The Biggest Mistake People Make at Language Social Events

come back when you can put up a fight

I have been going to language exchange events for years now (although I’ve been showing up at them less frequently in 2018 due to reasons I cannot disclose quite yet). In some respects it actually teaches me more about human psychology than it does about languages in general.

(It reminds me of the fact that, when I play Interactive Online / .io games, I actually learn more about human psychology rather than strategy as well. I will also never forget the time that someone named his/her character “press ctrl-w to go faster”.)

I’m sorry to have to say this but it really needs to be said: more often than not, seeing people interact at Language Exchange events makes me understand that most people don’t really know how to learn languages very well, for multiple reasons. I’ll go into why shortly.

If you attend a language exchange social event, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor if you want to learn (1) the local language (e.g. if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have many opportunities to learn Icelandic with natives, given as they’ll be the most commonly represented demographic) and (2) English (even if it isn’t the local language).

But concerning someone who wants to learn Mandarin or French and only speak a little bit of that and nothing else but English? You’re going to need to read this…because otherwise you may leave that event broken and discouraged, not also to mention demotivated from ever returning.

Now, you’ve come here for the biggest mistake, so here it is:

The biggest mistake that people make at Language Social Events is not seeking to make gains with their languages when they interact with native speakers.

And EVEN if there are no native speakers of language you want to speak present, feel free to bring some small books along that you can use to play “show and tell”. I did this most recently at an event aimed primarily at learners of Asian Languages (I turned out, not surprisingly, being the only person representing any learner of Southeast Asian Languages. But hey, maybe a Burmese or Lao enthusiast would show and I needed to account for that chance. Besides, I could easily learn about other people’s cultures or even pick up words from languages I haven’t been actively learning).

I had some books on my person and one of them was a Jamaican Patois book. One of my friends who was a Mandarin native speaker didn’t speak Patois and didn’t have any interest in it, but I told him that Chinese languages influenced Jamaican culture in general, showed him the book, read him a few phrases and showed him pictures of Jamaica. That way, I made gains with a language that NO ONE there spoke. I also met someone at a party who was learning Malagasy and HE did very much the same thing to me (despite having no book). I really appreciated it because I have to say I don’t know much about Madagascar at all!

But if you meet native speakers of a language you are actively learning, let me tell you what I most often see versus what you should be doing:

What you should be doing: even if you’re not fluent, ask them to help you put together sentences or even form sentences in your target language while they “feed you words” (they’ll be happy to do this, I’ve done it with English and even with other languages I’m fluent in like Norwegian with other learners). Also ask them to provide details about their language as well as sentences or cultural tidbits that are likely to impress the NEXT native-speaker you meet.

What a lot of people do instead: ask small talk questions only using English. Use a handful of pre-programmed sentences in their target language(s) and spend most of the time using English instead. Use language exchange events as a means to flirt rather than to actually rehearse languages.

The primary key is that you leave having gained something. That something could be cultural know-how, phrases that will help you put together sentences better, or tips on improving your accent. You can even make gains with languages you aren’t actively learning! (I know because I’ve done this with languages like Japanese that I’m not learning at the moment nor do I have any plans to in the immediate future. I’ve also taught people basic phrases in languages like Burmese and Norwegian that they may never see themselves learning at all).

And now one thing I would consider: even if you intend to focus only on one language, I would recommend learning at least a LITTLE bit of a variety of other languages (feel free to do this even if you have no intention to learn them to fluency). This way, you’ll actually be able to start conversations more easily.

If you’re the only one who knows any Khmer, Oromo or Danish, you’ll have people asking you about it even if they have no intention to learn the language themselves. Even if you speak only a LITTLE bit, you can actually be the “local authority” on that language (as I’ve done WAAAAY too often).

You can even use this as a means to learn how to “teach” through an L2 you’ve been working on (and you may discover vocabulary gaps along the way). Most people who show up to these events are curious people and this is even MORE true if it’s a paid event.

A lot of people use English (or English + their native language) 5/6th of the time at language exchange events and wonder why they’re not making gains and why other learners are overtaking them. It isn’t about raw intelligence, it’s about the fact that language learners that put more in get more out. And you have to put effort in from EVERYWHERE in EVERY area of your life if you want the coveted prize of “near-native fluency” or even anything close to it.

Don’t enter without a plan as to what you want and how you’ll get it. Yes, I know you can’t control who will show up (maybe that Finnish speaker will be there, or maybe there won’t be anyone with whom to practice! Who knows?) But you should prepare for a wide range of situations based on what you’ve read about the event series and how you’ve experienced it before in the past.

For most language exchange events in New York City, I’ll expect to use the Romance Languages with regularity. Speakers of Chinese languages, especially Mandarin and Cantonese, will be present with consistency, alongside speakers of Russian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, languages from throughout South Asia and Arabic dialects that will usually lean towards Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Somewhat rarer than that but still frequent are Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Persian Languages. Rarer still but showing up about once every two months or so are speakers of Nordic Languages, Turkic Languages of Central Asia (such as Kazakh and Uyghur) and languages of Southeast Asia. The rarest that I’ve encountered are speakers of African Languages, usually from South Africa and Ethiopia. Only once or twice have I encountered speakers of native languages of the Americas. I have never encountered anyone from Oceania at any language exchange event to date.

So think about who you encounter frequently and develop plans for what languages you KNOW you will practice there, what languages you are LIKELY to, and which languages you will probably NOT practice, but would LIKE TO.

Tl;dr always make gains with your L2 whenever you speak to a native speaker. Even if you’re not fluent, you can make those gains. The key is to get SOME progress on your language-learning, and you can always do that.

Have a good weekend!

A Brief Look at Some Native American Languages

Today is an American holiday fraught with controversy. In its honor, I have decided to reflect upon some indigenous languages of the Americas, one of which I know quite well and the other two of which I don’t.

  1. Sioux / Lakota

 

For those of you wondering what language was described in my book collection as a mixture of Polish, French and Chinese, wonder no more!

 

Obviously this statement can only be qualified in regards to the way the language sounds, and even then there are those that may try to call it into question. For one, the “l” sound in Lakota sounds very much like the English “w”, not unlike the Polish letter “ł”.

 

Lakota has a language forum for all levels (from beginner until Native Speaker) and a language consortium as well. Have a look yourself:

 

http://www.lakotadictionary.org/phpBB3/

 

http://www.lakhota.org/

 

One thing that is noteworthy about Lakota is that, unlike either of the other members on this list, it is a very purist language.

 

For those of you who have studied Chinese you may remember that various country names are given new versions that match a certain sound in the language being borrowed from and a meaning in Chinese that is deemed relevant.

 

Lakota is even more rigid in fact that the names given to countries don’t even match any sound in the language. The word for “Germany”, for example, literally means “the land of people who speak badly”

 

iyasica makhoche

There is a historical reason for this: American settlers were expected to speak English, and the Sioux picked up the language accordingly. As for the German-American settlers that spoke German and not English—they were known as the “people who speak badly” because they couldn’t be understood. The name stuck and remains in place until today.

 

I actually did some searches in the Lakota Dictionary for “Israel”, “Austria”, and “Switzerland” and it didn’t turn up anything.

 

The words for modern inventions are likewise all neologisms, not unlike the situation found in Icelandic, also noted for being notoriously purist.

 

Some things you may recognize in the journey to learning (which I have barely begun because of sustaining other languages): the word “tipi” comes from Lakota, as does a system for giving names to outsiders, similar to that of Chinese (also quite purist). Obviously this system has been featured in American popular culture depictions of Native Americans.

 

For those of you who might have played some of the Age of Empires games, I recall vaguely that one of the installments did feature Sioux soldiers using bits of genuine Lakota.

 

Before I go onto the next language, I should say that the Lakota Language Consortium has created a version of the Bernstein Bears cartoons dubbed into the language!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nta0aAQyVIA&list=PLWebueRr1D03NQzavj6yIHZimqbjFhQ1Y

 

  1. Greenlandic / Kalaallisut

 

“Oh, that’s the language with the really long words, right?”

kid banging on a typewriter

Greenlandic is an Eskimo-Aleut language with a good balance of purism and Danish import words. The word “Inuit” is actually a Greenlandic word, meaning “people”. For that matter, “Igloo” also comes from the word “illu”, meaning “house”.

The names of the countries in Greenlandic almost all come from Danish, with exceptions made for Greenland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Faroe Islands (arguably America, which could be referred to as “USA”, “Amerika”, or “Naalagaaffeqatigiit”, which is a literal translation of “United States”).

Some linguistics have referred to Greenlandic as the world’s hardest language, and therefore I should consider a blogpost as to why learning Greenlandic isn’t as hard as they might thing. But this is not that post.

I wrote about Greenlandic in more detail here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/thats-all-one-word-learning-introductory-greenlandic/comment-page-1/

Interesting fact: Greenlandic was featured in Gravity, spoken by an off-screen character singing a lullaby.

For those of you more intrigued by Greenland’s more modern side (which I get asked quite often about by people), look no further than these links:

Here is a show on KNR (the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation), in which video games and movies are reviewed:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NjR5uAaAZM

 

One of my favorite television shows back before KNR did a cleanup of its site a few weeks ago was this show, “Pisuttuarpunga” (a kid’s show, “I was out for a walk”). It is based on the premise of a Greenlandic children’s song about what kids think about when the adults in their lives are away working.

The premise is based on the song (featured in the video), and the main character who lives in a tent spends each episode trying out a new job in real-life modern Greenland, and learns the basics of each in a given episode. Extraordinarily educational, and I believe there are two seasons for sale on DVD (but hopefully the free episodes will come back to the site soon):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtjEdZ8XxiY

 

My journey through Greenlandic Language and Culture has been quite extensive so I invite you to look around this blog and read what you want on the topic, should you be interested.

  1. Nahuatl

 

“The Elegant Language”, as it literally translates to, was formerly known as “Aztec” by many. My Nahuatl book (which is in German) asks the following question in the introduction: “Aztec? Hasn’t it already died off?”

 

No, actually, and when you think about it, it makes sense that it didn’t. If the Spanish colonists were trying to convert the local populations, wouldn’t it make sense to learn the local languages to reach out to them? (The same logic that led to the New Testament being translated into Yiddish…the result is positively hilarious, I assure you…)

 

That book also offers the following remark about the indigenous languages of Mexico: there are many of them, and they are about as diverse as German, Korean, and Swahili. (Hence: if you think that a given Maya Language is similar to Nahuatl in any way…rest assured that English and Icelandic are closer to each other than Maya Languages to Nahuatl)

 

Nahuatl is probably the best known of the “Nahuan Languages”, which is why my book regularly offers dialectal varieties.

 

Students of Nahuatl may be surprised with the amount of words that may be familiar to them in some context already—“Tomato”, “Avocado”, “Chili”, “Mexico” and “Chocolate” all have their origins in the language. Many place names of Mexico are similarly indebted, as are import words known to speakers of Mexican Spanish.

 

Like Greenlandic, Nahuatl is polysynthetic, as you could possibly guess from looking at the Nahuatl “Huiquipedia” : http://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl

 

One thing that quite vexes me about learning Nahuatl, however, is the relative lack of multimedia material (e.g. the likes of the Greenlandic videos seen above). Maybe I just need to look in other places…

 

…but it is good to know that there are many universities throughout the world that are teaching it and that there are eager students willing to learn!

 

Will you be one of them?

The Polyglot Barrrrr!

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Some things don’t change…

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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