What I Had to Give Up to Become a Hyperpolyglot

Well I’m going to make a number of announcements now.

ei kay

While my Slovak studies have been continuing due to the fact that I will be presenting at the Bratislava Polyglot Gathering in 2019 (one presentation in Yiddish on Kiribati and another presentation in Swedish about Niue), I am probably going to retire from my hyperpolyglot life once that spiel is over in June.

I need to be clear about something: I will NOT return to speaking just English, given that my livelihood depends on my knowledge of Nordic languages and Yiddish (as well as, to a lesser extent, languages of South Pacific).

I just feel as though I had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to become that imposter-syndrome-riddled legend. And now I want to live for myself rather than my reputation.

I am glad to have “dated” so many languages and cultures, but now I’d like to settle down and really get to intimately know my favorite languages. These would be, in no particular order, Yiddish, Scandinavian, Finnish, Hungarian, Greenlandic, and Polynesian in general but with a focus on Tahitian and Hawaiian.

My English is EXTREMELY good, even by native speaker standards (I tested in the 99th percentile for vocabulary). I know that there literally might not be enough time for me to get to that level in my “favorite languages”, but I’d like to get closer.

Also the pressure of trying to get me to speak better (Spanish / Modern Hebrew / French / etc.) has been bothering me. I somehow see it as friends who would encourage me to break up with a girlfriend I really love.

So as a result of that I may stop attending language exchange events as often as I used to come June. But maybe I’ll pop in occasionally.

Here’s what I felt I needed to give up as a result of becoming a hyperpolyglot:

 

  1. A Sense of Belonging

 

I became “that guy”, in a sense, the one whose reputation as a “language genius” always proceeded me. ALWAYS.

I never really could find myself connecting to my American culture on a deep level. I gave up American television and news. I found myself permanently apart from the country I spent the most time in.

Even though I felt significantly “at home” among foreigners of all types sometimes, I constantly felt as though I was American first, speaker of their language second.

I became the bridge. A true member of none of the cultures I partook of, but a genuinie member of none of them.

 

  1. Full-Time Fluency without Doubts

 

There were exceptions to this, but often with the languages that I had to spread myself thinly to maintain, I felt that my knowledge of idioms would be thinner than I would have liked, even then I worried about my grammar sometimes.

At first I figured that I didn’t really WANT native-like fluency, but with each year I feel that it is what I want in the languages I want most.

I saw it this way (and the book “Babel No More” manages to point to this): I put most of my chips on the languages I liked most and then spread many of them thinly across many others.

Now I’m going to put all of my chips on the eight languages I like the most. And the fact that Scandinavian languages and Yiddish are closely related, not also to mention the Polynesian family, gives me an advantage in that respect.

I don’t want to sound “learnerese” anymore in any of my languages. I want to sound completely natural. And I got there. But only with a few. But even with those view I want to get better.

I also knew seventeen languages to conversational fluency, but even with half of those I felt as though many of them had holes. Holes are okay. Even very good speakers of English as a second language have them. But I want to make the most of what I can get and that will involve optimizing my skills.

 

  1. Leisure Time

 

This is self-explanatory. I had to convert all of my free time to maintenance. Walking around? You better be listening to audio in one of your target languages. Playing a game? Same.

It took an unbelievable toll on my mental health. The idea that I had to maintain my reputation all of the time meant that everything that wasn’t explicitly related to my career had to go to language learning. The only fun I really had for fun’s sake was video games but even then it was usually to note “what is this game doing well? How about not so well?” concerning what I would incorporate into “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” and other projects.

 

  1. Security and Confidence

 

Language learning is highly vulnerable because there IS a point where you will sound like an idiom. I got told that my accent was terrible. Sometimes I even got told to stop speaking the language.

And that’s not even going into what was said about me online. Whenever I would read some things, entire days if not weeks would be plunged into despair.

Even with fluency, either professional or conversational, I interpreting things that native speakers said very seriously. “Pretty good” was code for “needs work” or “not passable”. I would interpret anything other than endless praise as “you better work on it!”

And even then I would sometimes interpret praise as the fact that I needed work on it too. (It had to do with a post I read saying that native speakers don’t praise each other’s language skills).

It was a neurosis that I was aware of from my days in religious school as a pre-teen. The endless “shoulder checking” and the idea that God would always punish you for every small thing…and only now while writing this do I realize that it ended up in other areas of my life without realizing it.

 

  1. Ability to Converse with Certain People

 

This is an odd one. Because my life became so internationalized, there were people to whom I could connect to VERY easily and others whom I could barely manage a conversation with at all.

Among most internationals, I didn’t need to explain the whole Macedonia naming controversy at all. Among many Americans, it was necessary. And many people throughout the world only imagine the South Pacific as “Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti and that’s it” (Kiribati required a lengthy explanation as did Tuvalu or the Federated States of Micronesia). And that’s not even mentioning the constituent countries of New Zealand (such as Niue).

I didn’t want to learn about American pop culture too deeply. It felt fake for me. Sometimes it cost me the ability to connect with people. Although with other internationals we could always talk about our cultural differences or about the things American locals were never asking us about.

 

  1. Time to Relax

 

My polyglot career became everything and it consumed every aspect of my life. I always wanted to get better, almost like an addiction in a sense. I wasn’t allowed to relax because I figured “someone else out there is doing a better job than you are and YOU have to keep working!”

Again, this was another transmuted neurosis from my high school and college days in which I was a “striver”.

 

Bonus: Pressured to learn popular languages and get good at those.

 

Do I need to say more about this? Some people barely believe languages outside of Western Europe exist. The idea that my heart was elsewhere some people found confusing.

If you love something, go ahead and choose what you love above all else. And that’s what I’m going to do.

Jared Gimbel: The Story You Never Knew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’ll end on this note.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s. Not. Nothing.

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

See you at age 30!

May 2018: Sometimes Losing Focus is Necessary (and Plans for June!)

Not all plans are realized, and that’s okay. Especially given that May was considerably tumultuous for multiple reasons. For one, I needed to go into overdrive concerning “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” as well as the fact that I found myself more often without the motivation to rehearse languages and doubted myself more than I usually do.

That said, any variety of victory is to be celebrated. I devoted the first third of this month to Rotuman, a minority languages of Fiji, and it was very difficult for me to make recordings due to the fact that sometimes making a simple sentence took ten minutes that I had to cross-check from several sources. (THIS is what it is like learning a minority language with extremely few resources, this warrants its own post).

There is a new website devoted to Rotuman and I may glance at it at some point in the near future or even devote videos to it.

In addition to that, I got sidetracked a bit too often in May. Kiribati for the beginning, Hawaiian in the middle, and above all I had Fijian hogging almost all of my time to the detriment of any new “acquired” languages.

What’s more, rehearsing languages like Spanish and German feels like a dull chore (and Jewish and Nordic Languages, well, I sort of have to in order to continue teaching and so that really renews my motivation. I make no secret of the fact that I “don’t love popular languages any more than I have to”, although maybe the Jared of the future will be different in this respect).

May was a tornado for way too many reasons to count, and I got sidetracked and I did make a lot of new videos or new blogposts and that’s okay.

But this really enables me to clearly define my goals for June:

For one, I’ve decided to priority for the REST OF THIS YEAR one of my prominent heritage languages, Hungarian. 30 Minutes a day, every day (excluding emergencies, illnesses, travel, etc). If I don’t, I delete my blog. I may miss one day if I make up the minutes the previous day.

I’ll also let on the fact that it is my intention in the more distant future to raise my children multilingually (ideally in English / Spanish / Hebrew and two heritage languages from both my side and my spouse’s side). That’s a topic I’m not qualified to speak about quite yet.

For June, in addition to 30 minutes of Hungarian every day I’ll most likely choose to focus on a Southeast Asian Language (given that my Fijian is probably good enough to join the ranks of my conversationally fluent languages). The likely candidates are Lao and Khmer, the less likely candidates are Burmese and even Thai (which would be close enough to Lao to not be stressful, I can understand a significant amount of some of the Disney Animated Films dubbed in Thai because of my Lao studies). Vietnamese, while I like it, would probably be too stressful at this point, not withstanding my promise of no new languages for this year (I did study Thai previously, even with an exchange teacher, so I can re-activate it if necessary but it seems unlikely now that I’ll do so).

The biggest challenge for me right now is not only maintenance but also learning to believe my good fortune. Thanks to some unsavory encounters online I’ve actually learned to lie about my language skills–by downsizing them or claiming I speak fewer than I actually do. This is true even in person.

I also feel right around the time that there are certain languages that I “don’t feel the spark with” anymore, and I may have to drop some accordingly. I’ve noticed this happens right around the time that the seasons change.

In addition to this, I think I do need to devote at least ten minutes (if not thirty) to each of my fluent languages every week. Ones I teach are exempt from this (given that the classes count towards this quorum). This will almost certainly be time spent in public transport or waiting for it rather than anywhere else.

Here I am in Milwaukee at my grandmother’s house, bidding you greetings and wishes for success. Now I’m going to ponder as to which Southeast Asian Language I like the best. 🙂

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Who’s Afraid of Swedish ‘n Friends? The Culture of Discouragement from Learning Scandinavian Languages and its Implications

Polyglot Facebook groups exploded last week with countless debates and personal stories about learning languages of Scandinavia via on-location immersion (or, in simpler terms, learning Swedish in Sweden very much like I did [even though I did the majority of the work after I left]).

The vast majority of the stories were discouraging for a multitude of reasons. Icelanders who wanted to use English no matter what. Danes telling study-abroad students that learning their language was a waste of time. Nearly a HUNDRED stories about people had given up learning these languages because of these attitudes.

I’d like to say two things.

First off, there’s tunnel vision at work in a lot of these. Looking back at my time in Sweden, I was met mostly with ENCOURAGEMENT to learn Swedish from native-speaking friends (especially since I told them that I was doing it for heritage reasons). But again, there were times that I screwed up with in hesitating (which WILL get you answered in English) and unnaturally slow speech (same result).

I had frustration, no doubt. I called up my parents for encouragement and sometimes was nearly on the verge of crying, wondering how I could ever learn the language of my family to read the letters of my ancestors who had passed on.

But there were also people like the learners I met in Heidelberg, staff members at stores who would use Swedish with me even if I was speaking English to my family members within earshot, and those who were pleased when I switched from ordering my groceries in English to Swedish and told me that I was going a good job.

Keep in mind that during all of this I was at a BASIC level. And another thing to keep in mind (with all of these internet horror stories hopping around) is the fact that using a language is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GAME depending on what level you’re on.

That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, yes, the attitudes need to improve. As far as the west is concerned, the day is not far when NO ONE will be impressed by good English spoken by non-natives anymore. The flipside to this is that as fewer and fewer people in the Anglophone world see a reason to learn languages, especially those outside of the mainstream, the more you’ll stand out and the more people will want to engage you because of that.

If you are a speaker of a language other than English, you have a MORAL IMPERATIVE to not switch to English unless absolutely necessary. This isn’t up for debate anymore in an age of mass language death.  No one is impressed, no one thinks it fun, and it just makes you look insecure. If you don’t like the fact that I said that, get over it. Learn to have some pride in your identity and your native language and realize that throwing away your identity for some cool American-esque one only serves the corporations destroying the planet. (And did I mention it makes you look insecure? I did. Also using multiple languages with English is okay, as no doubt I may encounter in places like Fiji should I go there later this year).

The good news is that most people are changing. The polyglot communities seem to be getting more powerful and with the Internet people are being exposed to other languages and cultures more quickly than before and realize that machine translation isn’t going to solve everything or make everything accessible.

When I was reading a lot of the Scandinavian discouragement stories in groups, I kept on thinking “why did none of this really happen to me?” In Greenland when buying things in stores, it was usually in a mixture of Greenlandic and Danish even though sometimes they might have thrown some English in their in the off-chance that they thought I was from somewhere else. (Disclosure: with the exception of speaking with friends [in which we took turns hopping between various languages], I didn’t take the English-thing personally and just continued using whatever language I was without flinching).

Then, of course, the fact that I’ve met speakers from the Nordic countries in New York and they’ve all been super-appreciative of my efforts to learn their language and with CONSISTENCY they’ve told me that they’ve been impressed. Sometimes some of them wanted to learn other languages from me, in which case I was willing to switch (I gotta do my part to keep languages alive too, y’know). But nowhere NEAR the variety of stuff along the lines of “people told me to stop wasting their time, people rolled their eyes, I needed a perfect accent in order to not get English used with me”, yada yada yada.

It has nearly been one year since I was in Myanmar and I could have easily blamed the fact that I got answered in English fairly frequently on the fact that I’m WHITE. Or I could do the mature thing and realize that I’ve encountered fluent Burmese speakers of all races and that I should have worked on my general fluidity and sounding natural rather than expecting to get answered in Burmese with simple phrasebook material.

Looking back at my time in Sweden and Iceland, I saw it as an added challenge. Getting answered in Icelandic in a restaurant was so elusive in polyglot groups that it almost never happened. I had it done consistently (with public transport it was another story because they expected me to be a tourist. Keep using Icelandic and they’ll switch, trust me on this. Again, with personal conversations = completely different game). That said, I also hear that Quebec and Senegal make Iceland seem like “the first level in the game”.

At the end of the day, I want you to read this piece with nothing but encouragement.

Getting fluency in the languages of the Nordic countries AND getting L1 speakers to use it with you IS VERY MUCH POSSIBLE. Don’t believe ANYONE who tells you otherwise. Sure, there may be some people who discourage you but they’d exist for any language community and are always in the minority.

But any language journey, no matter what language you choose, is no simple process—you need to be dynamic, inventive and persistent.

And keep in mind that, in all likelihood, you’re not reading a whole lot of success stories about language learning in the polyglot groups. But those success stories are out there and you can start writing your own!

Have fun and don’t give up!

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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!

My Finnish Language Journey: Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland!

finnish ain't hard

Yesterday and today buildings throughout the world were illuminated with blue lights in honor of the birthday of a country that has developed a stellar reputation well outside its borders in recent decades.

My journey with Finnish has been an interesting one, because it’s one that I learned how to speak well while leaving me in complete mystery in exactly HOW I pulled it off.

I’ve used all of the following:

  • Reading dialogues out loud
  • Reading grammar notes out loud from textbooks
  • Watching Disney film snippets and Pokémon in Finnish (dubbed versions)
  • Clozemaster
  • Transparent Language
  • Writing exercises
  • Later on (once I acquired B2 level) teaching the language to other people.
  • Language Exchange Groups (I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Finnish with real people in comparison to Swedish, Danish and Norwegian [especially the first two])
  • Songs (including passively, with lyrics and actively with karaoke)
  • Radio
  • Let’s Play Videos with Finnish commentary
  • Writing to people who speak the language.
  • Video games

 

Too often I get asked the question “what do you use to learn so many languages?”

The question should not be “what do you use to learn” them but “what DON’T you use to learn them?” I became successful with Finnish (despite the fact that I still feel as though I have a long way to go with it) because I threw EVERYTHING at it.

And that’s what a successful attempt to learn a language LOOKS LIKE! You don’t’ just expect to use “Duolingo” and get fluent (it’s in all likelihood not going to happen). You need to use AS MANY tools as possible to make a language a part of your life. The most successful of my language missions have had that, while those that were / are lacking are those in which I still have yet to use EVERY available means of using the language.

Looking back on the journey, here’s what I wish I told myself in 2012 when the Finnish Language and I seemed like we had a future together (which we DID!)

 

  • Throw Out Limiting Beliefs Immediately

 

Too many people are stuck with ideas that they’ll never be good, or that they won’t even be manageable. Others are stuck with ideas that they’ll just get answered in English all of the time. Yet others enter the world of Finnish and other target languages with a negative mindset, thinking that it is something they intend to lose as soon as they enter it.

I entered at first saying “I’ll see what I can get. I can always learn something and I can always learn more later”. But all the while I never DREAMED that I would be capable of mastering the grammar of the language, both colloquially as well as formally, the way that I did. And I should have thought even more than “I’ll manage”, I should have thought “I’m going to be GREAT!!!”

And this leads into another point…

 

  • Finnish (or any other grammatically rich language) is a giant feast. Savor each ingredient separately and don’t expect to gulf down EVERYTHING at once.

 

Many of the cases are straight-up prepositions (as is the case with the other Finno-Ugric Languages), but some other elements are more idiomatic. One that trips up my students regularly is the –ksi ending, which indicates that you are talking about a noun, and more specifically “given that it is that noun” or “into that noun” (e.g. transformation).

 

englanniksi sanoja – English(ksi) words(partitive)

 

English words, or, more accurately “given-that-they-are-English” “words-some-of-them”.

Okay now you have ONE concept, now see if you can manage personal endings for nouns (Kaveri [friend] + ni [my] -> “Kaverini” – “friend(s) of mine”) or the fantastic conjugating “no” (en -> I … not, not I. et – you (sing.) … not, not you, ei -> he/she/it …. Not, not he/she/it, etc.) usage of nuanced suffixes, verb conjugation, AND variant forms of verb conjugation and other grammatical features in colloquial speech! (These might not be in your textbook!)

Oh, and manage all of these concepts at once spoken by a native speaker at quick speed. Sure, the fact that Finnish words are always accented on the first syllable is going to help you, to some degree, as is the fact that some Finns speak very slowly in comparison to Romance Language speakers, but the grammatical buffet of Finnish is going to OVERWHELM YOU.

Unless, you take it in, bit by bit, and count every single one of the small victories.

This is true with other languages, but this is even MORE true with languages in which you might struggle with forming a simple sentence for weeks!

 

 

  • Use Flashcards and Other Similar Apps WITH Immersion for Progress

 

Memrise helped me reach my goals with Finnish but I couldn’t have done it with only them. I also had to use YouTube Finnish in order to bring words that I “vaguely” memorized in the app into a genuine context where they made sense.

Often when I was watching any amount of fun things in Finnish I would remember a word that I had seen in Memrise matching the context EXACTLY.

Unless a language is VERY closely related to one you know, or one that you’ve had experience being exposed to but have gaps in it (as is the case with Polish for me, for example), the flash cards by yourself are not going to be ideal.

But pair with other methods, everything builds off each other.

 

  • Being disappointed with your language progress means that you’re either studying too much or using the language without studying too much.

For all of my languages regardless of level, I noticed that there are some languages that I’ve STUDIED too  much to the exclusion of using them for fun (Irish) and others that I’ve USED too much without studying too much of them anymore (Greenlandic). To correct this imbalance, apply one or the other, depending on what you HAVEN’T been doing.

For much of my Finnish studies, I managed that balance PERFECTLY, more than with any other language I’ve studied. And I’m glad I did.

  • Small words mean a lot in making you sound like a fluent speaker.

 

Thanks to me having watched a lot of Pokémon in the Finnish dub (more than I care to admit) as well as a lot of gaming channels in Finnish, I’ve really learned how to use simple one-word expressions that make me sound believable when I put them in my speech (some of these qualify as “filler words” but not always).

 

Think about it: how often have you heard non-native English speakers say “very good” as opposed to “cool beans!” or “that’s great to hear!” (the latter of which are very American indeed, I think).

 

I got a lot of simple expressions like these thanks to me using Finnish in these “controlled environments”. They didn’t make me fluent, but they made me confident and believable with great regularity.

 

  • No language is too hard.

 

I don’t necessarily say “no language is too unlearnable” because I’ve tried to find some languages to learn in which I can almost seldom find ANY materials for them.

But even though a language like Greenlandic (and Burmese, later on) got me to almost doubt this, you need to keep in mind that, especially with more politically powerful languages, your L2 is learnable, even to near-native fluency. You just need to find methods that work, and utilize EVERYTHING you have in order to make it work.

The apps themselves are great, but they won’t make you fluent alone. Same for the books, videos and TV shows. Bring them altogether, and you’ll become someone who impressed almost EVERY native speaker you’ll meet.

 

That day can be yours! Go ahead and take it!

 

Let’s conclude with this, now, shall we?

 

10 Lessons I Learned from Language Immersion in Greenland for a Week

Two Languages (three if you count English which I used at time). One city. A lot of ice and friendly people. Was it a success? MOST DEFINITELY!

I’ve been studying Greenland on-and-off since 2013 when I first encountered that Lonely Planet book that described the Greenlandic Language as “the result of a small child banging on a typewriter”.

Cupid’s arrow to the heart. Photographed the entire language section of that guidebook, page by page. Put the words into Memrise. I thereby made the site’s first Greenlandic course which ultimately ended up in the language  being included in the OFFICIAL LISTING OF LANGUAGES IN THE APP!

Then there’s Danish, which I’ve been studying / speaking since 2013 as well. Frightened to speak it fearing judgmental native speakers until I encountered some people who spoke it in 2014 (native Danish speakers as well as L2 speakers from Germany). Then I realized there was nothing to be scared of.

Greenlandic: Weak although impressive on some level. Certainly a lot better than my Burmese was earlier this year (although I think my Burmese is SLIGHTLY better than my Greenlandic now, truth be told). I managed some tasks impressively, some with difficulty, and I have absolutely no ability to speak in Greenlandic about deeply serious or philosophical topics (but ONE DAY!)

Danish: Conversationally fluent to professionally fluent, depending on my mood and who I’m talking to. There is one thing, however. Sometimes I still feel frightened and judged when I try to speak certain languages with strangers. This results in “cymbals banging in my head” which can significantly deter my ability to think of vocabulary at the right moment. But surprisingly, I’ve IMPROVED as a result of being here.

So how did I do? For one, I managed almost ALL of my business that could be done in Danish or Greenlandic in those two languages. In conversations with friends I think I managed a good balance between Greenland, Danish, and English (hey, it’s fair that I share my native language with them, too!) Especially in the second half with Danish, I expressed myself without any issue and had absolutely no glaring issues with being answered in English after the second day!

Above all, GREAT SUCCESS! I also learned a lot of words as well and gained insight into the dynamics of bilingual societies (this is the first time I’m doing immersion in a place with TWO local languages, although no doubt Danish is significantly less prominent in more rural areas of Greenland outside of the major cities)

Yes, I know I was on a break, but I thought it would be important for me to write at least SOMETHING because I’m here in Greenland for the first time:

 

  • In a multilingual place, expect rapid changes in switching languages at times.

 

This was fun. I’ve heard of people going to places like Montreal or South Africa or other places where multiple languages are used between people and in the public sphere. I wasn’t sure what sort of dynamic to expect, but interestingly I found that the dynamic between many Greenlanders involved hopping between languages in conversations sometimes (this might be especially evident as far as families that may have different first languages among them). My host family used Greenlandic, Danish and English with me, sometimes switching throughout the conversation, and sometimes I even overheard some people doing the same. Granted, with probably about the same frequency you’ll encounter people sticking to one language at a time.

 

There are SO many dynamics to be taken into account with this that it probably would take more than a week to fully investigate and delve into them.

 

  • Don’t take being spoken to in English personally, especially if it occurs at a time in which the person who you are speaking to is aware that you are from an English-speaking country.

Imagine this: you hear that somebody is from a place where your L2 or L3 or L28 is spoken. Great success! So you begin speaking in the language of that place, believing that, in so doing, you will demonstrate cultural appreciation and a willingness to show that, on some level, you care about where they came from.

 

That’s how some of the people who “answer in English” may be thinking!

 

I’ve noticed that usually a shift to English tended to occur in Greenland not so much when I messed up (usually I just rebounded and continued in the target language, especially with Danish) but rather when (1) somehow they found out I was from the U.S. (either I told them or something on my personal information made it clear, etc) or (2) they were aware of the fact that I was American beforehand (even if I had communication with them in other languages in the past. Note: my written Greenlandic is tremendously weak, although I’m hoping that predictive text and better learning methods will help me in the future).

 

In the other Nordic countries, conversations are being had about the threat that English is posing to their language. In Iceland this is particularly strong (I feel). In Greenland, it is my understanding that this conversation isn’t even had as far as English is concerned (I think a lot of the debates center on Greenlandic vs. Danish). Danish was (and is) 1000x easier to learn and to maintain than Greenlandic is (and this is more to do with political power of these two languages than anything else). But given that I was willing to learn and converse in BOTH, it actually sent a message to people that I really, REALLY cared about Greenland, its people and its culture (learning one language for a trip is cool, but two?)

 

I can imagine that a lot of Greenlanders want to feel global and globally connected. To that end, I am willing to use English with them to some degree, as long as I can use the other local languages as well. I used English at times, but never to the degree that it became a detriment to my “language learning mission”. (In Iceland, I strove / will strive to avoid English as much as I can).

 

What’s more, there are some immigrants to Greenland (Yes, they exist!) who speak neither Greenlandic nor Danish, and I sometimes encountered these folks behind service counters. In one Thai restaurant in Nuuk I even saw the menu in Danish that was coded with number-and-letter combinations, possibly to get over any language barrier than may be involved.

 

  • If you’re headed to a multilingual place (that is to say, a place with more than one LOCAL language. Nuuk qualifies [with Greenlandic and Danish] and while Reykjavik does have many English-speaking denizens, Icelandic is the ONLY local language there), get advice beforehand (or as soon as you can) about what sort of languages you should use in which spaces.

 

Also if you can determine what language a certain waiter or celebrity or person you’re meeting speaks, use that to your advantage as well.

 

On the way from the airport I was told that it was wisest for me to usually use Danish while buying things (which I did). But obviously using Danish was not 100% suitable (or even 50% suitable) for EVERY SINGLE SITUATION that I encountered in Nuuk. Simply put, there were situations in which knowledge of Danish wasn’t essential in the slightest, and Greenlandic was.

 

Again, among people who speak both, you are welcome to use both, especially in casual conversation. I would gather the same would hold for any other bilingual area.

 

  • Don’t Overthink Your Mistakes (or Anything Else)

 

No, just because you messed up that one word doesn’t mean you’re a failure. No, just because somebody began speaking English to you that one time doesn’t mean you’re a failure either (this happened once or twice to me by the way). And for the love of everything that is holy, don’t belittle your accomplishments!

 

Especially if you’ve come from a family of over-achievers and perfectionists (a bit like mine used to be), you may hold yourself to a standard that is way too high. Don’t expect yourself to be an angel. Believe me, even the best of polyglots out there aren’t angels either, even if it may seem like that in their videos. I sure know I ain’t!

 

  • If you’re starting to feel doubt, think about how far you’ve come and how FEW people have attempted what you’re doing.

 

Surrounded by native speakers of languages that I spoke to varying degrees made me self-conscious at times. My perfectionism (which exists in my heart even though my brain knows it should be gone) also did not help. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be taken as a “serious” polyglot by masses of people on the Internet, or even if I really DESERVED to present at any polyglot conference at all.

 

And this is DESPITE the fact that I manage MOST of my interactions during this trip without ANY English. (Even though I did use English because, again, I don’t want to be greedy. I understand that people see me as a resource in a country where non-Danish foreigners weren’t even allowed to visit until 1953 [!!!])

 

I also took for granted the fact that I could read all of the signs, all of the menus, all of the everything (in Danish – note that the vast majority of these things in Nuuk are actually bilingual Greenlandic / Danish).

 

  • If the language you’re speaking is threatened or perceived as threatened, you have advantages with its speakers (and getting help from them) on many, MANY levels

 

Greenlandic-speakers see their language as vulnerable, and UNESCO agrees with them. Against the mini-giant that is Danish and the ultra-global-giant that is English, it seems that Greenlandic sees itself stuck in a magnificent clash of outsider cultures (well…these two cultures…).

 

When I began speaking to Greenlandic speakers in places like pubs and restaurants and my host family, I got every single possible variety of positive reaction and tons of continued encouragement. Greenlandic speakers are probably among the most helpful native speakers I’ve encountered for any language ANYWHERE!

 

I got business contacts, high fives, hugs, compliments, in-depth conversations and plenty, PLENTY more. And this is with my manageable-in-tourist-situations-mostly Greenlandic.

 

The only languages I remember getting this sort of red carpet treatment for were (1) Icelandic, (2) Hungarian and (3) Polish (and even [3] was very selective. Some people reacted with utter joy and others were a tad confused. I should say that Poland is a FANTASTIC environment for language immersion with JUST the right amount of English usage vs. usage of the local language that is helpful for whatever you’re doing!)

 

  • Don’t assume other people are judging you (or will judge you) for speaking their language.

 

Greenlandic people usually don’t show their emotion at all—EVEN in comparison to other Nordic countries. As an American, I found this extremely jarring and almost strange. Anyone who knows American culture even on a surface level knows how “obsessed with feelings” we are.

 

Sometimes I was tempted to think that people were displeased with me, and then I remembered that the cultural mentality is extremely different in comparison to the United States.

 

And one person went so far as to even tell me that the idea that “speaking Danish -> Greenlanders will judge you as a bit of a colonial invader” wasn’t actually that true at all.

 

Point is, a lot of people “not being nice to you” or “not liking you” may actually be…imagined…

 

On the other side, in the United States we have the reverse problem, being too kind to people with whom we do not really want to interact with. And I think, to a degree, that’s significantly more dangerous. But onto the next point…

 

  • Pubs and gatherings are great places to help you with language learning. Keep in mind that they serve different ends.

 

Pubs -> great for finding people that will help you with individual words or gaps in your vocabulary. You may encounter some people who may be very carefree due to alcohol and they’ll (1) be forgiving of your mistakes and (2) compliment you way too much. If you’re a beginner and you feel up to it, I would make evenings like this a priority.

 

After all, I think the Polyglot Bar and Mundo Lingo also really helped me especially with French which I learned almost ENTIRELY through this method! (even though sometimes I fear that I speak it not quite as well as I would like and it is NOWHERE near my strongest language and sometimes I’m definitely not fluent!)

 

Gatherings -> great for having serious conversations and also rehearsing new vocabulary that you may have memorized in response to the theme of the event. It’s also a true measure to see how spontaneous you really can be and you’ll encounter speakers of many languages at larger gatherings. Great for advanced learners especially who want to go from good or very good to divinely invincible.

 

  • Over time, you’ll grow into a persona with a language you’re proficient or fluent in

 

Imitate the people. Note what they do. Learn to behave a little more like them. Pretend you are them. You’ll be able to grow into fluency a lot more readily with a language in which you have a persona. How does your native-language self compare to the sort of people you see around you? Note the differences and act on them. This may actually happen naturally as a result of being around people.

I had someone tell me that over the course of the week I was looking “progressively more like an Inuit”. Make of that whatever you will!

 

  • Your goal isn’t to be mistaken for a local. Your goal is to communicate.

 

Okay, maybe you DO want to be mistaken for a local, but obviously if you haven’t visited the country or if you haven’t developed deep in-person friendships with people there, there will probably be something in your body language or in the way you speak that will give it away.

 

I look vaguely Asiatic (probably my Jewish background) and I look vaguely Nordic (probably my Swedish-American background) but I don’t really look like I’m Inuk in the slightest. I don’t dress like Greenlanders do (and I was told this to my face, Greenlandic people really liked my fashion style and said that I looked like a “super-manly American cowboy”. No joke!)  I don’t look like a “typical Dane” either, regarding both my fashion and my physical appearance.

None of that mattered in the slightest because my pronunciation in both Greenlandic and Danish were good (so I’ve been told) and in the case of Danish I got all of what I wanted to say said almost all of the time (except when my nervousness got the better of me and in both cases it was when I was speaking to people whom I had seen on TV, concerts, etc.).

 

I think the one thing I need to work on is internal self-doubt and freezing up sometimes. I think that’s really preventing me from being at my best consistently using foreign languages. And I guess that’s probably gonna be part of my New Year’s Resolution for 2018 (COMING SO SOON?!!?)

Greetings from Nuuk,Greenland!

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