5779: The Most Important Lesson I Learned

The most important lesson I had over the course of the (Jewish) year was the following one:

After giving both of my presentations in Bratislava, I was genuinely dissatisfied with them. I thought that I was too nervous, didn’t speak well enough, spoke with grammatical errors and that my accent wasn’t good.

I was so upset after they happened that I was on the verge of communicating with my family members in tears, thinking that I was a disgrace to my polyglot legacy and professional career.

I was genuinely scared for the talks to be posted online this week, but I was pleasantly surprised to recieve many messages saying how inspiring I was as a presenter, bringing my heritage languages and knowledge of places, languages and cultures threatened by climate change to one of the biggest conferences of its kind in the world.

There was genuinely nothing to be afraid of and I was judging myself way, way, way, way too harshly. And all the signs pointed to me having done a better job than my abysmal rating of myself.

I will have to cultivate self-mercy over the course of the coming year. Too often I have looked at my creative work sketches for “Nuuk Adventures” and thought “there is no way that this will sell at all”.

But the lessons of this year shows that we all have more strength than we estimate and that people are more forgiving than you think.

May Divine Mercy and self-love be with us all and a sweet 5780 to my Jewish friends!

 

Here are the presentations:

 

The 2019 Polyglot Gathering: Personal Lessons and What I’ll be Doing Next

Here I am watching as the sun sets over Bratislava and a thunderstorm appears to be in the works. I’ll walk outside and enjoy the twilight but first I’ll need to relate a bit about how things went from my perspective.

The fellow attendees at the conference were curious, accepting, not in the least bit critical, vulnerable and kind. Often in the “real world” I sometimes hear comments like “let’s continue in English because I speak English better than you speak my native language” (I know, right?)

But the way things appear at Polyglot Conferences, everyone has a series of ladders and it doesn’t really matter how far you up on them…or not…you are, as long as you have some drive to go higher or even taste a language for a little bit.

There were also great lessons in vulnerability. I saw in genuine action that fluency is not perfection (and come to think of it, I never heard almost anyone speak non-Native English without some type of grammatical mistake. AND THAT’S OKAY.

Corollary: it’s okay to speak any language non-natively with mistakes too, as long as you can communicate and patch your errors one-by-one, which may indeed take a lifetime or never fully get perfect, but that’s the beauty of learning, isn’t it?

In any case, I had a humbling experience realizing what it was like for people to present in their non-native languages. I was a lot more reserved. I was energetic and I second-guessed my grammar a lot. I thought “wow, the speakers of Yiddish and Swedish are gonna give me a bajillion dislikes when these videos come out”.

My first thought after concluding both was that they were disasters. But later on I then realized that despite sometimes fumbling for words, using too many filler words, or even sometimes making Norwedish errors in my Niuean presentation, that’s okay.

It was really the first time I’ve done it and it gave me a newfound appreciation for the many speakers of other languages who gave talks in English as well (and I think I can compare myself favorably with how they did).

I didn’t have the same quality of the “taking a class with Jared is like getting a drink from a firehose” that I have with classes I teach in English (and my classes in other languages are like that but they’re usually not filmed, which was the big issue in making me nervous. I’ve taught dozens of classes in non-native languages before, just not with a camera in front of me that was headed straight to YouTube. I even noticed that when the camera was off I became a lot more natural and less nervous.)

But I guess that’s okay.

My next project will be to improve my Greenlandic and Danish both substantially for the sake of  “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, a task that will last ninety days at least.

Greenlandic I speak…okay but not well, and Danish I speak well but I’d like to speak better. I’d rate them as A2 and C1 respectively. I am already developing a plan to get a lot more Danish music as well so that I can create a full-fledged environment of being immersed in both languages (I already have a lot of Greenlandic music but I’m open for more suggestions, too).

The current challenge I’m doing is this one: http://mylanguagechallenge.com/

The requirements: film a 10-minute video after 90 days speaking your target language (or, should you choose the reading or the writing tracks, choose the appropriate avenue). I do have access to native speakers and a lot more than I thought was possible a week ago.

So here’s what happened.

I uploaded a video on Facebook of me speaking Greenlandic for a minute. A Greenlandic friend of mine asked to share it in a group, which he did, and then it became viral in Greenland generating hundreds of likes and I woke up with endless friend requests from all over Greenland (which I accepted because I’m making a video game about Greenland and because it is my favorite country, too!)

I got comments like “we should crowdfund his vacation here” or “he speaks better than most Danes who have been living here for a decade have” (this was something explicitly told to me by my host mom in Greenland. Info checks out.

Well this is going to be fun. Time for me to enjoy the Slovak twilight one last time for this journey.

Thanks for making all of this so memorable!

Quality Games: My Plans for Immediately After the Polyglot Gathering

Greetings from my hostel in Vienna!

So with two presentations, three performances and two mini-talks I’ll be giving at the Polyglot Gathering next week, it occurs to me that next week it all comes to an end and I’ll be in the real world again.

As much as I really like speaking multiple languages, there is one thing that needs to poke its head in.

Multiple things, that is.

For one, there is the understanding that maybe I should focus more on quality rather than quantity. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I deliberately finding myself using English in hostels in Austria and Slovakia JUST so I can feel vulnerable and get detached from my identity and self-esteem being entirely hinged on being a polyglot.

And a polyglot I will remain, mostly because I have to retain my knowledge of Yiddish and Nordic languages in order to earn money.

And the second thing, is, of course, my game, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, which was delayed due to a number of personal crises in my life.

So starting with next week I’ll be focusing almost all of my language efforts on Greenlandic and Danish (my fluency in Danish notwithstanding, but I want to get better in terms of my accent and vocabulary) until “Nuuk Adventures” hits stores.

This will mean a lot of sacrifices on my behalf, but my languages should serve my professional life, not the other way around (unless it happens to be convenient).

Once Nuuk Adventures is out, I’ll likely be learning the language of the place where the next “Kaverini” adventure will take place. I’ve decided it but I can’t reveal it quite yet.

And I’m not going to lie, part of me is very excited to get a language to near-native fluency. Sure, my knowledge of other Nordic languages isn’t going anywhere and I’ll be retaining my Hungarian and Yiddish as well (and likely some Modern Hebrew), but nothing else is certain.

Perhaps I should say “thank you for understanding” in the event you’re disappointed. But this is a new beginning for me that I knew was coming for a while.

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Polyglot Report Card: May 1st, 2019

Thirty Days. Two Presentations. One fantastic conference. Lots of crises in my recent life in the past year but hoping I’m going to manage well.

So for this one I’m going to only rate languages that (1) I will almost certain encounter speakers of during the conference and (2) are not ones that I regularly encounter at language exchange events by different people (so no Spanish, German or English).

And exactly what I need to do for each.

Let’s go:

Yiddish: above all good in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation is very good, flow is mostly good, I just wish I had more vocabulary, that’s all. But I know plenty of people who would be happy with the vocabulary I currently have in Yiddish. After all, I have more than a decade of experience.

Yiddish plan: my 7,000+ word Anki deck. Use during commutes.

My Yiddish plan is also identical to my Scandinavian plan, but my knowledge of Norwegian is slightly weaker than Yiddish or of Swedish or Danish.

Finnish: Overall quite strong, I think I just need to solidify knowledge of some idiomatic expressions.

Finnish Plan: Cloze Deletions during my commute. Which I’m already doing.

Hebrew: Understanding is EXCELLENT. My vocabulary needs more depth but I don’t know if I’ll have the time to do it, especially with my presentations.

Hebrew plan: use Lingq or Clozemaster more often.

Hungarian: I can manage conversations about some topics well, others not so well. I need consistent practice.

Hungarian plan: watch YouTube / Hungarian TV during workouts or chores.

My Hungarian plan is also valid for Slovak but my flow is a lot better. For obvious reasons I’m more likely to focus on Slovak until after the conference.

Tok Pisin: Haven’t maintained it in a while but when asked to speak it I manage very well. My Bislama and Pijin have somewhat fallen down the wayside but I think I could manage them with a native speaker if I had to. I probably won’t encounter Ni-Vanuatu, etc. at that conference. I know because the guest list is mostly open.

Tok Pisin Plan: Listen to audio in the subway. I can literally understand everything said to almost everything said.

Hawaiian: Probably the dark horse rising star of my group, I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to use it but I won’t be surprised if I do. My accent is good, my basic vocabulary is good, my cultural knowledge is a bit on the weak side, I don’t know Hawaiian songs too well.

Hawaiian Plan: Oiwi TV needs myself a-watching.

Lao: Ha. Probably the one language I’m gonna be the most disappointed in (as was the case in the 2017 Polyglot Conference). I’m going to need to do more than just my Memrise course for this one (I only have Lao, Palauan and Hiva Oa / South Marquesan active on Memrise right now).

Lao Plan: multilingual posting in closed groups, uTalk speaking exercises, possibly customizing Lingq.

Fiji Hindi: I can understand a significant amount, but given that I’ll mostly be hearing Standard Hindi, this will need work. This is a language I retired for a while but then I decided to revive it this month because there will be many people who will have learned Esperanto and Hindi for the Gathering Challenge. (I did not, however).

Fiji Hindi Plan: Put an entire textbook into Lingq (I use the Gujarati slot) during one weekend when I feel very passionate. By “entire textbook” I mean “only the simple sentences”. Then go through the vocabulary during the week.

But as for what I will focus on during May, it will likely be Niuean and Fiji Hindi, actually. These are two languages I think that I’ll need the most for the gathering (with the exception of Slovak which I’ll likely soak up very well once I’m there). So I need to work on those. If I am very, VERY satisfied with Niuean, I’ll pivot to Slovak instead.

For what it’s worth, I’ll be focusing more on fewer languages once this conference is over. And I’ll write in more detail about my plan then.

My list remains the same for my post-Gathering language lineup, and I’ll redesign my website to suit it: Scandinavian, Yiddish, Hungarian, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Greenlandic and Finnish.

(If I add another language it will likely something required for a trip, business or a relationship but only if I deem it ABSOLUTELY necessary and fulfilling)

fiji hindi episode 4

I’m Presenting for the First Time at a Conference in a Language Other Than English. How Do I Feel?

Happy Birthday Mom! This post is for you.

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I may or may have not been writing about it here but I’m presenting at the Polyglot Gathering twice next month (actually in a month from this week!) One talk on the Kiribati language in Yiddish, and the other talk on Niuean in Swedish, and both of these talks are aimed at absolute beginners. (I don’t even think I remember anyone other than myself having learned any indigenous language of Oceania at the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik. To his credit, Richard Simcott did learn some words of Tongan, from me, and speaks with a great accent.)

This piece is going to be on the short side and a bit of a stream-of-consciousness sort of thing.

For one, I feel relieved. English is one of the languages of my ancestors, but Yiddish and Swedish are “closer to home”, so-to-speak (my great-grandparents on opposite sides of my family spoke those, I should also mention Hungarian and Russian as well).

I also feel as though it is a bit of a “polyglot prize”, in a sense, something that non-native English speakers can be handed for free but for native English speakers having opportunities to present in other languages may be scarce. (Yiddish? How many times to I get to present in that? And so close to the historical Jewish quarter of Bratislava no less? I’m so glad they went along with my suggestion!)

And then of course cruel YouTube commenters will have no choice but to be quiet and my legitimacy will be further cemented online, but that’s just a minor treat.

On the other hand, I’m worried about grammatical mistakes or otherwise being unable to find the right words. Also due to influence from Swedish youth culture, injecting in English phrases is something I do naturally when speaking Swedish and I may have to turn it off completely for this one (except if I’m reading something in English from the slides, given that Niue is, after all, not only English speaking but a former British colony. A book I cite in the presentation is from 1907, which is TWO YEARS after Niue was colonized).

Also another thing: the fact that I’m presenting on languages that I don’t know as well as my fluent languages. I haven’t been told how my accent sounds in either of them, but certainly a lot better than my first attempts at Kiribati which are enshrined in posterity in my YouTube channel. That said, I would imagine that given that people have told me that people appreciate all attempts to speak a language like Hawaiian or Maori (not also to mention my overwhelmingly positive reception as a foreign Fijian speaker in Fiji), the Niueans and I-Kiribati will be no different. (As a Jew I’m a minority myself and so I am tuned into issues of sensitivity and I LOVE it when gentiles learn about my culture/s, and the more the better).

I teach non-English classes all the time (and I’m about to do so again in twenty minutes). That’s not what I’m worried about at all. Perhaps the idea of being judged in an audience is something heavier. But I also imagine that most audiences will be forgiving, the same way that I am forgiving of English mistakes even on the university level, as long as people can express ideas (and often non-native speakers are a lot clearer than native speakers, even with limited vocabulary).

This is going to be fun. Any experiences you’ve had presenting in your non-native language/s? How did they go?

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.

People Who “Hate” Their Native Languages: My Perspective

Beware the Ides of March!

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Today’s topic is an interesting one that I’m surprised hasn’t been touched on in almost any language-learning blog I’ve encountered.

For many years I’ve heard comments like these:

 

“(Speaker’s native language) is the most useless language in existence”

“(Speaker’s native language) is only useful 0.1% of the time.”

“I suppose there are a lot better things to do with your time (rather than study my native language)”

“Why the fuck do you want to learn (speaker’s native language)?”

“I think my native language is boring”

“I would trade my native language for…”

 

I should mention two things:

  • I’ve been guilty of this myself. Part of me wishes that English wasn’t my native language. That was literally the second blog post I ever wrote about on this blog, actually!
  • Almost all of the people who made comments like these were westerners (although I’ve heard some people from Asia or the Americas do the same, too—but not as frequently. From Africa and the Pacific, not to date).

 

Before I continue I’m going to say that I do NOT include people who actively dislike their language due to trauma. (e.g. “my grandmother was a native German speaker from Nazi Germany and after she left she refused to speak German ever again”. Disclaimer: this describes neither of my grandmothers). That’s beyond the scope of what I feel qualified to talk about, and in the event you DO encounter someone like that, avoid that language altogether without questions. End of story.

 

But as far as ordinary people who somehow feel that they could trade their native language (or one of their native languages) for another one, there are some things that I’ve noticed.

 

  • Sometimes they just say that in order to get you to validate their native language.

 

YES. This has happened to me. Enough for me to write about it.

 

Only yesterday was I in a Talmud class and we had a discussion about the fact that, according to Jewish law, prospective converts have to be refused three times (in order to show that they are genuinely serious about becoming Jewish, regardless of what liabilities it may bring them in the future).

 

Sometimes someone who says “why bother learning (my language) if so few people speak it / everyone in my country speaks English anyhow / it’s ‘useless’” may actually want you to justify your decision passionately. Or they may actually want to hear your story in detail but don’t want to ask directly.

 

The more fluent you are in a language, the LESS this will happen, especially if your accent is good.

 

There’s a reason for that, actually. Because if you speak it well enough, it shows that you’ve had a good enough reason to invest a lot of time into it, so your reason will almost CERTAINLY not be within the realm of questioning (e.g. having done business there, married to or dating a native speaker, etc.)

 

  • If they use ANY amount of the language with you at all beyond basic greetings, they really DON’T hate their native language. Especially if they show telltale signs of enchantment.

 

If they did (and yes, I have encountered a handful of cases in which they did), they wouldn’t smile if you speak their language, they would instead appear disgusted and a tad confused. They wouldn’t be continuing the conversation in the “useless language” and playing along with you with smiles as they do it.

 

This is the case with me and English. I may have extremely conflicted opinions about American English, but if someone wants to learn it from me, I’ll usually play along rather than act frustrated (especially if someone really needs help with his or her English). Because whether I like it or not, American-ness is a part of who I am (in addition to my other identities).

 

  • Sometimes this attitude can reflect a certain sense of jealousy (that we ALL have) about speakers of certain languages.

 

I’m hugely jealous of Greenlandic native speakers. I make no secret of that fact. (It still remains the hardest language I’ve ever attempted to learn, bar none, to the degree that if someone lists a major language as the hardest to learn, I’m secretly scoffing on the inside.)

 

Throughout Europe I’ve met many people who view American English native speakers as lottery winners and view them with a certain sort of jealousy that they can’t hide. And yes, you will make friends JUST by virtue of that fact alone, especially with people who feel that they need the conversational practice or even knowledge about American culture (this is true no matter WHAT your native language is, actually! Someone out there is looking for you! This can also be the case if you’re a fluent speaker of a language, even non-natively).

 

My knowledge of whatever native languages I can’t have and I can’t catch up with will almost certainly never be on the level of a native speaker. But I can try and keep learning. And if it is of any comfort to you, my knowledge of other English-speaking cultures and their idioms are also going to be out of reach in terms of “perfection” as well.

 

But you don’t need to be a native speaker to be good. Far from it, in fact.

 

  • Unless someone brings up a traumatic incident or shows signs of vexation, do NOT take “I hate my native language / I think it’s useless” comments seriously.

 

And there also is a chance that you just MIGHT need to get better at their language in order to get them to warm up to you!

 

One last thing: you can actually use this to your advantage to keep conversations in your target language (which I’ve noticed is becoming less and less of an issue the more experienced I get. It was a noteworthy issue back in 2014 and is almost NOTHING now, but we’ll see how Austria and Slovakia fare later this year on that front). Benny Lewis famously would bring up his English-language Catholic school experiences in order to guilt people away from using English with him in places like Spain. I’ve never had to go to that length but I’m certainly willing to describe the darker sides of my American experience (which I won’t go into right now).

 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!