What Criteria Do I Consider When Choosing a New Language?

First off, let’s start by listing the variety of things I do NOT consider. And you can probably already guess what the first one is:

(1) Number of native speakers. Doesn’t mean anything, isn’t necessary in building an emotional connection to the culture. All languages have their worth and it shouldn’t be measured depending on how many people on this planet speak it. Sure, it might be easier for you to find people to practice with, but in the age of the Internet, does finding people to practice with, even in person, really matter?

(2) Lists of Articles on Publications Like Business Insider Telling Me That It’s a Good Idea. I don’t outsource my decisions to giant publications and I don’t think you should, either.

(3) Any charts that point to a language or a series of languages being “the most lucrative” or “the best to learn”. Especially in the United States where most people don’t learn ANY language (interestingly among Jews this really isn’t the case given how many of us have some passive knowledge of Hebrew at the VERY least), ANY language is a boon and it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Palauan. Come to think of it, given that 60% of high school students study Spanish, maybe just MAYBE Palauan and Spanish might be fairly equally waited. Again, do which one you like the most.

(4) What other languages people are learning. The world doesn’t need more followers. Nu uh. The world follows the lead of the leaders. And leaders do what is different and unexpected. (Again, don’t take this as discouragement from wanting to study a language like French, just don’t consider the crowd as the sole deciding factor or even ONE of the deciding factors.)

So here’s what I consider:

(1) Am I Healing the World by Choosing to Engage In This Culture? One thing that I’ve used to decide several of my languages in the past year (such as Gilbertese or Lao) is the fact that I realize that I can use my language to bring about healing.

With Kiribati, looming climate change and rising sea levels is something that defines the cutlure at the moment, and by choosing to learn Gilbertese I have committed to keeping their culture alive AND letting other people know about the realities of these threatened areas.

With Lao, I got to glimpse a country (that I haven’t visited yet) with extreme poverty that also has the distinction of being the most bombed country in all of human history. (More bombs were dropped on Laos by Nixon and Kissinger than all of the bombs by all sides in WWII everywhere COMBINED).

With a language like German, Polish or Hungarian, all associated by some more close-minded Jews as “languages of people who have anti-Semitism in their blood” (saying that hatred is embedded in someone’s culture is extremely offensive, in my opinion), I actually realized how many Jews (past, present and future) strongly identified with these cultures, and how much they’ve influenced the Judaism I’ve known for my whole life.

Thankfully German-Jewish relations have drastically improved during my lifetime, and I’m doing work to help Jewish relations in both directions with the other two (and many others!)

(2) Do I Have Music or Other Media that I Deeply Like in This Language? I fell in love with Greenlandic music and it became a motivating factor in wanting to studying it more. With music in other languages like Tok Pisin and Burmese, I found a lot of songs that I really liked and it caused me to have not only motivation to learn the language but also positive feelings when learning it.

Some languages, like Tajik and Lao, I haven’t found REALLY good music that I like. Yet. But with Icelandic I also remember having that struggle for months, and eventually I found Icelandic music that I really, REALLY liked. Or, if you know anything about this, you could give me recommendations, maybe!

(3) Will Engaging with This Language Make Me More Knowledgeable about a Culture I Don’t Know a Lot About?

Some languages, like Finnish or Palauan, I learned as exploratory journeys into “places” that I didn’t know very much about at all. I’ve never regretted learning a language for this reason.

(4) Is this language spoken in my immediate neighborhood? Hence the reason I learned Jamaican Patois ‘n friends. In Crown Heights it genuinely feels like a pan-Caribbean neighborhood, and especially given our zeitgeist of cultures distrusting each other, I felt as though “being a good citizen” involved me learning Patois. So glad I did!

(5) Did my ancestors speak this language? Hungarian and Swedish were both on the agenda precisely because I had great-grandparents who spoke both as their mother tongue (on opposite sides of my family)

(6) Do I need it for business, travel or romance? I think this is fairly clear. Sometimes (like my travels to Italy in 2014 and in Jordan in 2015) I felt as though I was half-hearted in my attempts to learn the local language and my trip felt genuinely lacking in comparison to when I did know more of it (such as, most notably, my recent trips to Greenland and Iceland). This is the reason I’m learning Fijian right now (and Fiji Hindi is also on the agenda in a month or two, and preparations for it were underway for a while).

(7) Have I dreamed of finding out what this country or culture was like since childhood?

Some places, like Greenland, Laos, Burkina Faso or Ireland, are places that I’ve wondered about since early childhood sometimes for silly, sentimental reasons. Somehow within my unconscious I feel as though places like these would be “good fits” for me. And I’m almost always right.

Between these seven reasons, a combination of all of them dictates which languages I choose to have in my life and which ones I devote time to. Feel free to share some of YOUR motivating factors below!

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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!

Is it a Waste of Time for Americans to Learn Foreign Languages in 2018?

Way too often have I encountered this idea that, for native English speakers, especially from North America, time spent with languages could best be done doing “other things that are more important”.

(But given that a lot of American youth I’ve really lived with, with noteworthy exceptions, did spend a lot of time on English-language TV and YouTube more than pretty much anything else outside of the workplace, I’m extremely skeptical when it people making such claims, certainly in this country. Fun fact about me and video games: whenever I play them, I have educational podcasts or language-learning materials playing in the background!)

Indeed, I think if a lot of people from English-speaking countries would be fully aware of the realities and histories of other places in the world, they would be in a state of permanent shock.

With each new language I study the more I realize (1) how awful human beings truly can be and (2) how imperialism and colonialism are almost COMPLETELY responsible for virtually every single conflict present in the world. What’s more, this imperialism and colonialism is consistently rooted in shallow greed.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language on the surface without getting to the core elements of the culture(s) attached to that language, but to TRULY be good at any given language you need to understand many elements of local history and cultural mindsets.

For international languages, picking one country to anchor that cultural knowledge will usually suffice (it will also make your accent better so that it doesn’t sound like a mixture and your knowledge of colloquialisms can be deeper and more believable).

With that cultural knowledge comes a willingness to discover the human experience beyond your immediate surroundings.

Now let’s get back to the original question: is learning languages, for Americans, a waste of time in 2018?

Let’s get this over with:

No.

Here’s why not.

The first reason is that, given how FEW Anglophones truly want or even try to learn languages in detail, you will consistently be given fantastic treatment from native speakers.

Granted, some languages are more susceptible for getting you special treatment than others (In the United States, speaking high-school or even college Spanish isn’t going to have the same effect on your Venezuelan bartender as speaking even basic Hungarian with your new acquaintance who speaks it as a first language. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now Spanish in a place like Southeast Asia is an entirely different manner!)

But regardless if you want to learn Spanish or Hungarian or Fijian or Mandarin or anything else, there’s one thing you’re doing that is ESSENTIAL in maintaining the United States’ general health right now:

You’re bringing down barriers built by a system that wants to keep people permanently confused and embattled.

Donald Trump peddled fearful rhetoric about Mexicans and Chinese during his campaign and more recently rhetoric of a similar nature towards Haitians and residents of Sub-Saharan Africa.

His rhetoric was appealing to a large portion of the electorate because of a system that we as American language learners have the power to fix!

When I speak languages or even relate some of my cultural knowledge or even, heaven forbid, ask questions, I get people to open up.

My Taiwanese-American friend who is also Jewish told me that in his entirely life (he’s 30 at the moment) he never heard anyone ask meaningful questions about his identity until he met me. An acquaintance from West Bengal told me that I was “amazing”, “knowledgeable” an “brilliant” because I…knew that Assamese was a language (“You’re probably one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!!!”)

People from small countries the world over are told by liberals and conservatives alike that their culture aren’t important and that they and the languages associated with them don’t mean much to the world (or that they’re not “economically useful”).

When I speak languages like Finnish or Icelandic with these people, it has an almost therapeutic effect, as if to say “your place and your identity have value to me”.

More people giving up their culture in favor of becoming more Americanized only benefits the same system that has created income inequality more great than human history has ever seen.

Even if there might have been someone who wanted to use English with me instead, even the fact that I TRIED to use their language may have caused them to rethink the idea that becoming more like a powerful culture is the road to success or happiness.

Now imagine that every American learned languages of many sorts. Let’s say every American learned at least a little bit of a series of languages the way that Professor Alexander Arguelles recommended (e.g. a language close to your own, a language far away from your own, a personal language of your heritage, a personal language relevant to the history of your passport country or countries and/or your area, etc. For me, those could be Swedish, Greenlandic, Yiddish and Irish)

Not everyone has a time commitment to become readily fluent in five languages or so, but perhaps a few phrases in five languages would be something easily manageable by anyone. Even ONE PHRASE in five different languages. (I know I get impressed by, let’s say, Polish people rehearsing the five Finnish phrases they know on me)

In that world, Americans see the world as a collection of cultures and a collection of peoples.

In contrast to this there stand the idea that the world is, first and foremost, about money and monetizeable skills, that the world is to be exploited and that the winners of that wealth are to be celebrated, that places on the planet that don’t provide money are as good as dead. (“Who the hell cares about Nauru?” says someone who isn’t aware of the fact that that attitude may have lead to an entire country being reduced to poverty and ruin and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees from powerful countries.)

An activist friend told me that thanks to Manifest Destiny and other factors set in place earlier in American history, the country has had “shallow values” for centuries, namely the philosophy of “more, more, more!” and of entitlement (much like the idea that all of the land from California to the Atlantic coast is OURS and deserves to be OURS).

There are other elements of American culture that I believe to be noble. The open-mindedness I see among young Americans is unparalleled by the youth in other places. The curiosity of these same young people is also unmatched. Americans living in cities are globalized story-collectors that are the envy of the world and rightly so.

Well, you may say, you’ve made a case that learning languages even to a simple degree and learning about cultures is certainly NOT a waste of time for Americans and may actually end up SAVING THE WORLD, but what about learning a language to fluency?

And here comes something:

The better you learn a language as an outsider, the more readily you gain someone’s trust.

Even if they do speak English fluently, they use that language to communicate with outsiders. They CAN’T go on outsider mode with you, in using their L1 they have NO CHOICE but to address you in the same dimension that their cultural insiders are in. Granted, there are some light exceptions to this (e.g. some languages may have modes in which locals speak to foreigners or foreign-looking individuals, I believe Japanese and many East Asian Languages are guilty of this, not also to mention Fijian and Samoan having different modes of speaking depending on whether or not you’re an outsider). But even if someone is engaging with me, in any degree, in their native tongue, this means that I am the guest with special treatment.

It’s like getting premium access to an entire culture. And with it come invitations, free drinks, people asking you questions and wanting to do business with you, and even romance.

On top of that, you may encourage another person to become a polyglot (or even a hyperpolyglot) as well. If not that, then maybe someone like Ari in Beijing who devoted himself to near-native fluency in one language, one that (because near-native fluency as an L2 is so unbelievably rare) provided with him celebrity treatment in Chinese subcultures EVERYWHERE.

But most importantly, our system of destruction in the name of profit depends on making us teams of humans fighting against each other, distracting us with infighting while they commit unspeakable acts of destroying the planet.

The infighting starts to disappear, to however small a degree, when you decide to learn the language or languages of your dreams.

come back when you can put up a fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Disadvantages:

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

 

Advantages of a fluent non-native speaker teacher:

 

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

 

Disadvantages:

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

Happy learning!

Do You Need the Presence of Native Speakers in Your Life to Learn a Language?

I should definitely begin by saying two things:

  • The presence of native speakers in your target language can only do good things, except if they are monumentally discouraging you to learn their language (which almost all of them are not).
  • You absolutely DO need to hear native speaker VOICES in order to learn a language, what this article is about is whether you actually need human beings.

I considered not writing this article, but given that there are so many people that rule out languages they want to learn because they worry they won’t encounter native speakers anywhere, I thought this needed to be written.

In a significant amount of the languages that I speak fluently, I have never conversed with a native speaker of the language. Let’s count them:

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I HAVE used with Native Speakers:

 

English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Finnish, German, Spanish, Breton(!), Irish, Icelandic, Greenlandic (phone conversations only), Polish, French, Welsh, Ukrainian, Russian, Northern Sami (!!!!), Myanmar / Burmese, Tajik, Slovak, Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have NOT used with native speakers:

 

Pijin, Bislama, Cornish (okay, that one time with the guy who spoke a few words, but he wasn’t a native), Scottish Gaelic (okay, same situation as Cornish, but he spoke more than a few words), Guarani, Tahitian, Mossi (although I met a possible native speaker once but before I knew this language existed), Tongan, Rapa Nui, Palauan, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Bileez Kriol

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have used with other speakers of the language, but NOT natives:

 

Tok Pisin, Faroese, Lao, Trinidadian Creole (second-generation people with roots in various Caribbean nations, this situation is unbearably complicated!)

 

And this list becomes even more iffy when you take into account that, in some areas, it matters that you are a FLUENT speaker rather than a native. This is especially the case for Creole Languages, that function as mini-Global Languages in the areas that they are spoken (which explains why in places like Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin is more widely spoken than Standard English. This is true wherever Creoles are spoken, in my understanding).

To write for Finnish Wikipedia, it is pretty much required that you be a native speaker or have your work edited by one (same for English or many other languages, actually). However, for Tok Pisin Wikipedia, it is just required that you are fluent, you don’t need Tok Pisin to be your native language.

And now to return back to the topic at hand!

You CAN learn a language very well or even to fluency without ever having encountered a native speaker in your target language ever. (I’ve done it several times.)

That said, I should issue warnings and pieces of advice in the event that you’d like to undertake this route. But sometimes this route is necessary. Maybe you really want to learn a language that you just can’t get exposed to except through the Internet. I highly encourage that route, as long as you keep the following in mind:

 

  • Listen Intently to the Way that Native Speakers Talk!

 

You may be able to learn a language without encountering any real-life native speakers, but you WILL have to encounter VIRTUAL native speakers at one point (e.g. your target language spoken on the radio, used in movies or in other forms of online media). To that end, you’ll need to listen intently:

How do the people who speak this language formulate their vowels? How do they deal with syllable stress? How are various consonants (such as r or t or the equivalent) pronounced differently than in languages you already know well? What accents that you recognize resemble the one you are listening to?

The best thing to do is to imitate the voices you hear. In some cases you may have some learner audio. In the event that you don’t, you can almost ALWAYS find samples of the language online (spoken or sung or what-have-you) and imitate that by repeating the syllables one after the other.

You learned your first language with mimicry, and don’t be afraid to learn your 2nd or even your 19th with mimicry as well.

 

  • Practice Conversations with Yourself

 

I can walk into almost any language exchange in the world and find an opportunity to give a stump speech about myself in a language like Spanish. At least where I am, I don’t have that luxury for Bislama or Breton.

So what did I do?

I practiced talking to myself as if I were introducing myself to someone. You can even have a little dialogue in your head, but this is not recommended unless you are under very dire circumstances (e.g. stuck in a job where you cannot talk unless you absolutely must). Write down words that serve as gaps in your vocabulary and look them up later.

To find out if your sentences are correct, compare them to what you can find in your textbooks or online (or, in the case of the rarest languages, Bible translations, which also exist for too many other languages to list, literally everywhere).

Feel free to also bounce off sentences in the language you are learning off of like-minded friends. Ask them to do the same if they are learning…well, any language at all, to be honest.

 

  • Double Your Exposure with Media for Languages that You Don’t Rehearse in Conversation as Often

 

If you want to become conversant in this language, good news: there certainly is a way. But you need to listen to your language even more intently and with increasing frequency.

When I was learning Tok Pisin and Greenlandic in the elementary stages, I acquired a LOT of musical tracks in both languages and had them crowd my SIM-Card. The practice I wasn’t getting at polyglot events was made up for with exposure to the language I had during my commute or just while walking down the street.

You’d be surprised about how much passive vocabulary you can really acquire from this (you’re going to have to look at dictionaries from time-to-time and see how many words are vaguely familiar with the “Oh! I remember hearing that word in a song once!” flavor).

You may not have exposure to native speakers to hone your accent, but you do have recordings, and they can be as equally useful. (And besides, a lot of people don’t really imitate native speakers that well anyway or put a lot of effort into accent development unless they have to. This laziness is just how humanity is most of the time).

 

  • Record Yourself!

 

Absolutely essential. And if you have the courage to put your recordings of you speaking your target language on a video site, all the more power to you. And you can even find Reddit communities where your target language is spoken and they can give you feedback a lot of the time. That’s how I became world-famous all over Palau!

If you can compare your recordings to that of native speakers, either talking or singing, that is even better!

  • If you find close-up videos of native speakers talking, imitate their mouth movements.

 

I don’t think that requires much further explanation.

 

  • Having trouble with a sound you don’t know? Find guides. Or just fake the sound until something like it comes to you.

 

You may want to learn a language with that guttural q or click sounds but don’t know how to pronounce it. Guides will help you, even if you can’t find native speakers who can.

Or another thing you could do is somehow try to find the mouth-movements that closely mimic them. You’d be surprised to learn that you can actually train your mouth to learn new sounds well into your adulthood and for the rest of your life!

I’ve coached singers to sing in Greenlandic and they managed the hardest sounds of the language (q and ll and rr) with great ease once I told them what to do with their mouth. Even if you can’t find a native speaker, you can find a guide somewhere because a lot of these sounds are more common in languages throughout the world than you think (Those sounds I just mentioned in Greenlandic are not unique to the language at all, appearing in dozens if not hundreds of others!)

  • In the Event of a Tonal Language, Rehearse Tones with Ruthless Imitation in the Same Way as (1)

 

People who want to try to say that tonal languages are not suitable for self-study are lying. It may indeed be HARDER, but with enough training your love will conquer all.

The key is to repeat very often. Very, very often. Like a piano piece you have to memorize for a recital. This is essential.

 

Conclusion:

 

Learning a language without any native speakers to talk to in-person is a challenge, but it definitely is possible with discipline. A lot of people say “I need native speakers to talk to and to help me develop my accent”.

That might have been true in earlier days, but nowadays recordings from speakers of your favorite language are more accessible than ever! So the primary issues would be (1) expose yourself to the language very, very often and (2) imitate the language very, very often and (3) record yourself to see how you measure up for native speakers.

And who knows? Maybe you will actually encounter a native speaker of your dream language one day, even if others are telling you that the chances of meeting one are “almost none”!

Don’t believe the haterz. You deserve the life you want!

yerushalayim

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

My Journey Through the Danish Language and How It Changed Me Forever

dansk i graekenland

We sure did!

It’s Danish Constitution Day, and I thought it would be a good idea to write something of a different flavor in honor of this (quasi) national day.

I began studying Danish in 2013. Being a novice polyglot at the time, I turned to the Internet for advice and virtually none of it was encouraging and even less of it was encouraging about the prospects of a foreigner learning Danish. And even less of that for a foreigner whose native language was English.

Being honest: when I heard the Danish language for the first time, I was not too enchanted by it. I thought it would be something I would “pass” on, in favor of Swedish and Norwegian.

This was in addition to the fact that I was heavily intimidated by the prospect of the pronunciation of the language, in which, as I like to tell my friends and students, “half of the language is not pronounced”.

I’ll pass, I thought, although sometimes, even then, I was feeling masochistic and I would try watching some things in Danish on the Internet and see how little I would understand.

And then in encountering Danish people in my travels (and Danes travel a LOT!), somehow I was enchanted by the mentality, the accent, the culture, and a dozen other factors I still can’t articulate. (And “in my travels” I mean “on the plane on the way back from Sweden to the United States”).

I already had a significant amount of Norwegian under my belt, although I wasn’t fluent yet (that would come in due course, however). One reason this was important was that I didn’t really need to learn Danish from word lists and books the way that I had with Norwegian and Swedish previously.

(Note to those unaware: Danish and Norwegian are very, very close in their written forms, a handful of times I’ve speed-read a Facebook post and didn’t even know which of the two it was until I chanced upon one of the orthography differences. I’ll give you one such difference: the –tion at the ending of international words is kept in Danish but transformed to –sjon in Norwegian. This is also a sign that I may be speed reading too quickly.)

As a result of having my Norwegian experience, I could immerse myself in Danish freely, while keeping track of (1) differences I encountered in the writing systems, (2) differences I encountered in word choice (“måske” in Danish means “maybe”, but a Norwegian speaker would opt for “kanskje”) and (3) the way certain Norwegian words that I could recognize became changed when pronounced through Danish (pronouncing “v” as something like an English “u” sound is something that some Indo-European languages do, Ukrainian, Slovak and Latin as taught in some classics departments have something like this as well. Danish does this with regularity as well).

Thanks to me sight-reading food labels in Sweden (which are commonly translated into Finnish and / or Danish), I recognized a lot of words and orthography patterns before I even started.

Given how different the pronunciation was from any other language I had encountered, I thought that immersion was the only way to even get a decent Danish accent (and by “accent” I mean “ability to actually pronounce the words in a way that is even half-way normal for a native speaker of the language”). I was so right about that.

Now, let’s pivot back to the discouragement.

The idea that there were so many expatriates online that struggled, that said that Danes demanded that they spoke English instead, that they got told off by locals that there was “no point” to learning the language, and dozens of other horror stories.

(Granted, this happened only once or twice to me in Sweden, interestingly, and usually once I brought up the fact that I had to know the language for heritage reasons [reading the letters from my deceased family members] this usually made people [somewhat shamefully] retreat from the idea that Swedish was or is “useless”).

Thanks to these stories, I was under this impression that my pronunciation had to be nigh-perfect, otherwise I would get laughed at and made fun of.

Thanks to these stories, I also was feeling more masochistic, the idea that I should take on a hopeless project, and even if I didn’t succeed, write about it someday.

I just kept going. Kept imitating the people on the screen, kept looking at phrasebooks to get good pronunciation tips, kept reading and realizing that Danish wasn’t nearly as hard as the Internet (or I) had imagined it to be.

Sooner or later, the slurring and the glottal stop actually became normal for me.

In Greece as well as in Germany I encountered non-native speakers of Danish who picked it up from their friends or living in Danish-speaking areas. This was a huge boost to my confidence (although a lot of them said that they were in the minority but…yeah, people who pick up the local language in places that are not English-speaking countries tend to be the minority anyhow.)

And then, later on, I actually encountered native Danish speakers who were actually not only not making fun of me but actually conversing with me like a normal person! And actually complimenting my efforts! And only in this past year have I been told that my Danish was “fantastic” and “unbelievably impressive!” J

 

2015-07-06 11.22.31

A victory pose, if e’er there was.

What’s the big lesson of all of this? Apparently it was the Internet horror stories that emboldened me, rather than turned me away (as what also happened with my journey to Iceland in 2015).

The various people who would “hate” me for speaking their language I never ended up encountering. The people who would belittle my attempts I didn’t cross path with (okay, there was that one time, but it wasn’t a native speaker).

SIMPLY PUT: I IMAGINED IT.

However, the legends of “Danish being harder to learn than Chinese” did help me in one regard: they caused me to put a lot of ungodly time into exposing myself to the language, and, as I tell my students, the more you invest in a language, the sooner you can get fluent and feel a full member of the culture!

2014 was the year I had my first conversations in Danish, and I deem it no coincidence that having acquired Danish led me on a road to my polyglot awakening. Simply put, I put pessimism in its place, and my willpower and desire to succeed and turned it away.

Granted, I still have a while yet to go. Sometimes my mom encouraged me during my Myanmar trip to “practice with the Burmese people at the hotel” and sometimes I was too paralyzed with fear of judgment in order to do it. Sometimes I still have that paralysis in talking to native speakers of even my best languages, worried that somehow I’ll slip up for that my nervousness will get the better of me, or that I have to live up to a Michael Jordan-like reputation that I honestly don’t think I deserve.

But one day, I know, these fears will go the way of the ones that I had imagined along this journey I had described.

And this is Jared Gimbel, telling you that your fears, whatever they are, will disappear soon in due time.

I’m here to help.

jared gimbel pic

Don’t worry, be happy