How Do So Many Languages Fit in Your Head?

Ah, yes, a topic that has been requested for a long time!

I’d like to dedicate this post to Paul DuCett for our Facebook-reminded Friend-versary. Granted, he’s someone who doesn’t have a lot of problems with this in the least, with very convincing accents in most of his languages (that I’ve heard him speak). But I thought that I’d let the world know that he’s an inspiration in my life as well as to many others around him.

Also, the topic was requested by another friend of mine, Dan Haworth, who is also an extraordinary role model and language enthusiast.

Hey, if you have any topics to request, I’m glad to hear them! Write ‘em in the comments!

Aaaand…onward!

Online as well as offline, I encounter people who speak five or six languages very well, and they say “I have enough confusion as-is, I couldn’t possibly imagine the sort of confusion you encounter”

Do I encounter confusion? Undoubtedly.

Do I find a way to minimize it? Read on!

Arieh Smith (of Ari in Beijing fame) once asked me what my biggest strength was, and here comes the answer:

The one extraordinary strength that I have is that I can make connections between events, words and many other things with great ease.

How does this relate to having a lot of languages fit in my head?

Well, you as a human being have a lot of senses, and as a result you usually associate things you remember with more than one sensory element. (Imagine the setup of your room, for example, that you may associate with feelings, scents, etc.)

One thing I do in order to minimize confusion is that I ensure that the languages to which I commit myself are not just words, but also canisters of experiences that I have had with them.

Let’s take a language with which I have been overwhelming successful with: Norwegian. It has a lot of challenges despite the fact that it is one of two languages that I’ve heard described by its native speakers as easy (the other being…Burmese? But I’ve heard them both described as hard at times, too…)

Namely, the pronunciation can be a bit tricky at the beginning. Regne (to count) is pronounced “rye-neh”, but legen (doctor) is pronounced “leg-en” and reglene (the rules) is pronounced “reg-le-ne”. What’s more, the musical sounds of the language are very difficult to imitate and I have still yet to see an online polyglot pull it off very well (although no doubt I have encountered many Americans in person that have spoken Norwegian so impressively that I thought they were natives!)

And if you know Danish, the trouble expands because the two languages look almost identical on paper! So I wanted to know both Danish AND Norwegian but what could I do?

Last night at Mundo Lingo I was expressing the fact that I was still shocked that I don’t mix up Danish and Norwegian almost…ever. (Interestingly if I’m alternating between Swedish and Norwegian I can have some issues but that’s another story)

I pin this success on the fact that I associate the Danish language with the songs and experiences I’ve had with Danish, and the Norwegian language I associate with a whole new set of experiences!

These experiences include not only talking to native speakers (or non-native speakers) but also using the language online, times in which the fact that I knew Danish came into conversation (“Oh, yeah, when Danish speakers say they like something they say ’they can suffer it!’ Isn’t that fun?”

Then there are the languages that I don’t know as well and that’s because I still have yet to collect a lot of experiences with them. Last night at Mundo Lingo I felt that I did very well with Swedish, Danish, German, Spanish, Hebrew and English. Not so for French, Ukrainian, Burmese or Russian.

What am I missing in the last four? Is it because I need more time? Maybe.

But one thing I definitely could use to make it stronger and it affirm the presence of these languages in my head is to attach them to nodes. I have to have unique experiences in which I’m actively using the language. They could be online. They could be offline. They could even be in my dreams for all I know.

Collecting experiences like these serves two purposes:

  • It makes instances when you use the language more memorable, because you are tying the words, the syntax, the sentences to specific happenings.
  • It also serves to create an emotional attachment that not only furthers your desire to get better at the language, but also prevents other things of a similar flavor from entering that space.

So many people mix up languages and I can almost tell you why:

It’s because they haven’t distinguished the flavors between the languages yet.

This also happens as a result of addiction to book learning. Book learning is good. I’ve definitely done it. But at some point you’ll definitely need something else!

Those who mix up Spanish and Portuguese and pronounce them with almost identical accents are probably going to mix them up frequently. Often too many languages learners assume that the way to learning a language is through (1) learning or (2) having a lot of interactions with native speakers.

Yes, they definitely help, but you’ll need a deeper emotional attachment in order to fully make them a part of who you are.

I’m being honest: my emotional attachment to the languages that I succeeded with last night is significantly stronger than those that I didn’t succeed with.

But maybe what I really need is methods to create that attachment.

So how exactly do I keep all the languages in my head?

I associate words, sentences, grammar forms, irregular verbs, etc. with various things. They could be mental images of my friends, cartoon characters, website layouts, album covers, song lyrics, etc.

That way, I have an extended “picture dictionary” on recall.

When the picture dictionary is honed, I can manage to be unstoppable when speaking a language. If the picture dictionary isn’t honed, I mess up. And yes, I have the picture dictionary technique even with my native language!

As a child when I was learning what “Hanukkah” or a “Sukkah” was, I associated them with particular scenes from the VHS tapes that I was exposed to in school or at home. I did this naturally (although I don’t know if my mind works differently than yours. A lot of people assume that I am a “genius” and that I have a distinct advantage because of it. Perhaps I do, perhaps I don’t, but I’m here to provide techniques and the idea of whether or not I’m a genius is “teykudik”, a Yiddish word meaning “not having any possible conclusion or endpoint in any way whatsoever”)

So that’s my trick as to not mixing them up. You wouldn’t associate the taste of vanilla ice cream with the word “chocolate”…or would you? In the same way, I wouldn’t mix up Spanish and Hebrew (like WAAAY too many people I’ve met say they have) because the former is my experiences with my Spanish friends in Poland and the latter is my experiences with Israeli expatriates all over the world. I associate the two languages in very different spheres because of that.

Mixing up languages? Collect new experiences in any regard, in each of your languages, ones that will endow each of your languages with a very distinct flavor that you wouldn’t “mesh” with any of the other flavors.

And there you have it!

come back when you can put up a fight

Several Languages at the Same Time?

DSC00067 (5)

I get asked about learning several languages at the same time by many, MANY people. The common wisdom that curious souls tend to glean from forums is the following:

  • Avoid it when possible
  • If you must, choose languages that are highly dissimilar.
  • You must feel very confident in one second language before taking on another.

As for myself, I have a passionate soul and heart that pulls me in all directions and, as a result, am not one for following rules that I don’t have to follow.

I have no real principles that I steadily keep about simultaneous learning. The only principle I really have in this regard is “if you have a desire to learn a language (or to do anything, for that matter), act on it!”.

“But what about mixing up languages?” some of you may say.

Well, I do have tips about doing that. Looking at my list, there are highly similar languages, such as:

  • Yiddish, German and Dutch
  • Norwegian, Swedish and Danish
  • Icelandic and Faroese

All of these, to make the problems even worse, are Germanic. But the only real ones I’ve ever mixed up consistently have been German and Yiddish! Those in the third category I have mixed up on…only a few occasions, and the second one almost never.

What did I do well with the Scandinavian Languages? Well, from the beginning I associated each one of them with highly different modes of speaking. As my first unofficial Swedish teacher told me: Norwegian is nasal, Danish is guttural, and Swedish is (like all things Swedish) in the middle.

The vocabulary between Danish and Standard Norwegian in particular are frighteningly similar, as anyone who has studied both languages will tell you. You thought Spanish and Italian were close? Well…imagine that times ten. Although it should be said that there are vocabulary differences between Danish and Norwegian Bokmål, despite what others may tell you (in jest).

The primary difference between Danish and Norwegian lies in the way they are spoken. The pronunciation differs very much (and Danish pronunciation has been known to scare students of Swedish just by merely mentioning the topic).

Where was I?

Oh, so the reason that I almost never mixed up these languages had to do with the fact that I had them categorized with different registers and feelings. One time on the “How to Learn Any Language Forum” I encountered a post that said that it was “not possible” to learn more than one Scandinavian Language because they were so similar. Well, obviously that isn’t true, because I’ve met people who can speak all three fluently. And if they exist, well, then it is possible…what is there to be said?

So what you genuinely need to do with simultaneously learning is ensure that you put languages on different emotional registers. Give them associations with a culture, with a mode of feeling…and, as such, mixing up words will seem like such a terrible intrusion that it won’t happen.

On a side note, I should also mentioned that I even mix up my native language with my other languages. Sometimes I’m thinking in another language and speaking in English and as a result I have to pause and configure a phrase or a word into something that would make sense more readily in English. (Recent examples of this included me trying to configure the German word “Missbrauch” and the Danish phrase “har lyst”).

Is mixing up languages the worst thing in the world? Not if it happens very infrequently. And I’ve noticed people of all nationalities do it at some point! What you need to do is minimize the chances of it happening by ensuring that you compartmentalize the various versions of yourself in each language so that they don’t intrude on each other more than they need to.

When you have that, you will realize that you can study all of the languages you want, without fear of mixing them up.

Isn’t that nice?

 

 

Mixed-Up Polyglot-Ville

Not all news in my language endeavors is good. Last night at the Polyglot Bar I felt as though I deliberately dealt a sub-par performance.

How? Well, for one, I caught myself mixing up Spanish and Portuguese, and in Portuguese I kept switching between the European and the Brazilian varieties without able to distinguish them well.

ay yay yay

Up until my New York City residence time, I only used various Portuguese’s with native speakers (e.g. the guy who lived in my building in Heidelberg who had a Portuguese flag visible through the window, Brazilian friends, and so on). Now that I am dealing with students, I should probably keep in mind to use the Brazilian accent only, but sometimes slip-ups happen. And it is a lot easier to mix up the two Portuguese’s than it is to mix up Spanish and any variety of Portuguese.

My Dutch attempts were better, but I still felt as though I was sometimes grasping for simple words. And between German and Yiddish I did something interesting: I used as many words from “Loshn-koydesh” (“the holy language”) as possible with speaking Yiddish, to ensure that not an ounce of Deitschmerish would have a hope of creeping in. But having to juggle them jointly still was an issue.

And this is very odd when I consider the fact that, while I did use some Norwegian and Danish at the Swedish conversation hours in Heidelberg, I didn’t actually mix up the languages. And even if I accidentally did, then it certainly didn’t elicit any reactions from anybody in any direction.

Looking back as to my beginnings with the Scandinavian Language, I remember Ulf, a priest in the church of Sweden, giving us a rundown as to how Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian differ from each other in terms of their pronunciation and register. And this was before I even considered learning any of these. As a result, from the very beginning, I but these in different groups, and my accents between the three are cleanly cut and I have been told this summer that my Scandinavian accents are impressive, especially the Norwegian one.

So, I have a problem:

I mix up Spanish and Portuguese and the West Germanic Languages (German, Yiddish, Dutch, and yes, English)

What am I going to do about it?

Interestingly in JTS’ Yiddish sessions I never mix up Yiddish with German or Dutch (I only created “Holandyiddish” last night)

Maybe I just had a bad night. But I’m not going to use that as a cop-out.

My plan:

I have to create a zone for the various accents, the way that I learned to do with the Scandinavian Languages since the beginning. Back when I first learned Spanish in high school, I didn’t really have any “accent zone”, nor did I even know the concept. Now I know better.

So…this means that I have to consciously speak aloud to myself (or, better yet, with others) and make sure to use a European Spanish accent ONLY. Thanks largely to watching dubbed cartoons, I can be cognizant of the differences between European and Latin Spanish and adjust my speech accordingly.

Now for the Portuguese, it is a bit difficult. I will have to force myself into speaking like a Portuguese person and like a Brazilian, and tease out the zones so far so that there is no overlap. Again, the only way that I am going to manage this is by talking out loud.

I remember how I learned the Danish Stød by practicing it on while crossing the street but also in the shower, getting dressed, etc. I will have to use that time in order to rehearse these accents accordingly. This is a problem that I have, but it is capable of being fixed with discipline.

I also have to develop stronger association with these languages.

I have a confession: when I speak Norwegian, it is only a matter of a few seconds until I think of Max Mekker, the infamous Big Bird equivalent from Sesam Stasjon (Norwegian Sesame Street). Let’s be honest: he probably taught me more Norwegian than anyone else.

max mekker with magic wand (ep. 36)

Because of this, I am not tempted to let Swedish or Danish into the Max Mekker Zone. It just doesn’t work.

Maybe I should watch the Co-Productions from Brazil and from Iberia, then? Worth a shot…

The mixing up of Germanic Languages occurs less and less often, but I think the Romance Language one requires instant address.

Speaking of Romance Languages, I do have some good news:

It took me a while, but I met someone at the Polyglot Bar last night—an American enthused with the Italian Language, and he managed to get me having my first Italian Conversation with my DuoLingo knowledge and occasional feeding of words and told me that my accent and that my word choice was very good!

I’m nowhere near confident, but it gets an upgrade!

Benvenuto, Italiano!

italia

Unfortunately, I might need to knock Portuguese down a notch on my language list until I’m more disciplined. So it isn’t among my best languages anymore (until I get more disciplined, that is).

Estonian is also showing remarkable signs of progress. This is because I have been studying it due to false hopes that Estonians would show up to the Polyglot Bar (lots of people told me that they had friends or acquaintances who spoke it), not also to mention its similarities to Finnish which makes it easier for me.

Anyhow…I’m ending the article here, but I’m raising a toast to my Spanish, Portuguese, and Brazilian accents…and no more mixing up things in Polyglot-ville!

Polyglot Report Card, for September 2014 (Part 1)

I hereby take the time to reflect on where I am in my various language journeys, where I could improve, if I am falling back, and what plans I may have.

I will be as honest with myself as I can.

First off, I should begin with English, my native language, the one that you are probably reading this article in.

usa

I actually have a significant problem with speaking English, more than I had expected (surprise, surprise!!!)

In no small part does this have to do with the fact that I had seen my American accent as something to “get rid of” and/or disguise (In my experience, Israelis and Swiss have “American radars” that are very difficult to fool, Germans are about average difficulty, Greeks above-average difficulty, Scandinavians below-average difficulty, and the easiest time I had disguising my accent was among Americans [no big surprise there]).

Not only that, I still pepper my English with some foreign expressions (mostly from German, Finnish or assorted Scandinavian, mostly Danish), and I have to force an American accent most of the time. I should have foreseen this outcome: I kept this side to me so actively bottled up that when I need it to fit in, it still won’t come out, even with effort!

That isn’t even to mention the fact that sometimes I speak English with the sentence structure of other languages, German being the worst offender and Greenlandic a close second .

(For those of you interested in what “speaking English with Greenlandic sentence structure is”, it is when I pause at various points in the sentence depending on when the words would break off…and Greenlandic words are very long indeed… An example: “there is my computer on the table” would be “on the table…my computer is there”.  )

What I intend to do: immerse. Immerse, immerse, immerse. Do I really have to resume watching television in my native language? Has it really come this far? We’ll see…

Next up is Yiddish, the first non-English language that I genuinely felt I became good with…

idishflag

Deitschmerish (the mixing of German and Yiddish) had become a bigger problem than I had anticipated. Mental discipline was enough for me to prevent myself from speaking Deitschmerish most of the time, but at the end of the day I may need to refresh some vocabulary, a process that is WAY long overdue…

The words of the holy tongue (loshn-koydesh) really dealt me the opportunity for my Yiddish to “hold its own”.  Thanks also to German and being constantly cognizant of the differences between German and Yiddish (and Dutch figures into this somehow as well…), I was capable of “slacking off” without practicing and still being able to maintain most conversations. But I really shouldn’t be lazy…but it seems that I came to the right city to practice this language!

As to German, this is the one language I had struggled the most with, and I had difficulty having a conversation in German until about March/April 2014 (at that point I had been living in Germany for a year). Sometimes I also felt very self-conscious, not also to mention my nagging desire to love understudied languages more (gotta live with that…).

I had encountered SO much discouragement and so many roadblocks and reflections and bouts of self-conscious worrying to get to that point, but luckily I have had more than enough success stories with conversational German (during my last semester) for me to be confident now. And now is what counts the most.

deutschland

Thanks largely to my “Deunglisch”, I may need to give spoken German a break for a while…but given how many written materials in German are in the library in which I am currently writing this blogpost, I think I can manage some other skill developments.

And now for Team Scandinavia, and I’ll try to be quick:

norden

Swedish: Depending on who I am with, I can either speak Swedish very confidently or sometimes I’ll worry a lot. I think part of this comes from the “fear of being answered in English” that I had to put up with in Stockholm during my learning phases (my fear of being answered in English in Germany shrank to next to nothing, even when I was there only for a few weeks…)

In all of my languages, I am constantly building vocabulary (even with English, thanks largely to the bizarre Faroese vocabulary lists filled with culinary…um…intrigue?). Even better: when I look at a word in one of the Scandinavian Languages, I’ll compare it to the other two. This works wonders for my memory, interestingly.

The “sj” sound is more natural now than I ever thought that it would be, but I feel as though it will never be perfect (one time I got it down just right! The way a native speaker would!)

Television has worked wonders for me mastering the rhythm of the Swedish Language, I just imagine how certain characters would say the words that I’m thinking (with my musical muscle-memory) and then I duplicate that rhythm. This has never failed me.

What I should do: (1) keep on the journey and (2) realize that I worry too much and (3) stop worrying so much. I’m not a beginner struggling to order cinnamon buns anymore.  That was nearly two years ago.

Danish: My Greenlandic and Faroese adventures have required me to bolster my ability to read Danish and it really shows when I can read a text out loud without flinching. The Stød is now very natural for me, but sometimes I’m still self-conscious about what many Danes might think of my accent (or sometimes even the fact that I chose to learn the language, or that I have this thing for the Danish colonies).

Encountering a group of Danes in the NYC subway system the other day, it occurred to me that, in comparison to many languages, Danish, as spoken by native speakers, isn’t spoken very quickly.

I have two primary goals with Danish: (1) learn slang better (as I may need them to learn Greenlandic and Faroese slang) and (2) stop worrying so much about what native speakers might think if I open my mouth. Come to think of it, I haven’t received discouragement for learning either Danish or Norwegian. From anyone.

Norwegian: Now that I look back over the past year, it is clear that I have spent the smallest amount of time with Norwegian.  

Not surprisingly, I can read Norwegian articles very well (thanks to the whole Danish/Norwegian being very similar). I feel a lot more confident with my accent in Norwegian than I am with either of the other two Scandinavian Languages in question, and I’ve fooled many a non-Norwegian into thinking that I was from the country when I let loose a few words.

I really try not to play favorites with my projects, but I still find that Norwegian is the most beautiful language in my collection and I should use that as a motivation to maintain it.

After all, I really find that I have the least anxiety about Norwegian, but I really wish that I could speak it more often with real people. But hey, I’m in New York right?

And last but not least among my conversational languages…

suomi

I had pumped so many hours into Finnish and I’m proud of it. I’m a far cry from being seen as a Native speaker with higher education, but I’m okay with having a good command of the casual language. From my time in Finland (back in November 2013 when I felt that I really didn’t know it that well), it seems that Finns are readily impressed by genuine foreigner attempts to learn their language (when I write “their language”, I am also being cognizant of the Fennoswedes).

But thanks largely to Finnish being very far from English, I don’t get lots of vocabulary “for free” the way I do with the Germanic or the Romance Languages. I have to maintain the language with extra effort. If that means watching more TV in Finnish than devoting it to other ones, then so be it.

Right now I’d really like to use Finnish to strengthen Estonian and Northern Sami. It would also be interesting for the day in which I take Hungarian very seriously.

My biggest weakness with Finnish? I sometimes struggle with the written language. More than I should. Wikipedia obviously isn’t a problem in this regard, but some other written material is, including, surprisingly, internet comments…

Next time I will write about the almost-conversational languages in part 2!