variety (which is still used by some Orthodox Jews in prayer). The Yiddish words “Rakhmones” (mercy) would be “Rakhmanut” in Hebrew, although they are spelled the EXACT SAME WAY.

 

The meanings aren’t necessarily the same either. A normal word in Hebrew can be a profanity in Yiddish (I won’t give examples here).

 

So here are various resources you can use to begin:

 

For one, Mango Languages is put enough together with good accents to the degree that you can begin using Yiddish with your friends RIGHT AWAY. The Hebrew alphabet can be learned accordingly with writing out the words on the screen. (Also! Words that are not Hebrew or Aramaic in Origin are written phonetically, exactly as they are spelled. If you are a reading a Soviet Yiddish text, ALL words will, much like Lao standardized Pali and other foreign loan words. Communism did the same thing to two completely different language families).

The book I started with nearly ten years ago was Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish textbooks, which were very well put together and also outlined the differences between Yiddish and English / Hebrew / German. Between dialogues there were various songs and the grammar was explained clearly in a way that you can begin making your own sentences in no time!

 

Uriel Weinreich’s immortal classic “College Yiddish” is also a fantastic choice, given that the stories themselves are extremely topical and cover a wide range of secular and religious topics. Some of the topics include: Chelm Stories (the equivalent of Polish Jokes in the US and Swedish / Norwegian jokes in Norway and Sweden respectively), sociology, songs, Jewish holiday origin stories, and even a quaint piece about moving furniture.

 

The book is mostly in Yiddish although glossaries are provided with English translations.

 

Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish also covers usage of the language in classroom situations, ordinary conversation, as well as stories about Hasidic Masters and the aforementioned Chelm stories (which you can never truly get away from when you know enough Jewish people).

 

The Yiddish Daily Forward is also very well put together, with topical articles that would be equally at home in its English edition (and sometimes featured in both). What’s more, the articles will come with an in-built glossary function where you can highlight any word and have it defined.

 

If you choose to get it sent to your inbox, the titles and summaries will be bilingual in English and Yiddish, which makes for good practice even as an advanced student because then you can see how the translation changes things.

 

Lastly, SBS Radio Australia has its archives of Yiddish programming, given that Yiddish was discontinued (I believe). That said, a lot of interesting interviews with fluent Yiddish speakers from throughout the world are provided as well as “snippets” of English that can also provide context clues for the beginner. If you want to know how to discuss politics in Yiddish, THIS is the place to find it.

Yiddish will change your life. It provides a huge amount of untranslated literature that you can spend several lifetimes with. Your other languages will be enhanced with new idioms that possess the story of a people who have been everywhere and continue to be everywhere. You will become more theatrical, you will become cooler and, best of all, all Yiddishists everywhere will pretty much be willing to become your friend.

Zol zayn mit mazl! (Good luck!)

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The Non-Native Speaker Language Teacher vs. the Native Speaker: How Do They Stack Up?

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I’ve taught well over ten different languages over the course of my life for various forms of payment. Back when I first began teaching one of my friends who was a graduate student in Astronomy told me that the most important thing is that you know MORE than the person whom you are teaching (about the subject) and that you are capable of imparting this knowledge in some form.

With the exception of Greenlandic (which I’ve only taught ONCE and only as a side-order to a Yiddish student), I’m fluent in all of the languages that I teach. Do I know every single aspect of their deepest cultures and can I pronounce all of them correctly ALL OF THE TIME? No, but make that “almost all of the time”. Have I been mistaken as a native speaker in all of them? Well…I have, actually…

But there’s this understanding that in order to teach a language that you have to be a native speaker of it, but having taught English as a second language myself vs. other languages that I picked up later than life, I would say that OBJECTIVELY I teach languages like Finnish better than I do English. I know the grammar better, I can explain it better, I can take apart Finnish words and sentence structure in a way that it isn’t so scary anymore. I have an ear for the pronunciation which is EXTREMELY well-honed.

Granted, I know why this is. Customers usually tend to go for native-speaker teachers and advisors in the upper levels of their studies. Those who come to me seeking to learn “the languages of the Cold North” are usually beginners or beginner-plus (a term I use to describe people who can form some sentences but not a lot, or those who have completed half a Duolingo course but don’t feel comfortable doing post office errands in their target language).

After about six months or so, they’ll usually choose to mix it up with self-study or another teacher. Some students have remained with me for a long time, but these are primarily the exceptions (and even then some of them have life-changing events that throw everything off-course).

I think that some native-speaker languages teachers can feel chauvinistic at times, especially towards people who speak their language (no matter HOW advanced). But I also think that having had some language teachers in my life who learned it as an L2 (the Russian department at Wesleyan University when I was there only had ONE L1 teacher, and even then I think she was bilingual Lithuanian and Russian. The L2 teachers weren’t any less qualified than she and they were all fantastic), I was grateful for their presence because they probably should have shown me that becoming fluent in a language as an adult was possible, despite all of the hearsay to the contrary.

I’ve also heard of non-native English teachers as well and I deem them necessary and I’m thankful for their presence, because they can often describe the struggle of learning English as an L2 that I’m not aware of in the slightest.

Anyhow, what are the advantages of a native-speaker teacher?

  • Pronunciation extremely good
  • Can be RUTHLESS (in a good way, usually) with ensuring that you get every nuance right about grammar and pronunciation. I teach a lot of my English students finer points of grammar that most NATIVE speakers don’t even know.
  • Very tuned in on the difference between casual and non-casual registers of the language.
  • Know a LOT of cultural references that L2 speakers wouldn’t be aware of.
  • Ideal for if you want to go from great to UNSTOPPABLE in your target language.

 

Disadvantages:

  • Less likely to be structured in their approach
  • May know how to pronounce words correctly but may have trouble in teaching you how to make those same sounds.
  • May somehow make your goal of fluency seem endlessly out of reach (even if they do their best to not MEAN to do that)
  • May not be able to explain grammatical concepts in a way that makes sense to you.
  • Quality for absolute beginners is all over the board. (I’ve heard of stories of teachers like these reduce a student to tears in less than ten minutes!)

 

Advantages of a fluent non-native speaker teacher:

 

  • Knows the struggle of climbing the same mountain and will give you tips on how to do it yourself (and telling you that it IS possible).
  • Can explain grammar and sentence-structure in ways that are more readily accessible to novices.
  • Can provide you tips on how to NOT get answered in English and other struggles of being a foreigner learning the language (this is sometimes relevant to language-learning given the whole tier-of-politeness systems found in languages like Khmer or Finnish)
  • Can teach you pronunciation hacks that native speakers may not be aware of or know how to execute. (Greenlandic’s q sound and Swedish’s sj sound, both largely infamous, are something that I can get you to say in less than three minutes. I know because I’ve done it).
  • Will almost certainly not discourage you from learning or continuing to learn.

 

Disadvantages:

 

  • On rare occasions, they may need to reference the internet for things (I’ve even seen this at the UNIVERSITY level)
  • May not know the VERY deepest levels of nuance the way a native-speaker would.
  • With rare exceptions, they have probably not heard of every single song, TV show or internet meme in their L2’s. (The Languages for which I have this deep cultural knowledge of the most are…Yiddish and Greenlandic, surprisingly. I don’t even know English-language contemporary music that well and I actually like it that way). You’d be surprised how much that can actually be an issue.
  • Some of them can make silly oversights on rare occasions without meaning to (a lot of them usually correct it, like that one teacher I had that told me that Classical Greek had an ablative case [it does not!])
  • The occasional cloud of self-doubt may surface regardless of how strong they are.

 

 

Now, there are many ways to learn languages and pick teachers and a good deal of my languages I’ve learned through using absolutely no teachers at all (and you’d be surprised how the ones I’ve learned in the classroom are NOT my strongest ones! At all! Well, with the exception of Yiddish, that is, but even then I feel that my Scandinavian Languages and Melanesian Creoles are above it.)

These are just general observations for you to think about in the event that you are looking for personal teachers for the next steps in your journey. There are a lot of them (well…except if you’re looking for very rare languages like Gilbertese, but I’m willing to help YOU with that if you want!)

But also realize that there is more nuance in the teaching scene than just “native speakers as teachers = strictly better”. I had a tutor who spoke basic Thai and she helped me for a little bit during a language exchange I had once and for some odd reason I remember a lot of what she told me more than from what I retained from native Hebrew speakers in elementary school. Yet again, my native-speaking Russian teacher in my senior year of college was also no less fantastic!

Happy learning!

The 2017 Polyglot Conference: Self-Assessment and Roadmap

The most legendary month of my life is about to close, one that brought me to Iceland and Greenland and, by extension, into meetings with some of the most legendary human beings who have impacted my life to date.

I got to meet Nanook, the legendary band from Greenland, as well as the lineup of my favorite Greenlandic TV show from years back, see my favorite Icelandic rapper in a 30-minute concert and, of course, visit and re-visit some of my greatest heroes that have shown be beyond a reasonable doubt that learning to speak a second or third or even twentieth language at any age is ALWAYS a possibility!

I got to use thirty languages over the course of few days and think about where I have been, where I am and where I am going.

Granted, some of these languages are ones that I speak fluently and use in my career. Others are those that I have literally not practiced for months. In the meantime, I’ll have to think about where I under-estimated myself, where I over-estimated myself and what great victories I scored as well as any possible defeats.

The Saturday of the conference had me feeling unbelievably elated at the end. So elated, in fact, that I slept very poorly that night. What’s more, I had to present the following day, making it LITERALLY the worst night of this year to get a bad night’s sleep.

But surprisingly I not only managed my conference presentation on Video Games and Language Learning very well, I was told that the organizers heard “nothing but positive feedback” about it including repeated hopes that I would make encore presentations at other conferences.

My secret to being a good presenter is simple: note whatever your boring teachers throughout your life did, and do the opposite of what they do. Easy!

Anyhow, I’ll write about which languages I think I did very well with, which ones I did okay with and which ones I really need improvement with.

Let’s start with that last one.

For one, I significantly overestimated my ability in Irish and it felt that when I spoke it I had flashbacks to when I was twelve years old and my teacher scrawled “DID NOT STUDY” on my quizzes. (This was in part because I was thrown into a Hebrew Day School where my knowledge of Biblical Hebrew was significant impaired because I was a latecomer!)

I forgot essential words at times and while I did put some sentences together, it occurs to me that I need work.

The same thing very much happened with Lao (although the only time I used it was in a Lao-Thai conversation, something that I have had no experience in doing).

My Welsh which I had neglected for months, obviously, did not even get a sticker on my name tag, but I added it to my list because with some “rewatering”  it will warrant an A1 level again.

I also flubbed Cornish a little bit as well

Three languages which I need to really work on. So what am I going to do?

For one this weekend I will devote entirely to studying these languages, to the exclusion of others.

Now for my “I did pretty well!”

Despite some grammatical flubs at times Finnish was truly something to be proud of and I’m very impressed by the level of L2 Finnish speakers that I’ve seen at the conference.

Hebrew was also very similar as well, although sometimes I worry that I’m a little bit TOO casual and not scholarly enough. This style REALLY impresses some Israelis and manages to vex some others. But it bears repeating that using the language with people who speak it is always a good idea! Regardless of how much you may convince yourself otherwise!

Greenlandic, despite the fact that I remember being just “manageable” in Greenland the week prior, also was a meager success, whatever people wanted to ask of me what meant I was capable of providing. Granted, mostly these were simple phrases but it occurs to me that I knew a lot more of the language than actually came out when I was in the country. Again, my own nervousness holding myself back.

Icelandic and French both involved some significant gaps in my conversational abilities, given the language-learning tornado (and Jewish-holiday tornado) I was in in the weeks leading up to the conference.

Lastly, the one chance I got to use Krio went off better than I expected!

Now the greatest victories of the bunch, not surprisingly, go to my truly fluent languages, the Scandinavian Trio and Yiddish. Being in Greenland the week beforehand sure did help with Danish, but the practice I’ve got while teaching really, REALLY shined through. I also managed to speak significantly better Spanish and German than I literally ever remembered doing, EVER.

Every other language on my list was “not enough chances to use it” (for my fluent languages like Bislama) or otherwise “okay, I guess, but you still need some noteworthy improvement” (pretty much every other language I haven’t named).

The fact that I significantly slouched in my conversational abilities on Sunday is testament to the fact that mental and physical conditions matter in conversational abilities in any language, and languages you don’t use as often are even MORE likely to be impacted. My fluent languages (like Danish and Hebrew) stayed the same, but my less-than-fluent languages (like Hungarian or Polish) got worse.

 

Where do I go from here?

It seems ever more likely that 2018 is going to spell no more new languages for me for the time being. Right now, even though I’d really like something like Turkmen or Tuvaluan or Lithuanian, I have my plate full and now it’s time for me to invest in what I have in significantly more depth. I know it’s possible. I’m good now. Some would even call me very good. But I want to be divinely unstoppable.

Obviously I understand that the “activation energy” required for going to a higher level is more the higher you get (this ties into the idea of “diminishing returns”. Getting my Breton to C2 is going to take a LOT more effort than getting Lao to B1. Looking at the ungodly amount of time I put into my best languages, it’s no surprise.

Right now I just have ideas for a plan, but “improve tons of languages” is not really a recipe. I need a recipe and I’m probably going to need more than just a day to come up with a plan.

We’ll see how my little mini-mission on Saturday and Sunday goes!

NOTE: This is primarily a self-reflection about MY OWN progress rather than anything about the conference itself. That’s likely to come later on, probably when I’m back in the US and have had time to reflect on it!

I wish every day were a Polyglot Conference, actually!

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From my first Polyglot conference two years ago!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Other Comments

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy singing!