An Enlightening Conversation with Richard Howeson, Founder of Britain’s Biggest Language Learning Company

In October 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Richard Howeson, the founder of uTalk. Since I discovered it over the summer (and became a subscriber less than a month later), uTalk has been a godsend for every area of my language life.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 17

For one, it has enhanced my pronunciation greatly, as well as teaching phrases that are useful in conversation and focusing on getting you to SPEAK above all else. The various professionalized skills are also extremely useful, such as ones related to the Olympics, Golf and even rescue missions (!)

Before I present the conversation to you (well…what I edited down to something easy to read), I should also add that Richard, in addition to having brought uTalk into existence and won royal awards several times (as to be discussed below), also keeps himself both physically agile with an impressive variety of sports and mentally agile with uTalk. I’ve heard that he is someone who enjoys cycling, bike polo, sailing and windsurfing.

The languages I am learning with uTalk right now are primarily Greenlandic (on Monday and Thursday) as well as Hungarian (on Tuesday and Friday) and Vietnamese (on Sunday and Wednesday). That said, I’ve also hopped around with various other languages in uTalk, most notably in Southeast Asia (Lao, Khmer and Burmese) and in Oceania (Samoan, but also reviewing Fijian and Tok Pisin to see how the app approaches those topics). Then, of course, there is Tumbuka, which I have a year-long-challenge to complete every skill starting in September. (I should also add that the Basque and Galician courses look MIGHTY tempting for me, but I seem to be spreading myself too thin as is. Luckily my work keeps me focused with a good amount of languages that I HAVE to keep fluent!)

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Already I’ve noticed a before / after effect when it came to uTalk in places like Mundo Lingo. The recording games not only improve my accent and make me a LOT less self-conscious but also serve to fasten all phrases into my memory. If you have ten minutes to use an app to prepare you with a conversation with a native speaker as an ABSOLUTE beginner, uTalk is your best choice. If you need to rehearse your tones, uTalk is your best choice as well. Also unlike many other apps there is a certain focus on subtle dialectical differences (as is present with how the male and female voices have subtle differences in both the Fijian and in the Burmese courses). Each voice actor is positively unforgettable. (And if I had to pick favorites of what I’ve savored so far, I would pick the Greenlandic male voice, the Burmese female voice, the Fijian male voice and the Tumbuka female voice, with my probably overall favorite being the Samoan male voice.[I have an ultra-weakness to Samoan voices in general]).

Anyhow, let’s show you some very interesting conversational pieces. Be prepared: there are recipes for having your memory be almost perfect in the exchanges below. Your life will never be the same!

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Conversation Between Richard Howeson and Jared Gimbel

 October 23, 2018

 

Jared Gimbel: All right, so I think this should be working very, very well! I hope things are going fantastic with you. I was literally doing uTalk a matter of seconds ago. I can even tell you what language and what skill! And I am very pleased to be here with you! Okay, so, yeah, I had my morning regimen of uTalk with the Greenlandic illness skill in the recording game, so in any case…a pleasure to meet the legend and long last! I really have to say that there have been so many gaps in my language learning that uTalk has covered up extremely effectively. I recommend it to all of my students, bar none, ever since I have discovered it. And I’d really like to thank you and the rest of your team for really having made this a reality for so many dreamers!

Richard Howeson: Jared that’s fantastic to hear that.  So yeah. It’s amazing. I’ve been hearing that you’ve quite a few languages under your belt!

J: Keyn ayn hore, as you say in Yiddish. Without the power of the evil eye, in a sense. It can be quite fun in bars sometimes, as we shall say. In any case, he did tell me that you were investigating some new projects concerning using language learning as a means to really help with health and memory going into old age. Is that correct and do you want to provide any information or insight on what you’ve experienced?

R: First off all, we’ve heard from people how it has helped them. We’ve been working also with a charity that helps people with dementia. Basically helping by providing them language learning materials and carries them to do it. I think that there is a huge amount of research that says that if you keep your brain active then, it’s just like your body. If you do a lot of exercises, it can work beautifully. But if you sit there, it stops working. And you brain is very, very similar.

J: Yes.

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R: So the key thing is to keep it active. And learning a language seems to be one thing that really, really does help. And that is the interesting thing, because you are fluent in several languages, which I am not. I want to get by in languages if I have to, and I come from a background where I find that my skill is that I’ve…I know what it is like for people who find it really difficult to learn languages.

J: Hmmm…

R: Because I am initially…concerned as one of those. I struggled in school.

J: I did too, actually!

R: Oh good! (Laughs) Glad to hear that! I’m a convert. I was talking to a guy who taught me at school, he is quite old now but…and he said that of all the people he taught, and he had a very long list, it is quite a lot of students, and he said that if there was someone at the top who was the least likely person to have anything to do with languages, it would have been me.

J: Indeed.

R: But here we are. I have actually learned a lot about languages, I have learned a lot OF language, but fluency is a different story. That comes from, and think you’d probably say this too, a lot of your fluency comes by living in places.

J: That is correct as well, but on the other hand, I think in some respects it has something to do with friendship and circles as well. Also hobbyists, especially online. And I think that especially concerning Yiddish and Tok Pisin, I think that really being surrounded by other people who are very curious, in these cases about Yiddishland (that is to say, the literature and the songs) or Papua New Guinea and the rainbow, the bird of paradise as it were, there is a reason it is their national symbol, that really makes up the most linguistically diverse country on earth…that fact is that I really encourage a lot of my friends to realize that you can pretty much gain any skill if you actually surround yourself with an environment which is conducive to that or friends who also have it as well. And in New York City, it is very easy to be surrounded by hyperpolyglots or literally by anything else! And so as a result, I’ve encountered several people who said, “oh yes, I have encountered five-language conversations between multiple people on an almost weekly basis!” And so I actually know very much, given the various negative programming that really exists in language learning, the fact that in many countries some people believe that it is not possible for certain varieties of people or impossible beyond a certain age…I really know how it feels to actually feel hopeless and then to gain hope again. And so one thing that I do with my students is that I turn the hope back on. And that is something that I believe is extremely essential and I believe that uTalk is very much doing that. I did prepare a number of questions. And so I think the first question is how did you get involved with making uTalk and what makes uTalk stand out? How does your personal story echo in the uTalk story? You did provide some details as to your somewhat “back from the brink” story, but I’m curious to hear… how does your personal story interweave with your award-winning creation?

R: Yeah. If I go back to when I first started, as I told you before, languages were difficult in school. I was having anything to do with languages. But it started with a charged conversation with a then co-director at another company, where he was discussing how annoying it was that the French spoke French when we had meetings with them in France, and we thought that it was rude of them, and then we realized, actually WE were really rude with not learning THEIR language. And then we thought, “well, that’s our teacher’s fault. We weren’t really taught very well” And then we thought “that’s the really lazy learners”. And then we thought “actually, we are in the right area in technology to make something that could really work!” And the fact that language learning IS difficult without the right resources, there’s no doubt about it…

J: Yes.

R: And when I say it is difficult…the right resource is the easiest resource…the resource is to go live there. But if you haven’t got something like the ability to do that, then what else do you do? I should say that “books don’t work very well because they don’t make any noise”

J: Yes.

R: And the language comes from…

J: Fantastically put!

R: This is the bit that has got to do the job at most times. So we came up with the plan for making a language-learning product. We looked at everybody else’s methods, we did a lot of research on it. And one of the things that became clear is that all of them disagreed with each other on the right ways to learn a language. That means that it was up to us to come up with something else. And certainly over the years, there is no one product I would say that can teach anybody a language.

J: Agreed.

R: And if you’re trying to do that, you’re in very deep doubt. That’s where we came to. uTalk came from…we had a product that wanted to make people to be able to get by, to start off with, and we were doing lots of in fact to learn how to make a business disk. And I was on a trip to Hungary to see a new client, we already made some language learning products by then. I was waiting to be met there at the airport, and our plane got in early. There was no one in the airport, it was pre mobile-phones and all that sort of thing. I wanted to go to the loo. And there were two doors there and they had ladies and gents written on them.

J: “Női” and “férfi”?

R: I didn’t know which was which. And I waited for twenty minutes before someone went and. And to my worries I couldn’t quite work out the sex of the person who had gone in. So it was a bit strange. So then I realized if I were on a business trip, I wanted a business disk with “invoice” and “fax”. I wanted something that would get me by in any country. So the idea came that what we need to do is teach people the language they need to get started. And the second thing we realized is that actually, there are, you know, when you go to school you tend to learn one language, but what you should be learning is the skill to learn any language.

J: Very true.

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R: The reality is, you could end up anywhere in the world. So that was the idea that we came up with, to make a disk without too much in it, not to frighten people away, but to get going.

J: Indeed.

R: That disk ended up with fifty words, then we came up with 1500, and we slimmed it down to about 250 and we decided to do it in all the languages of the European Union. So we’ve got to do Russian as well, you’ve got to Japanese, you’ve got to do Chinese. So we ended up with 20-30 languages, and we made this disk, and this is sort of how it started. This was with a small corpus, not as much as uTalk, but that gave us the … with that disk, we ended up adding on these languages. People loved it, it went really, really well. And as a result of it, we were asked to apply for a Queen’s Award for Innovation. And after that, we had to fill in quite a complicated form, and this will answer your second question, actually “what makes uTalk stand out?” And one of the things on the form it said, “who’s your competition?” and you’re not allowed to put “none”…and I put “none”! And we were very honored by Her Majesty, the Queen of England to get an award for a grant towards innovation, because basically what we were doing, nobody else had done before! And this thing, I think you’ve learned Danish before, along with Greenlandic?

J: (In a Danish voice) Ja!

R: Well, at that time, there was no such thing as a Danish-Greek dictionary.

J: Yup!

R: It didn’t exist. So if you wanted to learn Danish from Greek, you had to go buy English or another language. And so we were actually the first people to do this crossover of languages! Because as you know, you can learn every language from your own language. We are now up to 20,000 combinations.

J: (Gasps) Very well done.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 25

R: So what sets us aside is that fact, it’s that… we love languages. We can’t resist if someone asks for one. Hence, Pidgin or that Yiddish will be coming along in a new uTalk course! I should say one other thing. TalkNow, it was brilliant, but people came back and said “we want more!” So we spent ten years making TalkNow, adding languages all the time, we got up to 150 languages, we put it out as an app on the IOS App store and it was going great guns. And then the complaint we got, this was the first time we really got good feedback for something on the app store, people were saying, “we need more! We love it, but we want more languages!” So we went back to the drawing board, spent a year and a half going through what the corpus should be. And as you’ve seen…you quite like uTalk! What we wanted to do is that people would have the vocabulary. Because that … in order to speak a language, you need more, than anything else, to have the words.

J: Yes

R: If you HAVE to get the grammar wrong, that is not the end of the world. I have looked at four year old bilingual children. They speak beautifully. And all of their grammar is perfect. And they’ve never had a grammar lesson.

J: Also I think some kids manage to say some things like “I goed to the store” as well. Even in that respect, they would no doubt be considered fluent. But in any case, I think it was Steve Kaufmann that really said “fluency, not perfection”. That said, I think very essential verbs should obviously be perfected as a matter of course. But the fact is that if you’re really expecting to know every single idiom all of the time…Lord knows, Australians, British people, people from all the British Commonwealth countries, and certainly India have showed me my native language in ways that I didn’t think it was possible to misunderstand.

R: Good! That’s the thing! It works! Someone once asked me “what do you do?” and I said “we help people make friends all over the world.”

J: That’s fantastically put!

R: Yeah! We sold 30 million CD-ROMS, but we’re gonna go way above that!

J: Indeed. Very well.

R: From friends like yourself as well!

J: Indeed. And I’m always really glad to put you into contact with any speakers of rare languages that I may know in New York. Or elsewhere, for that matter!

R: On uTalk, we haven’t got Yiddish yet. So we’ve been catching up!

J: Good!

R: So TalkNow is up at 160 I think, and uTalk is now 142, but there are some in uTalk that aren’t in TalkNow, and so we’ve got about 20 we want to catch up with. Yiddish is in TalkNow but it is not in uTalk.

J: I think the same with Tibetan as well if I recall correctly?

R: Tibetan…Tibetan is seconds away! It is ready for someone to press the button. There is always some last-minute reason! But Tibetan is out any second! Although we do…we are worried that we have had nasty comments from China before about it.

J: Indeed. But on the other hand, throughout the world over, I think most people are willing to be bridge-builders. This is really one thing I’ve really seen all throughout the world between…I’ve seen very deep friendships between cultures that are “supposed to be enemies” and surprisingly I think most people really want to make friends, want to live happy lives, and are actually quite glad to actually explore things. And certainly, there might be the occasional nasty comment, but I think most people in China and in the rest of the world are explorers and kind people at heart. And this is true anywhere. Okay, so another question! How have you found the language learning process change for you throughout the various stages of your lives? How about learning processes in general, such as learning how to play sports, learning new skills or I think…I saw one of your pictures that was in India. It looked like the Hungarian flag at first but then I saw the Devanagari script on the sign!

R: Was I on a bicycle?

J: Yes, it was a bicycle. Yes.

R: One of the things in terms of people able to learn a language. Your brain is a muscle like the other parts of your body. You’ve got to allow it to be relaxed in order to learn. The other thing that is really, really important in learning a language is that…I did some research, I read about how the brain learns before I started the company. What you need is dopamine coming up through the middle of your brain.

J: Aha!

R: And If you want to suppress dopamine, then take any of the anti-depressant type, valium and things like that, that will stop you from learning anything, and that surpresses dopamine. On the other hand, all the scientists were looking and asked “how can you make people have more dopamine?” And the answer is a very, very simple one, and there’s not much any drug company or scientist can do about it. It is to make you laugh. When you laugh, you produce tons of it. It is how human beings functions really well. You remember the good times! Your synapses are growing when you laugh!

J: That’s fantastic! I think I should be recommending all of my students to check out joke pages in their target languages. And come to think of it, I think that that’s probably…the reading exercises through which I’ve had the most vocabulary retention. And the fact that stupid jokes exist in every single culture. My personal favorites are the Yiddish Hershel Ostropoler stories, he is a trickster-character in many respects who really outwits very rich people who are used to getting their way all of the time, despite the fact that he himself has nothing. And, of course, within Scandinavia, we have the Swedes telling stupid jokes about the Norwegians, and in the other direction as well. And that I also found extremely amusing in many respects. Because they take them from one another and use the jokes in both directions!

R: Oh yeah! Like the Irish! We do it with the Irish!

J: Oh, like with the English, Scots, and Irish jokes?

R: Yeah, that! Anyway, the ejective of how we design a product is to make it fun.

J: Yes. And you’ve done that.

R: And you probably know, it is about scoring points. Scoring the points means you learn the language. It is not saying “you’ve got to learn this NOW!”, that just doesn’t work.

J: Yup.

R: So the whole thing is based on fun. Right from the beginning, you learn that. And you’ve probably noticed, some people complain about it, but the most challenging game is the hard memory game?

J: YES!

R: Do you utilize that or not?

J: I really have to confess to doing this but…on the Desktop version, I use the snipping tool to capture the…

R: My daughter does that as well! But that doesn’t matter! What will happen is that you’ve feel pleased with yourself when you got them all right! And THAT is actually what makes you remember it!

J: Indeed. And then what happens sometimes on the train, sometimes the train is significantly loud and I lose valuable seconds on account of that because I don’t hear something. But that’s MTA’s problem, not uTalk’s!

R: It is worth saying that the background to that is when we first did that game. We did it in Russian and we didn’t know any Russian…as beginners. What we found was that it was very difficult. We were going to scrap it. And then we thought “just try it, we’ll record it in English quickly, play it in English just to see! It is obviously impossible, this game!” And we find that in English it was very easy. We decided to keep the game. It is perfect! Here’s what it does…the target is to think in the language you’re learning. If you can think in the language you’re learning, you can get full marks! That is what it does!

J: You’re very right about that, actually!

R: That’s what you want! You don’t want to be half-learning words, you want them as if they come off the tip of the tongue, as though they are in your own language! That’s the goal! And that’s why uTalk works so well. There are a lot of language learning products where you half-learn things, and half-learn a lot! Then you can get a dictionary and say “I’ll read the dictionary” and then you won’t remember anything.

J: Yes.

R: And if you do any of our exercises, you’ll learn a number of words. If you go through the games and score top marks, including in the recording and recall sessions, then you’ll know that you won’t forget them!

J: Indeed. It is interesting because I find that even within a handful of days, my accent goes VERY VERY HIGH and already I think I have vocabulary that is actually at the forefront that I associate with the picture. And with the perfect voices that I really think are really suitable for every single one of the exercises!

R: All the actors come to London. It is special. The whole idea is that the company has a lot of fun.

J: A lot of the voice acting is snarky at times. I found that with the Fijian course and with the Lao one as well. And sometimes it can show residue of an almost fake anger to the degree that it can actually be humorous.

R: That’s exactly what it is meant to be!

J: Fantastic points! Another thing. One of the biggest battles I’ve seen from my students is challenging limiting beliefs. How does that struggle morph with age and how does it become easier or harder?

R: Right. That’s an interesting one. When you talk to people, and they’ll try to do a language learning product and they buy one and say “it didn’t work”, what you’ll find is “I’ve never used it” (for the most part). The most important thing is getting them to use it. I challenge ANYONE using ANY of our games not to learn the words. They should try and get full marks. At any age! You’re absolutely right! To a certain extent it can be self-imposed as well. There is loads of research that shows that children up to the age of five accumulate language at an incredibly fast rate. They remember words SO AMAZINGLY! And at the age of five, what happens? It suddenly stops and goes off a cliff. The reasons, I think, is what happens at the age of five…they go to school. Suddenly, language becomes regimented. It no longer becomes fun. And the key thing is to keep it being fun. What happens when we get older is that sadly people tend to treat things more seriously. If you do that, it isn’t going to work. And I look at you! You love learning! All you need to do is change your attitude! At uTalk, we say “do this, have fun” and away you go! That’s the key! The next thing is to say “when do you do it?” This is another one of the things that uTalk is strong on, I think. People say “I haven’t got time”. But if you look at your day, for old people, that’s one reason they actually do very well. Because they have time after they retire! No rush! Nothing more to do! They can spend time learning a language! But when you’re young, and this is particular to your age group after you’ve left school in your 20’s and 30’s, and then you ask them what they’re doing, “I spent an hour in a commute in one direction, in the other direction, nine hours in a plane going to New York…” With this app, you can get on with it anywhere!

J: Yes

R: Five minutes, ten minutes a half hour, an hour and…it works! A key feature of uTalk is that it carries on working even if you don’t have the Internet! It will sync up again later! It doesn’t mind! If you like doing it on your computer at home, or …

J: In the Subway, where the lack of Internet counts for a lot!

R: No Internet down there!

J: I remember during my last trip I was in Milwaukee leading High Holiday services at my grandmother’s synagogue. I am currently in my Brooklyn apartment. I think I got three skills of Greenlandic done in just simply one hour alone. And also I think the speaking game can be done in well under a minute. Either that or my memory is crazy good.

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R: The speaking game has a little purpose to it by the way! Most people are terrified of speaking! What they find is that they can score all of the points without speaking or it one of those with voice recognition which…doesn’t recognize your voice or gets upset with background noise and you can’t use it anywhere. So we came up with the recall games we have. But we wanted to do is get people comfortable with recording your own voice. So 50 really easy point to get there. The easiest points you’ve got! We want to get people to do it! They are pleased with themselves afterwards and they think, “I CAN speak the language! It works! I am happy with it!”. When they come to the recall game, they know they can do it.

J: Also for tonal languages, it is a godsend. I noticed that Lao doesn’t actually have the tones in the transliteration and I think one possible reason for that is that in Vientiane and in Luang Prabang they actually have different tone sets? Slight differences! I haven’t looked at the Thai one. Or the Burmese. Or Mandarin. Or Vietnamese for that matter. (No longer true as of the time of transcription. I have done the Burmese and Vietnamese courses since). Gee. I’m way too obsessed, am I not? But I have seen in the Mandarin snapshots that they did include the tones. Through sheer imitation, I got over my fear of getting tones wrong, especially since I think that some perfectionists may be a little bit afraid to say a single tone wrong. Especially how …I think a friend of mine said that, in Thai, there is a tone difference between “I like to ride horses” and “I like dog shit”.

R: This is something that happened to me at school. Probably what put me off language.

J: Tell me.

R: The first thing I was taught was the danger of getting it wrong.

J: Oh! I tell my students to embrace their mistakes. This is one thing I have to deprogram my students from.

R: If you make mistakes, this will make people laugh, which is great. When someone says something wrong in a language, we have an automatic sense which corrects it. Half of the time we don’t hear it.

J: GOOD POINTS!

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson on easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 2

R: Don’t worry, no one is going to mind. Obviously a sense of humor helps. I was made to feel frightened of getting my accent wrong in French or saying the wrong thing. Just have a go! British people staying in the US for a few weeks take on an American accent.

J: Even when I was in Fiji I noticed that there was English spoken in the business sphere and Fijian between a lot of the locals. Most of the signs in Fiji are in English throughout the country, but the conversations on the street are in Fijian, with the exception of Indo-Fijians or the students of the University of the South Pacific from which all of the countries of Oceania are represented. As soon as you enter the university, you see a promenade of all of the flags of the Pacific. Very interestingly I noticed that over the course of my time in Fiji my s got very, very thick. Because, as is also demonstrated greatly by your voice actors, the Fijian s is pronounced thickly. Hence “sssssssega” (Fijian g = ng in English) is “not”. I actually….uTalk was helpful as well because I learned to imitate the voice actors. It was like having a private tutor, in a sense.

R: That is what it should be. By the way, one of my friends works an airplane as well. We have a number of interesting projects. We got asked by Emirates if we wanted to do something for language learning. What we’ve added to their in-flight entertainment is uTalk. They can learn about 15-20 words, the most important ones, but by watching videos. Now we are up to fifteen languages and you can learn them from five.

J: Wow.

R: Including from Mandarin and Arabic.

J: I love the representation of Colloquial Arabic varieties and local languages of India. I think that in that respect, you’re without competition!

R: We’re up to five Arabics, I think. We are working with some of the short-call carriers that don’t put anything on the back of the seat. On EasyJet, we’re putting language learning as a part of the wireless system.

J: I saw your photo ops.

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson boards easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 1

R: You can log onto the inflight system and learn any language from any language. We have the range. We are the go-to app for any airline system. No one else can match us! We want to get people to realize what you can do in one flight, and it is a lovely resource…because we all know what happens. You have the intention to learn a language and then you think “I wish I got around to it!” And now you can! Then another motivation can be “I wish I did learn the language” on the return journey. And uTalk is useful for that, too!

J: It seems as though you covered literally all of the main points. One final thought before I have to prepare for an English class: what essential ideas or techniques should the world know about language learning in general? Or words of encouragement?

R: Believe in yourself. Anyone can do it. And don’t believe anyone who told you you can’t. Because you can. Get uTalk. Do the easy game. That’s all. Do the easy game. And then do the next one up, the hard game. And you’ll release how much you’ve learned in a FEW MINUTES. It is not difficult. Start off easy. And don’t worry about grammar or reading or writing! This is about being able to speak to people and making friends! My final comment: even one word in their language can make a HUGE Difference!

J: I remember one time when I was making signs for a protest in the US and there was an American woman who showed up and she lived in Cambodia. She was fluent in Cambodian and I just say “sour sdey” (= hello) and her mouth dropped out of sheer excitement!

R: It feels so special to be able to do that! And tell people not to worry about being fluent!  Just have fun and do it! Presenting people with being fluent is like putting everything on the table at once! Just have one small taste! And then a bit more! Then away it goes! And learn what you want to learn! That’s featured in the app…you choose what you’re interested in!

J: I found that in the Fijian golf Course (no pun intended…sorry, I just had to). The five…the only reason I know the names of the clubs is because of the Wii sports games and I’m not ashamed to admit it. They used the exact same word to refer to all five of the clubs (=nai tavi ni golf)!  Like driver or…

R: They just called it a club, didn’t they?

J: Yes. I think so. On the other hand, I come from a very sports-illiterate family. I sometimes got invited by some of my friends to see the world cup matches and sing the Danish national anthem in the Denmark-Croatia final game and then I watched them get slaughtered in the penalty kicks. Both of my friends were rooting for Croatia, but whatever. And very interestingly, yes, other finer aspects of Judaism I can’t really discuss in any other languages other than Hebrew. Even in English, I have to default to Hebrew to discuss that. In many respects, one thing to note is that “di gantze velt iz a velt mit veltelekh”. The whole world is a world with little worlds, it is true about the world and also with individual languages in general. have been letting other people know how fantastic uTalk is and it has made a huge difference with Greenlandic which I say is the hardest language I’ve ever learned. I fell in love with it back in 2013. I was in Greenland last year and I struggled to put sentences together, but even when I did that I got free drinks galore.

Mother of the Sea and Me

I do not say this lightly: this is one of the most enlightening conversations I have had this year, if not in fact in my entire life, on this topic!

 Greece

You can begin learning one (or more) of over 140 languages RIGHT NOW at www.utalk.com. Dowload the uTalk app at utalk.com/app

 

I Want to Learn Tok Pisin. What Do I Do?

The most commonly spoken language of the country in the world with the most languages, Tok Pisin is a language that unites Papua New Guinea and its manifold ethnicities. My first English Creole Language, Tok Pisin was described by a friend of mine as “Jamaican Patois that seems completely unintelligible to the native English speaker”.

Let’s head over to Glosbe, a fantastic resource that combines the dictionary and sentence database in many languages of the world, and look at a sample sentence to see how much of it you can understand:

“Em i nambawan gutpela pasin bilong laikim ol narapela, olsem God Jehova yet i kamapim.”

Rendered by the English translation as:

It is the highest form of love, as exemplified in Jehovah God himself.

But try looking at it this way:

“Him is number one good fellow fashion belong like him all ‘nother fellow all same God Jehova yet is come up him”

And let’s try the sentence after that (I looked up “love”  in Glosbe and that’s where I’m getting these sentences from)

6 Ol gutpela wasman i wok strong long tingim olgeta wan wan sipsip long kongrigesen.

(6 Loving Christian shepherds endeavor to show personal interest in each sheep in the congregation.)

Rendered literally:

“Six all good fellow watch man is work strong long think him altogether one one sheep sheep long congregation”

If you’re learning a language from the developing world, as thing stand, you’ll encounter a LOT of materials for Christian missionaries. Tok Pisin is no exception to this.

Tok Pisin is a fascinating language and the first one that I acquired a C2 level in (which is denotes being able to understand pretty much everything and use very, very well). My interest was sparked in it as a result of my father’s travels in Papua New Guinea (in Port Moresby and Madang in particular).

Various opportunities that Tok Pisin provide include:

  • A growing community of L2 learners from throughout the world, and not just in Oceania.
  • Fascinating music that is very homemade but also unforgettable and honest.
  • News reports and radio in Tok Pisin that portray the manifold struggles of what it is to be a developing country right now.
  • If you do live in Australia or nearby, many employment opportunities (especially if you work in medicine or similar fields).
  • Even if you don’t live in Australia, translators for Tok Pisin and other languages for Oceania seem to be fairly sought after!
  • Travel opportunities in the PNG heartlands.

So let’s introduce you on how to start the journey, shall we?

For one, a book I would highly recommend for beginners is the increasingly available Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook, which includes Tok Pisin and its grammar explained in detail, not also to mention cultural notes, as well as other sections in that book on Bislama (Vanuatu) and Pijin (Solomon Islands)

These two languages, while more closely related to each other, are also more closely related to English and use slightly more complicated prepositions. In Bislama the verb system has an element of vowel harmony as well that Tok Pisin doesn’t have. Bislama also has more French influence than either Pijin or Tok Pisin. Tok Pisin also has notable German influence as well, and so to say “even though” or “it doesn’t matter” you say “maski” which is a form of “macht nichts” (“never mind”, or “don’t do anything”)

German missionaries were in the process of standardizing Tok Pisin and spreading its usage but then World War I happened which through a wrench in the whole process. (Yes, Germany had a colonial empire in that area of the world, Nauru also was one of their holdings as well).

Anyhow, the Lonely Planet Book doesn’t have a dictionary but will provide very useful phrases as well as the most essential and clear grammar guide that you can ask for.

The Live Lingua Project also has its own Tok Pisin textbook that is written in more detail.

After that you can put “Redio Tok Pisin” into YouTube and rehearse your skills, not also to mention various materials for governments, industries and yes, missionaries:

An essential resource as well as is a Tok Pisin Memrise course that has 2400 words which are essential for having fluid conversations. This course was ESSENTIAL for me becoming fluent in the language. You can find it here: https://www.memrise.com/course/135215/tok-pisin-2400/

(You can access this course from the desktop and then if you connect the Memrise app to your account, you can access it [and all other user-made courses] in the app as well).

I also have the Anki Version of this course as well (ask me if you want me to send it to you).

What’s more, Tok Pisin also has a “website” (https://www.tok-pisin.com/).

Other resources would include Wantok Niuspepa, the one Tok Pisin Language newspaper still remaining in Papua New Guinea and EMTV Online (which broadcasts smaller things more readily accessible for beginners).

You’ll notice that in some materials, especially distributed in cities or towns, that there is a bit of a “hopping” between English and Tok Pisin, and the usage of English is, obviously, spreading. That said, Tok Pisin is still a very important element of PNG culture and still the most commonly spoken language in Papua New Guinea.

Lastly, Wikipedia has a Tok Pisin edition at: https://tpi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran_pes

Keep in mind that while native speakers of Tok Pisin exist, most speakers of the language will speak it fluently as a second language (as some people of Papua New Guinea may also know English). This means that already you have a chance to be on equal footing with most people who speak it.

Mi hop olsem bai yu laikim Tok Pisin tumas! (I hope you will like Tok Pisin a lot!)

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Learning Endangered / Minority Languages to Fluency: Is it Possible?

Learners of languages that have little political support (like Breton or Palauan) struggle more than those who learn politically powerful languages (like French or Japanese). The reason behind this has actually very little to do with the grammatical makeup of “difficulty” of the language.

For English speakers, Fijian (a language I’m currently learning) is easier than Finnish if one takes ONLY grammar into account. Within a little more than a week I’ve mastered many of the elements of Fijian grammar and that same task for Finnish took me at least A YEAR.

Of the languages I’ve done for the Huggins International 30-Day speaking Challenge (Lao, Greenlandic, and Hungarian–I’m doing Greenlandic again in February), I would say Hungarian and Greenlandic are about equal in terms of grammatical complication but Greenlandic is harder for me in general because (1) not as much support in technology and Internet usage (2) the words are longer (3) ways to engage with the language are more scarce and (4) Greenlandic doesn’t have as many Latinate / English cognates as Hungarian does (and Hungarian has significantly fewer than its Finnic bretheren further north).

Make no mistake: learning a rarer language can seem like an uphill battle at times, and that’s without taking into account what people may say to you (if you even care what sort of reactions other people have towards your project at all…part of me has really learned to stop caring).

Finding written material in Bislama was difficult, despite the fact that it was probably one of the easiest languages I encountered (given the fact that it is Vanuatu’s English Creole with French influence). I had no shortage of listening material, however, and that really sealed my journey to fluency. That, and putting the comprehensive vocabulary (about 7000 words, including place names from Melanesia and the Bible, in the WHOLE language–as in, every known word in it) into Anki.

With multiple rarer languages, I defied the odds and got fluent. It seems that I’m on track to do it again with Fijian! But why do so many language learners struggle and fall (note that I did not say “fail”) when it comes to learning rarer languages?

Have no fear!

Mother of the Sea and Me

 

(1) A lot of people getting attached to their language-learning materials.

This is a big one, and I addressed it a while back here.

Point is, language learning materials are to be grown OUT of, not grown ATTACHED to. And even when you’re fluent, feel free to use them as a reference now and then, but fluent speakers engage the language with material intended for native speakers.

What usually happens is that people sometimes get too attached to their books and their apps and use them as a recourse to engaging with the language when they should hop into the real world of that language…as QUICKLY as possible.

 

(2) A lot of people getting attached to needing to use the language with real people.

I became fluent in Bislama without even having SET FOOT in Vanuatu or in any other country of Oceania. How did I do it? I made a “virtual Vanuatu”. I had Ni-Vanuatu radio stations playing regularly when I needed a break from teaching and had to play mindless video games. I employed dozens of other methods across language-learning disciplines.

I used it actively by singing Bislama songs to friends and even recording myself.

Using the language with real people helps, this is beyond any hint of doubt. But don’t use “I need to be surrounded by people who speak it!” as an excuse to deny yourself a language you’ve been dreaming of, and certainly not in the age of the Internet.

Fun fact: up until I met Greenlandic speakers for the first time, a few minutes before boarding the plane to Nuuk in Reykjavik, there was a TINY nagging voice in my head that tried to convince me that Greenlandic was actually a conlang that was only used on the Internet and in a handful of books (given that I had never, EVER heard it spoken or used by real people up until that moment).

Turns out, the language as it was used in Greenland was every bit as real and authentic and MATCHED UP WITH everything I learned with books, music, radio and online studies.

You can fool your brain into thinking you’re pretty much anywhere on the planet at this point with immersion even with a language you haven’t heard ONCE used by real people in person.

 

(3) A lot of people begin learning rarer languages with a losing mindset and no intention to shed it

“I’m probably not going to be fluent in this language anyhow. There’s just no way. But I’ll try it…”

Hey.

Stop it.

If you WANT to learn your dream rare language to fluency, it may take more effort and LOADS of more discipline because giving up is the path of least resistance, especially with a language that others may actively be discouraging you from learning.

But you’re a winner, right? You want to be fluent in that language, right? So why believe the dream killers or that internal voice saying you won’t do well?

 

(4) They don’t build emotional attachment to the language

One of the first things I did when I learned rarer languages successfully (Yiddish, Tok Pisin, Fijian) was FIND MUSIC that I liked in the language and put it on all of my devices and my phone.

That way, I would build an emotional attachment to the language every time I heard the song and it would, on some level, increase my motivation.

A lot of people don’t really do this. Instead they slog away at books or classes and seldom if ever do they actually “get to know” the language or the place where it is spoken.

Also for Kiribati / Gilbertese in January, I tried searching for music that I liked and my first impression was “this country has ABSOLUTELY no good music whatsoever!” But interestingly enough, I found YouTube channels that collected Kiribati music and I sampled fifty different songs. I acquired the songs I liked and I put them in a folder and there are so many Kiribati songs that I find myself wanting to hum while walking on the streets of Brooklyn that, right now, I actively needed to be REMINDED of the time in which I thought that Gilbertese music was “no good”.

Also feel free to use the national sub-reddits for smaller countries to get music or radio-station recommendations. (There may be a handful of countries with no subreddits or, in the case of Kiribati, one that is locked ot the general public. I applied to get in. Still waiting. Hey, administrators, if you’re reading this, could you approve me, please? I have videos of me speaking Kiribati on the Internet!)
(5) They don’t learn about the culture behind that language in detail.

 

Pretty much every human alive in the developed world has some knowledge of what French or Japanese culture is like. I knew very little about Papua New Guinea’s cultures before learning Tok Pisin, despite the fact that my father had stories from his time there. So one thing I did was I headed to libraries and bookstores where I found travel guides to “PNG”, and read up about what the political systems there were like, the history, the cuisine and important things that travellers to the country should know.

Without that cultural knowledge, even with global languages, you will be at a disadvantage to (1) native speakers and (2) learners who have that cultural knowledge. So get reading!

 

(6) They may believe limiting advice from language gurus, the vast majority of who have never learned endangered or minority languages and have no intention to do so.

 

And not having that intention is okay, I should add. Personally I really like learning the rarer languages and I’ve embraced it fully. I understand that not everyone has that drive.

That said, a lot of gurus in the language-blogging world may insinuate things that you could possibly interpret as discouragement from wanting to learn Mandinka or Bislama or other languages that don’t have millions of people clamoring to learn them.

Disregard any advice that makes you want to run away from your dreams. And embrace any advice that encourages you to make them real.

I think I couldn’t end on a better note so I’ll just stop with that. Have fun!

 

Learning Similar Languages: What Can Go Wrong and What Can Work

 

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen with most novice language learners (and, being completely honest with all of you, most language learners, especially in the English-speaking world or with languages that are not English, stay novices permanently for a number of reasons) is the issue of learning similar languages.

Specifically, the issue of the Romance Languages comes into play often, and people scramble the vocabularies of Spanish, Portuguese and sometimes even Italian sometimes quite often.

To be fair, I’ve haven’t been COMPLETELY immune to this (for example, between German and Yiddish or between the Scandinavian Languages or similarly related Creole Languages). However, I found myself better equipped to handle this issue than most.

And there IS an easy way around it, and it has to do with emotional attachment to your target languages.

For most people, Spanish is an easy, useful language closer to English and Portuguese is an easy, useful language close to that one. But I’m curious if you asked them about what sort of native-speaker material or culture they genuinely associate with either of these cultures, what would you get?

I’ve put Portuguese on pause for the time being (and have for about a year now), but Spanish (despite my guarded antipathy towards popular languages) is something I associate with spunky YouTube channels and my experiences with my Spanish friends during my year in Poland. Sometimes the occasional Juan Magan song comes to mind as well. The language has a distinct flavor in my mind that I anchor with particular things, not phrases in Duolingo.

Here are some other anchored flavors for languages that are HEAVILY related to other languages that I know:

  • Danish: my time in Greenland, Rasmus Seebach, a host of ancient traditions and experiences I’ve had with Danish-speakers, Denmark’s animated film industry, THAT PRONUNCIATION OMG.
  • Tok Pisin: fiery opinion pieces in Wantok Niuspepa, Daniel Bilip, my Dad’s memories of Port Moresby, documentaries involving the police and the “raskols” (truly heartbreaking and 100% the fault of colonialism and aftershocks from World War II)
  • Trinidadian Creole: Proverbs, Calypso Music, my neighborhood, very memorable comedic sketches and talk shows, notable Indian influence in comparison to much of the Caribbean.

Most people don’t have any emotional reasons for learning and usually have an abundance of logical reasons or, worse, choosing a language because it is a combination of easy and/or useful.

Yes, it is possible to develop an emotional connection after the fact, but don’t try to bend your desires to what the world wants (the world is crazy enough as is and it doesn’t need another follower, please!)

Even if you do choose to pursue something for logical reasons, you’re going to be more drawn and put more time into things that make you feel better. I really, really like Swedish and Tok Pisin, French or Spanish not so much. Until that changes (if it ever does), improving my Swedish or Tok Pisin is going to be the path of least resistance and not only would I put more time into it but more of it would stick (which is even more important).

So you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with learning related languages?

If you have distinct flavors for each language, the possibility that you mix them up is going to be minimal. I don’t associate Norway’s country-music-infused pop hits with any other place, and Stockholm beats only belong in one place, regardless of how similar these languages may be. I’ve associated these languages with very different feelings and places in my brain and this is why I, at this juncture, virtually NEVER mix them up.

To not mix up languages, you need to collect experiences with them and anchor them in that language.

Interestingly, concerning the creoles of Melanesia, Bislama material on YouTube tends to involve a lot of Ni-Vanuatu flags, and Solomon Islander material uses the Solomon flag even MORE, thereby ensuring through a natural mechanism that I can anchor my material in Bislama and Pijin with their appropriate categories.

When people mix up languages or speak something like “Portuñol”, it’s a sign to me that they haven’t anchored their experiences in enough real-world happenings (or entertainment, for that matter). And that’s okay, as long as you take concrete steps to fix it.

I think that parents of twins may have no problem keeping them apart by virtue of the fact that they have different emotional attachments to each twin. You’ll have to do something similar.

Don’t be discouraged! Keep working!

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How Do You Self-Evaluate Your Language Learning?

How do you know what level you’re at in a language you’re learning or that you speak?

Yes, you could take tests, but what if the language you’re speaking is from a developing country or has no standard written form? What then?

For one, in the United States I evaluate myself readily and I call myself fluent if I can do the following things:

  • Speak about my life with ease without awkward pauses for fifteen minutes or longer
  • Understand a good mixture of songs, radio broadcasts, TV shows and YouTube without issue
  • Can sight-read articles with relative ease
  • Have a convincing accent to MOST people. (Some Israelis think I sound like a “Sabra” but not all)
  • Have cultural resonance in some capacity.

Interestingly the most important component is the 5th one. Allow me to explain what it is: my heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish (Hungarian + Russian Empire) and Swedish / American blend (the American side having largely Irish / German / English / Scottish). I have connections to languages like Hebrew, Swedish and Yiddish because of my heritage.

But something inside me is also amused by Vanuatu and, despite the fact that I have no ancestry from there and have had no family members that travelled there, I see Ni-Vanuatu culture as something that calls to me, for some odd reason. Because of that, I listen to Bislama-language radio very often as well as Ni-Vanuatu music (which often features guest stars from Vanuatu’s cultural siblings, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands).

Anyhow, another thing I do is I also attend language events. This is in order to evaluate my progress as consistently good as well as detect any issues that my vocabulary may have. Granted this tends to serve the most popular languages like Spanish the most often but every now and then I get chances to use languages like Yiddish, Norwegian, Hungarian and Burmese. If I leave thinking that I may need to work on something related to grammar, general flow or word choice, then I’ll have to work on it.

Another thing I do is, on weekends or on days in which I have completely free, I will set aside four to six hours to rehearse each language, usually through hearing (because what you hear translates to your speaking style in any language. Keep in mind that active listening is NOT an absolute substitute for actually speaking. If you’re learning a rarer language and have no access to native speakers, you NEED to use your MOUTH! Even by yourself or with recording software!)

Right now I’m noticing that I’m focusing more on my fluent languages than newer ones for a number of reasons. Part of me is considering putting huge swathes of my beginner languages on the cutting block right now, actually.

If I understand absolutely everything (as is the case, for example, with languages like Bislama and Danish) then I will mark them down as “very good”. If I have some kinks in understanding them (as is the case with languages like something like Burmese or Polish) then I’ll focus more on them when I’m using Anki in the subway system during my commute (or when choosing which music I have to listen to when walking or in a crowded subway car). If I understand very little (which I realize for a language like Kiribati where I’m almost at the intermediate plateau with) then I will mark it down with an emphatic “NEEDS WORK”. I’ll write up a memo as to where my weaknesses are and determine a solution catered to it specifically.

Keep in mind that this is a continuous process. I’m fluent in Bislama but that doesn’t mean that I can neglect it for years on end and expect to be dropped in rural Vanuatu and expect to be speaking Bislama perfectly. I used to be good at Russian but I neglected it during my time in Poland and after several years I could barely answer any basic questions. I’m still not that good at it anymore.

I’m willing to move languages both up and down on my fluency ladder. What is C2 on my website is being able to understand virtually EVERYTHING and speak without floundering when I’m at my best.

Keep in mind that if I’m in a debilitating situation (jetlagged, starved) then it’s not going to be a reflection of my truest capabilities. That’s another thing to keep in mind because sometimes I dwell on “messing up” at events like Mundo Lingo, or I get vexed when I hear ignorant comments about my languages or my language choice (as, sadly, happens often there. I’m seriously starting to re-evaluate if people who speak multiple languages really ARE more open-minded. No doubt language hobbyists are, however).

Anyhow, the most important thing to realize is that every language you learn throughout your life is a process.  There is always something new to discover and you have to savor every step of the journey, even if you falter.

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DETERMINATION.

In My Opinion, These Five Countries Have the Best Contemporary Music (November 2017)

 

I’ve tasted music from well over FIFTY different countries and at least that many languages

I’m sorry to say but, after having tasted music in a lot of the rest of the world, it seems to me that contemporary American music more often than not seems uninspired, shallow and formulaic. Granted, other places do have their share of bad music as well, but ever since college I’ve been looking abroad for musical hits and I’ve never, EVER looked back.

As of late 2017, here are the countries whose music of contemporary times (1980’s to the present) have left me significantly impressed and have changed my life. I also judge primarily for lyrical content as well as for how often I find myself humming or thinking about these tunes when I’m away from any music player or while walking in a field or down the street.

Here we go!

 

  1. Finland

 

One month from today this fascinating country will celebrate its 100th birthday!

It seemed to me in 2013 that I would just learn enough Finnish to “get by” during my venture to meet the local Jewish community in Helsinki and I would promptly forget it. Fate had other plans…

After having discovered a website that offered Finnish Language music 24/7 shortly after my trip, I got hooked. Finnish remains one of my favorite European languages and many of the song lyrics and tunes have been a potent look into what Finnishness (“Suomalaisuus”) entails.

That website, by the way still exists, and it comes with complete song ID’s for everything that plays during a 24-hour period. Check it out, it may prove fun even if you don’t speak or understand any Finnish at all: http://www.radiosuomipop.fi/

 

  1. Solomon Islands

 

I know what you’re thinking, maybe some of you have visibly said “WHAT?!!?” out loud, but Solomon Music is unbelievably refreshing and heartfelt. What’s more, a lot of the music does tend to mix together standard English, Pijin and many of the local languages of the Solomons.

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

 

 

By the way, I asked Dezine how their name was pronounced and they said it was pronounced “de-ZYN” (my understanding is that it’s a homophone with the English word “design”). Yes, I’m FB Messenger contacts with one of the best known musical acts in a country on the other side of the globe. Long story.

 

  1. Myanmar / Burma

 

I still distinctly remember the withdrawal I suffered when I went back from Yangon to New York City and the music I hear from boom boxes and smartphones was noticeably different and not in a good way. Even in very poor regions of the countryside (in Bagan I noticed that this was particularly common), I heard farmers using their smartphones to play music that seemed as though it was vaguely inspired by Chinese pop ballads and classical British radio hits.

Did I tell you about the time I found 100+ Burmese-language songs for $10 on the iTunes store?

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/greatest-hits/id1222130595

There are totally no American, Russian or Chinese cover songs anywhere in that album. Nu uh. No way. [/s]

I also hear that many aspects of the punk music scene in Myanmar have been essential in ensuring inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation, especially important given current events throughout the world but especially in Myanmar.

 

  1. Iceland

You can’t have a landscape like that and not have it inspire you on a very primal level. Sometimes I listen to bland music in grocery stores and at parties and then I listen to the likes of  Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró and I am thereby reminded that there is plenty of originality left in contemporary music, more than many people may give it credit for.

I think that every American alive will probably recognize this tune from somewhere:

And my love of Icelandic rap is literally no secret to anyone who knows me at all. Did I mention I got to see Emmsjé Gauti in concert the day before the Polyglot Conference? Be forewarned: he does demand a lot of audience participation in his events! (He even had an 8-year old boy from the audience join him on stage and sing the chorus to one of his songs!)

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Papua New Guinea

I played a family member some songs from Daniel Bilip the “nambawan hitmaker bilong PNG”. I have a distinct memory of nearly having the phone and the earphones yanked out of my hands when I tried to take it back (the music was THAT addicting!)

 

Trinidad and Tobago

Trini Carnival music is adrenalin in mp3 form. And that’s a very good thing for me. Also, in case you can’t tell, Trinidadian Creole is heavily utilized in these songs, in ways elude the understanding of the average English speaker.

 

 

Israel

At the Hebrew University in the Ulpan I have memories of doing “group singing”. They are very good memories, but the songs are plenty times more memorable.

 

 And now for the coveted no. 1 spot…(that is no surprise in the slighest to anyone who knows me…)

 

  1. GREENLAND

 

Thousands of songs throughout my life, dozens of CD’s, and the most moving music in my life has almost consistently come from one place.

 

 

Greenlandic music tends to contain poetry and musical elements that capture the magnificent feeling of the great beyond in ways that other places’ music just CAN’T.

Ever since I began studying Greenlandic in 2013 (and despite my meager progress), I listened to Greenlandic music and couldn’t get enough. A lot of the styles encapsulate the essence of the many feelings of the human experience.

Some songs have been so beautiful that when I’m listening to them on the subway staying composed is a difficult task.

My personal favorites include Nanook, Rasmus Lyberth and Marc Fussing Rosbach (who just so happens to be the author of a lot of the music for my upcoming video game). I had the chance to meet both Nanook and Marc during my Greenland trip in October (and narrowly missed Rasmus!)

And even if pop ballads and game music isn’t your thing, Siissisoq (“The Rhinoceros”) has come out with literally the best heavy metal I’ve ever heard in my life, and in recent memory they got back together after what was nearly a two-decade hiatus. (I do NOT attribute this to the fact that I wrote a fan letter to the lead singer shortly before hearing this news!)

I’ve written about Greenlandic music in detail elsewhere on this blog, have a read about it here and expect your life to be changed completely.

 

 

The Hardest Things about Learning English Creole Languages

As a teenager I constantly wondered if there were languages closer to English than any of the national languages of Europe I’ve heard were closely related (anything Scandinavian, Dutch, Romance Languages, Afrikaans [despite not really being European in a full sense] etc.)

Turns out they DO exist, not only in Scots but also with English Creole Languages, of which there are many spanning multiple continents. So far I’m fluent in five of them, and my Jamaican Patois book is in the mail (I’ve decided that I’ll be focusing only on Hungarian and Lao as far as new languages are concerned until I’m fluent in one of them, but it occurs to me that given how similar “Jamaican” is to Trinidadian Creole and Salone Krio, I may be inclined to make an exception for it because it wouldn’t be a source of active stress).

I really look forward to learning Jamaican Patois however much of a “snail ride” it is.

However, as much as I sometimes make it out to be that way in conversation, learning English Creole Languages isn’t always very easy.

There were unique challenges they presented that I haven’t seen in the other clusters of languages I’ve focused on (e.g. Scandinavian, Celtic, and soon Southeast Asian and Pacific!)

Let me tell you a bit more about them:

 

  • Slurring and Very Quick Speech is Common to Many Creole Languages

 

After all, Creoles are highly efficient!

Hopping from your phrasebooks or your textbooks (yes, textbooks exist for English Creole Languages, particularly for the Peace Corps) to the “real world” of that language is a difficult task.

The clear words that you saw on the page may be jumbled in ways you didn’t even think possible. Entire syllables will be left out and you’ll need to train yourself. At first it will be like “did you get the general idea?” but then you’ll learn to manage well enough.

The clearest versions of the Creoles tend to exist (1) on radio and TV (2) in materials for missionaries (who partner with native speakers in order to tell stories about Jesus or Biblical characters or what-have-you) and (3) governmental notices that have been localized (often developed countries assist with these productions, also using voice actors who are native speakers or fluent local speakers). These may act as a “gateway” to you understanding your dream creole in its full form the way the locals do.

I’ll give you one example: Solomon Islands Pijin uses “blong olketa” (belonging to them, belonging to all of them, of them, etc.) You may hear it pronounced as “blokta”. And that’s one example of hundreds.

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often use Standard English On / Off in their speech, making it difficult to get a “consistent” stream of it in some areas of Creole-speaking countries.

 

Trinidadian Creole forms the future and past differently from English. There is also no such thing as a passive verb. (These are all things my book says). It’s close enough to English that some people, even Trinidadians, don’t even believe it is a separate language.

Despite that, especially among people who have specialized in medicine or engineering or something similar, you’ll hear a pattern in which they’ll hop between Standard English and their Creole without even thinking about it. This isn’t unique to English creoles and it is called “code switching”.

It may leave you confused. If I used too much English or too little English, what will happen? What sort of situations should I use this much English in? Will I come off as rude?

These are all questions you’ll get a “feel” for and there are so many right answers depending on the community in which you use these languages.

Much like with languages from countries in which English is commonly spoken (e.g. Swedish, Dutch) you’ll have to learn how to mirror how English loans and phrases are used in conversations. Imitating native speakers is your best bet (after all, that’s how we all learn our first language!)

And then, sometimes, you have the opposite problem…

 

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often throw in words from their own native languages you may have never encountered before. This is especially common in music.

A non-existent problem on the radio and TV, this can be an issue in music especially (or if you’re overhearing conversations).

The Creoles of Melanesia and Africa are poised between the native languages and the European languages and have to dance delicately between them (the Carribean Creoles don’t have this dynamic, although they, like the African and Pacific English Creoles, are a fusion between the many languages that the African slaves spoke and understood but in a version that would be comprehensible to the slaveowners.)

Because of this, the people who write the comprehensive dictionaries (even if they’re native speakers of these languages themselves) can’t always keep up. My Yiddish teacher told me that Yiddish was like learning five languages in one (German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian). These creoles are sometimes like learning many, many more of these in one (although their vocabulary loans are more lopsided towards English than Yiddish is towards German).

It’s not uncommon for songwriters singing in Melanesian creoles to hop into their native language or Standard English while singing their creoles in between. Here’s an example:

Related to that is…

  • Some speakers of Creole Languages may have their pronunciation altered due to the phonemes of their native language.

 

As a native English speaker, I have to be careful with my accent in speaking many other languages and I sometimes have to work on it a lot. If I don’t, it may cause a significant amount of discomfort in native speakers who may then be inclined to switch to English if they’re lazy enough (which, sadly enough, most people are).

But imagine if your native language is spoken by 2,000 people on your island somewhere in the Solomons. You will primarily use Solomon Islands Pijin and English to communicate with other people at home and abroad respectively. But you don’t really need to worry about perfecting your accent in Pijin because back from its earliest days on the plantations in Queensland people spoke it with whatever accent they used from their native language. That’s largely still the case (although there are people who speak these Creoles as their native language, Creoles by definition have to have large enough vocabulary to be a mother tongue of someone, that’s what makes them distinct from Pidgins).

The downside? You may hear some vowels, phonemes and individual words mutating in ways you didn’t even think possible. You may hear some basic phrases change into something that is only borderline recognizable to you. Some accents in these creoles can be so difficult that you may actually draw blanks during some areas of a conversation. But as long as you know how to respond with ease and / or get the context, that’s okay.

That’s an issue that primarily comes up when dealing with the spoken language (so when having conversations or watching artistic productions, on radio broadcasts these languages tend to be used as clearly as possible).

 

  • In Some Contexts, You May be Better Off Using English

 

Feel free to disagree with me on this one if your experience says otherwise.

Alas, there are some people in countries where Creoles are spoken that may look down on their local creoles as languages of the uneducated or peasants. In the case of the Caribbean creoles it could be that, depending on context, your attempts to speak their language may be construed as making fun of their accents.

Much like Yiddish was seen throughout a lot of its history as a language that was inferior to both German and the languages of the Bible and the Talmud (and sometimes seen as the language of “women and the uneducated”), in some areas this view of the Creole language can still be present. Interestingly in an age of mass language death this may be changing and there will no doubt be thousands of fluent speakers of these creoles who will be WILLING to practice with you.

Suffice it to say that, despite that, learning the local language is always a fantastic idea. Keep in mind that Standard English plays a role in each of the places where these Creoles are spoken – it’s not like it’s genuinely foreign to people who live in Jamaica or Vanuatu or Sierra Leone. Not at all.

The many languages of these places all play a different role, but the Creoles truly echo the local cultures in unison because, for a number of reasons, they ended up being the languages around which these countries would unify when they became independent. And they continue to play important roles (not a single one of the creoles I’ve mentioned here is endangered, although Trinidad and Tobago does also have this other French creole language that seems to be quite weak as of the time of writing).

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Here’s hoping you meet success in your journeys, wherever they take you!