My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

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Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.

 

Jared Gimbel: The Story You Never Knew

Tomorrow is my birthday (when I’ll be writing something else).

As my 20’s come to a close tomorrow, I will forever remember this decade of my life as the one that transformed me to a confused follower into an internationally-minded, confident explorer.

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Around age 24 I started to invest seriously in my studies of Jewish and Nordic Languages, thereby setting up the primary basis of my income (until my video games start coming out!)

Around age 25, weeks before my 26th birthday, I discovered Tok Pisin for the first time, one of the most transformative experiences of my life that left me with a soft spot towards the developing world and I am in awe of how efficient and poetic Tok Pisin is on every level. It serves as a testament to human endurance, that even when being enslaved and bereft of dignity, humans will hold onto culture, humor and the resilience that defines us all. Other Creole languages I studied since then from the Atlantic and the Pacific had very much the same features.

At age 29, I was told that my parents were floating the idea of travelling to Fiji. Within the following days, I went to Barnes and Noble and got myself the Lonely Planet Fijian textbook and began memorizing phrases IMMEDIATELY.

There is a lot of victory that I had over the course of the language journeys of my 20’s, but there are also the stories and sides that had deep defeat as well.

Sometimes I made silly mistakes in classes on the most basic level, sometimes even concerning things I said about the English language.

Within every one of my language successes I had dozens of times in which I encountered discouragement from native speakers or “beat myself up” because of my high standards.

While my videos were gaining traction in Palau and Kiribati I also had to deal with an angry Subreddit and woke up one morning to an entire webpage dedicated to insulting me. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened.

When abroad I worried that I would never “get good” at the target language and sometimes called up my family on the verge of tears. I also sometimes was made to feel like a stupid American or, even worse, that my religious upbringing in my teenage years left me with a permanent handicap in how I understood the world. (As a girl I dated once told me, “you know a lot about books, but you do not know life”.)

I also had to realize in my later 20’s that there would be a lot of dreams I needed to let go of. I couldn’t seriously become native-like fluent in a language I didn’t really care about (and unlike most people, the “languages that I didn’t really love” were actually the global giants of Western Europe. My heart has been with “the little guys” for quite a while now. )

In all likelihood, barring romance with a Spanish-speaker or business or tourism, my Danish will always be better than my Spanish, no matter what. But I’m okay with that because hearing Danish spoken on the streets of New York City (or anywhere else) always makes me happy. I remember one time when I was returning from a Bar Mitzvah in Washington D.C. I get off the bus and Penn Station and I hear a teenage boy on the street saying, “ja, det er jeg meget sikker på” (Yup, I’m really sure of that”) into a  smartphone. I smiled and knew I was in New York again.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to be someone else and I still remember a teacher in the Paideia Institute telling me that “life is too short and too precious to be wasted on something that you don’t care about” (that was Barbara Spectre, in case anyone who was also in the program is reading this).

In college and in high school I was deeply religious and looking back I think it was largely not because I myself wanted it but because I myself was afraid of divine punishment. In 2013 I made the decision to walk away from religion, bit by bit, and there were a lot of woodland walks where I was worried that some force was going to punish me if I made the decision to turn on the computer on Saturday. Shortly I realize that my fear was preventing me from having the life that I wanted and that I had actually thrown away many years and opportunities on account of being someone I didn’t really want to be.

I became ultra-competitive deep down inside. Hardened by my experiences in higher education, I had learned to become ruthlessly perfectionist to the degree that several friends told me that “no human being can [feasibly] live like that”.

I figured that in any field, whether that is in business, romance, success in getting clicks on your blog posts, etc…that you had to be as GOOD as you possibly can in a world of infinite choice, otherwise you would be thoughtlessly tossed aside in favor of someone better. Perhaps the first time I really experienced something like this was with the college application process, but it was deeply toxic because only years later did I realize that we live in a culture of fear in which our deepest insecurities are made omnipresent so that we can be sold stuff more easily.

Throughout my entire life, even as a toddler, I had known that I was very different. At age 3, I was perusing atlases and wondering about what life was like in areas far away from the DC area. At age 29, here I am in a room in Brooklyn and to my left is a bookcase with language learning books from every continent (except Antarctica). Then as well as now, I somehow felt as though my interest in places and things far away from me would be a cause for stigma.

One time I even had someone at Mundo Lingo tell me that learning Kiribati was not a wise investment because “they’re going to be underwater soon”. I was calm with him but deep down inside you can imagine how furious I really was at this display of heartlessness.

With each growing year I see that there is an ongoing struggle for control of the world, between ordinary people who want to save it and those who treasure short-term profit above humanity and don’t care if the world goes to pieces because of it. Too many people have told me that my work with languages of Oceania / the Arctic is essential to the assist in the struggle of the former.

With each language of the developing world I learn, I see man’s inhumanity to man even more pronounced with each page. But despite that, I also see that the human tapestry is something to admire in all of its glory, despite the fact that I’ll never get to experience the whole thing no matter HOW hard I study.

To some degree it shook me to my core. I saw exactly how rigged the system seems to be in favor of the world-destroyers and doubted my ability to change anything.

But I’ll end on this note.

April 2013. I’m in Woodbridge, Connecticut, my parents’ hometown (for Passover). I go to the library one day and I go to the travel section and I find a book on “Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands” in the language section. I discover the Greenlandic Language for the first time and I fall in love. I obsess about it and the very thought of me seeing another Greenlandic word makes me giddy.

I go to the library the day afterwards and I take a digital camera with me. I photograph all of the language section (it was about five pages or so) and then I go home and I make flashcards out of it on Memrise (it was the first-ever Greenlandic course on Memrise. Now there seem to be about a hundred more from all languages!)

Despite the fact that I was not good and it (and still don’t think I am) I wrote blogposts about my experience, consumed Greenlandic TV and music and told many of my friends about it.

In 2018 I’ve noticed that, at least online, there is a lot more recognition of all things Greenland. Especially in the language-learning communities. Back when Memrise had hundreds of course categories available on the app version (before relegating them only to the Desktop version), they had a Greenlandic category…one that was added because of something that I myself did. Thousands of learners have at least sampled the language from the looks of it. And it seems that Greenland-o-mania will grow even more with my release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” later next year (despite the fact that it got delayed MULTIPLE years on account of difficult circumstances in my life).

Perhaps I had a part in bringing about this “revolution”. I will not know for certain, but back when I made the Palauan video series I actually encountered several commenters saying that they were inspired to teach Palauan to their significant others because of my videos.

That’s. Not. Nothing.

Tomorrow is my birthday and I’m going to go get some gifts. I’ll say this: Clozemaster Pro in its custom sentence packs is going to be HARD to beat!

See you at age 30!

First Day of Tumbuka (Using uTalk Only) … How Did it Go?

I’ll make this easy reading.

For those who didn’t read my post yesterday, I decided to set myself a more dare-devilish goal (in line with a greater self-improvement related goal that I am likely to unveil tomorrow).

For one year (from this year’s one-week-before-Rosh-Hashanah until that of the next year), I would use ONLY one app to learn Tumbuka (a regional language of Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania). The only other resource I am allowed to use is CHANCE conversations with speakers (because this opportunity, if it presents itself, will be essential for the project).

I completed the first skill and unlocked another one – said first skill was filled with basic phrases like “how much does this cost?” “yes”, “no”, “I don’t understand” etc. (Omniglot.com fare, mostly, but less extensive).

I’ll see if I can go through a whole skill every day, if not that then a half-skill. I may also need to go to some other courses to “get more coins” to unlock stuff – something that would not be difficult as long as I want to endure fit-for-children voices in languages I’ve been studying for years now.

Some thoughts:

  • I quite like it! I’m already quite equipped to…pretty much say everything that I learned, with maybe one or two exceptions.
  • The temptation to use a notebook, Wikipedia or Memrise is a great one. But I have to resist it for the sake of science.
  • The pronunciation is straightforward and the app presents MANDATORY recording of your voice in order to complete some activities (in the 1990’s this would be an issue but not so in the smartphone era).
  • So far, absolutely no grammar coverage at all in the curriculum. But I guess this will make this “mission” very interesting, it being the first language in adulthood in which I am not learning grammar for in a “scholarly” manner.
  • In misremembering words in the recording phases, I defaulted to patterns I recognized from…languages of Oceania or Greenlandic. Given that I was also using THOSE languages in uTalk, perhaps not altogether surprising.
  • I like the hippo. I still quite like the hippo. Perhaps I will meet the hippo one day. Or not.

 

Some rules I’m laying out for this challenge:

  • The PRIMARY GOAL is to complete the course (every single skill marked with a check and every activity done) a year from yesterday.
  • My goal should be to COMPLETE a skill every day.
  • If necessary, I can review a skill to fulfill this requirement.
  • I MAY NOT USE ANYTHING ELSE TO LEARN TUMBUKA DURING THE YEAR. No Memrise, no books, no writing exercises, no Glosbe – nothing but uTalk and CHANCE conversations with fluent speakers. Granted given that I didn’t even know what it was two weeks ago, I don’t think this should be much of an issue. (I have met people from Zambia before in real life, however…speaking of which, I should update that list on my blog…)
  • During vacations or periods of holiday or illness, I am exempt from using the app on a daily basis.
  • When the challenge is complete after one year, I may choose to either write a blogpost about the experience or film myself speaking Tumbuka.

 

(I’ll also write another “diary entry” one week out and another one a month out or so, and possibly one every month after that.)

 

Well this is going to be an interesting year. If only I can keep myself consistently motivated. Let’s see if I can do it!

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Jared’s Return! September 2018 Plan and Announcing uTalk Tumbuka Challenge!

After having reflected a lot on my journey and having fully settled into New York City again, here I am reflecting on the paths I will take, with languages and otherwise.

For one, it seems that with each coming year that I will likely focus more on quality up until the time in which I raise a family (which is a LONG while away), in which case I will probably have to downsize my language list to whatever I can reasonably manage in both time AND profit (e.g. given how much the languages of Scandinavia are essential to me surviving, I have to keep them on my list…probably for the rest of my life. And I’m happy about it. Because that has been a childhood dream).

Since I got back from Fiji in mid-August my primary focus was Tahitian for two weeks. It went by…not as well as I would have hoped, but I do realize that two weeks are barely enough to form much of any variety of skill without INTENSE study (and I can’t sideline freelancing for intensive Tahitian study at this point).

That said, I was capable of having some online exchanges in the language during August 2018. I am going to be redefining my focus with that language, however: I will be using Memrise with the daily-streak function for quite a while and then when I feel that Tahitian isn’t so “strange” for me, then I’ll devote myself to studying it again. I’ve been inputting vocabulary from my books into my personalized course.

For now, Tahitian is only kept alive in my Memrise course and little else.

And then there is my commitment of thirty minutes of Hungarian. Some things I should mention about how it is going so far. Three positive, and then three negative:

  • Passive vocabulary is WAY up.
  • A lot of the grammar makes sense.
  • My accent is good.

As for what’s lacking:

  • I have trouble understanding a lot of television.
  • I sometimes am nervous to converse with native speakers.
  • My ability to speak has been inconsistent (sometimes I have to go slowly, other times I feel that I’m “really feeling it”. I had very much the same issue with Fijian four month ago as well).

I’m going to need to do active immersion more often – as I think that’s the key ingredient I’ve been missing in my studies. Watch television and piece together sentences and “what’s going on” to the best of my ability. It worked with many other languages before (most noteworthily the Nordic family) and I should expect it to work again, even though it means that I’ll have to put a LOT more effort into it than I did with languages closer to English.

For various online challenges I’m revisiting some of my “old favorites”, especially from Oceania. I’ll be making one video in Fijian every weekend for the Langfest challenge and a recording in Gilbertese every day for the Huggins International Challenge (not a long one, and unlike my normal routine I’ve been preparing elements of a script in the Gilbertese recordings because I REALLY NEED THE WRITING PRACTICE).

So that’s where I’m at in September. Creative stuff and freelancing are keeping me busy and I realize that I don’t have to put a lot of effort into “maintenance” as much as I used to because of the fact that I attend multiple language events every week.

Now here’s something fun…

Thanks to Kevin Fei Sun having won several free uTalk courses at Langfest (that I could not attend, yada yada yada Fiji)., I got intrigued by the app as well. Despite doing the freemium version in which I need to unlock individual skills, I’ve been making progress with Fijian and Greenlandic while on the train or as something to “warm up my voice” (given that there is a self-recording component).

But I’m so intrigued by it that I’m curious how well it would teach me a language by itself.

So here’s a YEAR-LONG CHALLENGE I’ll set for myself.

In the app, there’s a regional language of Zambia called “Tumbuka” (with a nice picture of a hippo which is almost the only reason it got my attention). Today is one week from Rosh Hashanah. So this challenge will last for one Jewish year – until one week from Rosh Hashanah next year.

How much Tumbuka could I learn while using the app ONLY? I may not use anything else.

Granted, because I’ll need to unlock the skills at a slow pace, and I have no routine, it seems that my progress will not be linear. Then again, I could also just get the subscription for 10 USD a month and be done with it. But I’m curious how I could manage with uTalk ALONE.

It will probably not work, but it will be a curious experience, and something I could manage with a minority language from sub-Saharan Africa.

I’ll log my progress after the first day tomorrow and I’ll give you a “first impression”. More details and a “ruleset” will be featured therein.

I’m off to try this Tumbuka course for the first time.

Wish me luck!

Jared

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I’m on a Break in Fiji (August 2018)

Well here I am. A throwaway comment from my parents saying that they were thinking about taking me to Fiji later this year has blossomed until TWO full language learning missions about to reach wondrous heights in the coming two weeks.

vosa vakaviti

I took a break from both Fijian and Fiji Hindi the last few weeks due to burnout, but after having completed and PUBLISHED my Fijian Memrise Course (which involved HOURS of copying the entire glossary to the Lonely Planet Fijian guide, which I finished later today) I feel renewed and determined.
Aside from a conversation with a Samoan on VR Chat that I had once (!) as well as meeting with Australians, New Zealanders, and Hawaiians, I have NOT had any voice-to-voice or even person-to-person conversations with anyone from Oceania, even though I have received support from throughout the continent to continue with my love of Pacific Languages and to continue writing about them.
I have no idea what to expect, except for what the guidebooks tell me. (The Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook says that even using a simple phrase to a Fijian speaker will result in you being told that you speak the language “perfectly”).
I remember this uncertainly before. Last year I went to Greenland for the first time and, while I experienced the country and the language online, I hadn’t met any real-life Greenlanders until minutes before getting on the plane.
I was met with unbelievable support for my Greenlandic studies every step of the journey when I was in Nuuk, from virtually everyone (not also to mention that my very good Danish was also appreciated and used as well). Not ONCE did I hear anything like “why not spend your time doing something more useful?”. If anything, I got free drinks, cemented friendships and as much help as I wanted.
I should expect something similar in Fiji from both the iTaukei and the Indo-Fijians (sadly my Rotuman studies fell by the wayside because of burnout but there may come a day in which I’ll return with Rotuma in mind in particular).
My language missions for the two weeks:
(1) My Hungarian studies have been going SUPER successfully. I can nearly taste low-level fluency by 2019. I’ll be suspending my studies of the language until the trip is over.
(2) Fijian and Fiji Hindi are my first priorities.
(3) I will also be rehearsing other languages of Oceania via Memrise as well.
(4) If there is time, I will also put effort into filming something for the Langfest Challenge, for which I have chosen Irish, Lao and Tajik.
For the next two weeks I’ll be in Fiji and NOT writing blogposts, but I WILL write posts about my Fijian and Fiji Hindi language experiences upon my return, complete with newfound wisdom and the feeling that I am a more full human because of it.
See you in August!

How to Learn Greenlandic: A Resource Guide

 This is the most requested piece in the history of the blog.

20171023_135507

Granted, I’ve been in writing retirement for a while (because I’m focusing more on my video game right now which is my life’s first priority at the moment), but in honor of Greenland’s National Day, I’ll be keeping with tradition and letting you know exactly where to turn if you want to begin your journey into the fascinating language of Greenlander Country (Kalaallit Nunaat – which literally means “to the Greenlanders their Land).

Some of you may know that I am the proud uploader of the first Greenlandic course in the history of Memrise.com. My courses are still there and encompass two very important elements:

  • Basic phrases that are useful in tourist situations (which is ALWAYS a helpful starting point) and
  • Suffixes (complete with examples). Suffixes are ESSENTIAL in Greenlandic because twenty-letter words are the norm. There are suffixes for verbs and suffixes for nouns and also suffixes that transform one part of speech into another. Like some other languages outside the Indo-European sphere, the boundaries between parts of speech are significantly blurry in Greenlandic.

 

Takulaaruk! – have a look! -> taku- (see) –laar- (a little bit, “please”, serves to make a soft command) + uk -> it.

 

In some extreme examples, you end up with words like “Nalunaarasuartaatilioqateeraliorfinnialikkersaatiginialikkersaatilillaranatagoorunarsuarooq” (Once again, they tried to build a giant radio station, but apparently it was only on the drawing board). Dissect this word in a comment and you’ll win a prize!

 

I get messages on a weekly basis on how to learn Greenlandic, and the Memrise courses in both English and Danish are a good start. (NOTE: they are accessible from the Desktop version despite the fact that the app version only offers the choices of the official courses. Memrise, you really need to fix that…)

One book that I’ve found extremely useful is the German-Language “Grönländisch – Wort für Wort” which explains the grammar very clearly and also provides a lot of useful phrases for all tourist situations. That said, I somehow feel as though the book itself isn’t going to fully equip you to speed-read the Greenlandic Language Edition of “Sermitsiaq” (a local newspaper).

For that, allow me to introduce to you one of the most useful and thorough dictionaries I have ever encountered: http://www.ilinniusiorfik.gl/oqaatsit/daka

Yes, it is Danish-Greenlandic and if you don’t know Danish you’ll probably get repetitive strain injury via copy-pasting everything into Google Translate. The dictionary includes both example words and phrases that fully illustrate how you use something.

Let’s show you an example from the book:

 

elske vb. (-de, -t)

~r ham, ~r hende asavaa (fx de ~r hinanden asaqatigiipput)

~r ham højt, ~r hende højt asaaraa

han ~r at rejse angalajumatuvoq

jeg ~r kaffe (ɔ: synes det smager herligt) kaffi mamaraara

 

I’ll translate this for you:

To love

Loves him / her – asavaa (e.g. they love each other asaqatigiipput)

Loves him / her dearly – asaaraa

He loves to travel – angalajumatuvoq

I love coffee (i.e. thinks that it tastes great) kaffi mamaraara

 

One thing to understand about Greenlandic is the fact that its verb forms are difficult. There are intransitive forms (ones that you use when there is no direct object) and transitive forms (ones that you use when there is one). Granted, languages like Fijian and Hungarian also have similar systems as well, but in Greenlandic each pair of subject -> object determiners is different.

At 4:19 in this video you can see the full conjugation of intransitive verbs:

nerivunga – I eat

nerivutit – you (sing.) eat

qitippunga – I dance

qitipputit – you (sing.) dance

Etc.

 

Later on in the video comes the “atuar-“ root which means “to read” (a word that didn’t exist in Greenlandic prior to foreign contact).

 

There is one issue with a lot of learner-ese in Greenlandic, the fact that making a jump to native level material can be VERY DIFFICULT (especially if it is very poetic material like Nanook’s song lyrics).

One thing that would be helpful is to listen to the BEGINNING of words and recognize the roots of each word first of all. In Greenlandic and other polysynthetic languages, all words have a “base” on which other words are made.

Illoqarfimmut -> to the city.

Illu is the base. And it means “house”. Qar -> to have. fik -> place where there are. mut -> towards.

“Towards the place where yon be houses.”

The language works with mathematical precision precisely for this reason. Greenlandic isn’t necessarily difficult on paper it is just very hard to get used to. But that in of itself has earned it the coveted title of “hardest language I ever attempted”. (Palauan is second place).

This thread here provides a thorough list of resources: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/18623583/Resources-for-Greenlandic-Kalaallisut

Some others I would really like to mention:

Glosbe.com is also very useful by virtue of the fact that its cross translations will ease you into reading Greenlandic even if the words seem very intimidating.

What’s more, you can also begin writing your own sentences, however simple, to gain an active understanding of the language.

Lastly there is a lot of bilingual Danish / Greenlandic material present on websites such as KNR are Sermitsiaq.

You’re probably wondering if it is possible to learn Greenlandic without Danish at all. Perhaps, but do keep in mind that a small amount of loan words as well as all numbers higher than 12 are taken straight from Danish, not also to mention that it would also be useful for your Greenland journey as well (as things stand).

Lastly I’m here to help in any way I can. I may not know the language too well, and it isn’t my best one . When I was there I usually managed basic tourist functions with ease but nothing very deep. That said I can provide help or even provide more resources if necessary.

If I have my way, Greenland-o-mania may be taking over the world before we know it!

Inuiattut ulluanni pilluaritsi! (Happy Greenland Day!)

Mother of the Sea and Me

3 Months of Fijian Concluded – How Did I Do?

Happy Birthday to Kathy Gimbel! (My Mom!)

Well three months of Fijian is, in a sense, over! But my studying and love of the Fijian language will, as things stand, never cease!

Did I become fluent in it? At the VERY least, I have a solid grounding in things related to tourism and getting around. At the most, I may be able to teach classes in Fijian will little of an issue!

A lot of people ask me if it is possible to learn a language in a short amount of time, especially given the endless debates about Benny Lewis’s “Fluent in 3 Months” name. (Do we need another reminder that the title is actually a challenge rather than a promise?)

Here is my honest opinion: in three months, it is VERY possible to assemble the FRAME of a language. This means that you (1) understand the pronunciation (2) understand how sentences are made (3) understand how various parts of speech (e.g. adjectives, nouns, verbs, etc.) are formed and where they go in a sentence. (Example: in a language like English an adjective would go before a noun in modifies, in Fijian it would go after, hence “the Bible” would be “iVola Tabu” [yes, the word “tabu”, from where we get the word “tabu” in English, DOES also mean “holy” in addition to something not spoken about or treated with holiness!]).

Once you make the FRAME, you start filling in the “picture”, which is vocabulary from which you acquire from reading / using the language / other means. I’m already 700+ words into my Fijian Memrise course (I intend to put the whole glossary of the Lonely Planet Guide into it!)

vosa vakaviti

Anyhow, here are some observations:

 

  • With languages closer to English, you can fall into the trap of having the illusion of knowing MORE by virtue of the fact that you understand more of it. With languages more distant from English, your active vocabulary should be your primary focus.

 

Learning how to say basic sentences (and then, later on, more complicated sentences) is a confidence builder that will enable you to assemble the “frame”, however slowly.

In learning Fijian, I turned on audio about three weeks in and I could barely understand any of it except for when they lapsed into English (which, predictably, does happen in radio broadcasts—English is an official language of Fiji, after all). This actually got me away from immersion (which was the path of least resistance when I was learning English Creoles, for example) and more focused on my active abilities.

In a sense, this was an advantage – because I focused a lot more on my own acquisitions rather than expecting passive work to “do everything”. I did do some immersion at points, even when I felt I wasn’t really ready, in order to pick out key words, note sentence structure or, best of all, improve my accent. (The Fijian “r” and “s” in particular are very juicy—not surprisingly, many people from places like Papua New Guinea will speak English with heavily rolled r’s and thick s’s that sound like the “ce” in “Joyce”)

Even what may seem like heavy disadvantages can be used to hack your brain into getting it doing what needs to be done.

  • Don’t Stress About Your Accent. It Will Come Eventually!

I remember one time that I was reciting Fijian phrases for a friend I remarked that I was “speaking Fijian with a New York Accent” (wait, that was last night, wasn’t it?) That said, I repeated the phrase in something that sounded more like natural Fijian as spoken by a native speaker.

I was really worried that I sounded like a “white person” in my first batch of recordings for the 30-Day Speaking Challenge, but interestingly enough I noticed that the more Fijian I spoke, the more I would be attuned to the pronunciation norms, especially when I would listen to Fijian music during my commute. (Warning: a lot of contemporary Fijian music does rely heavily on auto-tune, so some may prefer radio over music for that).

This is a good thing to keep in mind for my next three-month mission (May – July) as well as for future ones.

 

  • Sometimes Speaking Exercises About Your Life Cannot Prepare You for All Situations.

 

Fijian pronouns have FIFTEEN forms. Let’s have a look at this chart, shall we?

 

na vosa

Source: https://universalium.academic.ru/295036/Pronouns_in_Fijian

 

Guess how many of them I was using in my speaking exercises? Usually just “au”, “eratou” and “era” (sometimes pronounced as “iratou” or “ira”). For those unaware: paucal is for a GROUP of things, plural is for a LARGE GROUP of things (or speaking about a species or type of person in general).

 

And then of course the possessives were even odder because there are multiple possessive forms depending on whether you own the object substantially, will eat it, will drink it, or … miscellaneous.

 

I had to do a bunch of table recitations (and use them in sentences) in order to get this “missing information” in my head, because these pronouns and possessives ARE important!

 

  • Focus on What You DO Have Rather Than What You are Lacking!

Little I can say to this other than what I just wrote. In going through my Memrise lists there were so many words I didn’t know or recognize, but the important thing is to not get discouraged and move forward!

 

  • In the Event of a Rarer Language or One Whose Native Speakers You May Not See Often, Don’t Overthink It.

I can imagine that actually being in Fiji will be a significant guide for me to “conform” and patch up on my knowledge accordingly. I’ll learn a lot of aspects of formality and slurred speech than I may have not been able to pick up from my books or from the speaking exercises accordingly. I intend to believe in myself!

 

Future Plans:

I’ll continue to be working on Fijian accordingly, but now that I’ve “assembled the frame”, I think I could turn my focus elsewhere. I’ve been working on Fijian almost non-stop for the whole year, and I’m itching for a new project.

So for May – July (as things stand) I’ll be doing Kiribati / Gilbertese (in addition to “sides” of other languages) and for the fall (August – October) I’m likely to focus on Hungarian. These were two languages I’ve dreamed of learning and this is the year they’ll get the attention they deserve!

Lastly I’d like to thank all of my readers for believing in me and writing supportive comments. Also! Ask questions! Suggest future articles! This blog continues to exist because of readers like YOU!