Why is There a Huge Online Culture Accusing Polyglots of Being Fake?

Probably one of the more painful pieces I’ve had to do “research” for, and another for which no other writings out there existed already. This is, very sadly, a necessary piece.

On Reddit and in many YouTube comments there is often an idea that almost ANYONE who posts videos of him/herself speaking many languages online is almost guaranteed to be a fake and that they “don’t understand how much work goes into a language”.

Benny Lewis seems to get the brunt of a lot of this, but the truth be told is that all of us online polyglots get accused of being fake—it is just that some of us do a better job at hiding it.

It has sometimes gotten so bad that many of my friends just REFUSE to post videos or, if they do, will shut off the comments. What’s worse is the fact that people who are complete outsiders to this craft will say nonsensical things like “you should expect to get criticism if you put yourself out there” (which is just as stupid as an excuse as saying that wearing certain clothing means you were “asking for it”—both serve to absolve the wrongdoer of any fault.)

This toxic energy of internet culture is holding innovation back and it NEEDS TO STOP. IMMEDIATELY.

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At first glance it seems that this battle is actually between (1) hyperpolyglots and (2) HATERZ but there are actually two categories in (2). The first one consists of jealous bilinguals and the second one consists of the no-less-jealous struggling language learners.

For the best of the hyperglots (and I’m getting there), we’ve been so desensitized to being called fake and all sorts of names that a lot of just don’t care anymore (and this indifference occurs naturally with age).

But I’m going to reveal something that very few people on both sides realize:

Usually the most admired polyglots online are actually more admired for their ability to act natural in front of a camera AND speak the languages rather than just speak the languages alone.

I in NO WAY mean to say “all polyglots prepare scripts / read from the screen” or ANYTHING OF THAT SORT. But video making is not just a “point and shoot” variety of deal, and some people have had experience making videos and others, not so much. (And experience doesn’t necessarily correlate to the ability to look and speak naturally in front of a camera, although it does help).

When I made my first polyglot video a year ago, I was FRIGHTENED.

Part of me still is frightened to do something like make a Let’s Play video in Tok Pisin even though I would really like to do that in part because of, yes, some people telling me that a white person has no business speaking this language (which is, frankly, ridiculous—because in the contemporary world, all cultures belong to everyone). Even for “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” I was told that maybe some Greenlanders wouldn’t particularly LIKE the fact that I was making a video game set in their country (although everyone I spoke to about it, both inside and outside of Greenland, was enthusiastic about the idea).

Okay, where was I?

There are multiple types of anti-polyglots and each one tends to have different motivations:

 

  • The one who claims “this one internet polyglot is good, but almost all of the others are fake”

What this person doesn’t necessarily realize is that it isn’t the person they’re actually admiring (or not) but actually the presentation of the person.

People accused the 4-year-old hyperglot Bella of being fake and only memorizing a few things but my friends told me that she conversed in all of those languages with other kids readily—something that couldn’t have been captured on video.

There is a lot of sadness in the world, and people can be very good speakers in person but may not show it ideally on the Internet. With a master presentation a lot of the polyglot community would be more “equalized” than most people give them credit for (and when meeting in person, we realize exactly how similar we are to each other skill-wise, something that I’ve seen again and again at polyglot conferences)

 

  • The one who claims that most polyglots overinflate their abilities

 

I have a feeling this one comes from a misunderstanding that some languages are more easily picked up than others.

Mandarin Chinese may be the work of many years but a Creole Language could be picked up readily in a month.

Those who accused me of being fake when I said in Ari in Beijing’s video that I spoke seventeen to eighteen languages fluently didn’t realize that I had multiple sets of very similar languages (and in the case of the creoles of Melanesia, ones so close that even classifying them as separate languages may be debatable!)

There’s no way you can generalize about a group of so many people, and saying “people can only reach C1-C2 in 2-3 languages tops” is demonstrably false.

This comes with frustration with one’s own progress and the cruel road of projection. Nothing less.

 

  • The one that says that all polyglots memorize a few sentences and judge themselves fluent

 

What exactly are we supposed to do, then? An eight-hour video?

Also, especially after the whole Ziad Fazah thing, do you really think most of us would be naïve enough to lie about our skills? Especially in this time of human history? Especially when any one of our readers or fans could evaluate our skills in PERSON and write home about it?

I am professionally held accountable for the image of me projected. If I don’t live up to that, it is a liability on my reputation and I’m fully aware of that. Maybe you might want me to downsize my skills so as to upsize your ego, but I am who I am and I intend to OWN IT. My haters (and the haters of other polyglots), not so much, actually…

 

  • Particular Criticism about the “Fluent in 3 Months Thing”

It’s a challenge, not a promise. Even if he fell short in his missions, honestly, who cares? Benny Lewis has inspired millions of people, far more than people who write nasty things about him on the Internet ever will.

 

  • Accusing all polyglots of being a “jack of all trades, master of none”

 

A simple case of confirmation bias (which is selectively choosing data or experience to suit your conclusion that makes you feel better about yourself / confirm your existing beliefs).

 

Most hyperpolyglots that I know have a “core” of languages that they know very, very well and others that are all over the map (my core would, no doubt, be the languages of Scandinavia, Yiddish and the Melanesian Creoles. With time I’d like to bring at least some native languages of Oceania into that core as well.)

 

What people who say this ACTUALLY mean is “I’d like to think that this person is terrible at all of their languages so I can feel better about myself”.

 

Once you realize that pretty much everyone who espouses the viewpoints on this list does so from a sense of personal insecurity, you actually learn to not take them seriously anymore. In fact, you might actually…have pity on them.

 

  • The one who accuses polyglots of reading from the screen or using translation devices

 

Again, we polyglots are aware that mis-portraying ourselves or overinflating our skills can get us into trouble in our in-person interactions. If we use a language in one of our videos, we either have to be prepared to use it with other people or explain that we’re learning it or that we forgot it. There is not fourth option

This accusation is just another form of the generalized hate for the polyglot community which is, essentially, a security blanket for insecure people.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. People always have the chance to fulfill their language dreams, whether it be learning one language to near-native fluency or twenty languages okay.

I hope we live to see a day in which this internet toxicity that is holding our community back dies out for good. We all can do our part by putting the effort towards making our OWN dreams a reality.

You can start TODAY! And don’t believe ANY pessimism! Not now, not ever!

Go Go Go!

September 2017 Weekend Trip Mini-Mission! (Improving Hungarian + Two Creoles!)

 This in: I’ll be headed to Buffalo, New York this weekend. This is the first time I’ll be back there since two years ago (roughly when I began my teaching career).

The one thing I associate the trip with is very long drives, and this time (given that I’m not going to be driving) I’ve decided to develop a routine to maximize language learning in passive car travel (active car travel, such as when you’re the driver, is another thing with significantly more limits, and it becomes a different animal depending on how many people you have with you, and also if they will tolerate you learning the language there or not.)

I decided that I’ll be filming my next polyglot video in Milwaukee, the only place that I have had consistent memories of since my…infancy.

As things stand, I intend to use the following languages in the video, probably for about thirty second each: English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Tok Pisin, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Finnish, Breton, Pijin, Bislama, Icelandic, Irish, Krio, Polish, Hungarian, Palauan, Mossi / Moore, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), Guarani, Lao, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Tongan, Trinidadian English Creole and Bileez Kriol.

I have about half of these in very good shape, and the other half I’ll probably only say very simple things. It is also likely that I’ll just do one with my fluent languages before the year is up in ADDITION to that.

This practice really isn’t entirely about that video, however (and I’m likely taking a week off beforehand so that I can hone my pronunciation to ideal heights. Also, I’m putting this out there, I’m going to be coming out with these videos regularly and I literally will not stop until one of them goes viral. I know that I may be subject to a lot of pain and criticism, but we need more global polyglots that genuinely go for rarer languages and we deserve to have be watched by millions. Tim Doner himself became a voice for languages like Hausa and some indigenous languages of Canada, and it would be great if I can do the same with my rarer languages. Words cannot capture how determined I am).

Anyhow, enough of me being lightly arrogant (or am I?)

Let’s detail my goals and my plan. I’ll be improving three languages this weekend: Hungarian, Trinidadian Creole and Bileez Kriol.

 

Hungarian

magyar

Probably the only language I’m working on right now that I want to be professionally fluent in. Sure, being professionally fluent in something like Breton or Gilbertese is cool, but Hungarian means a lot to me because it is one of my ancestral languages. My one living grandparent has memories of Hungarian being used in her family and I want to connect to that piece of my story before it is gone (note to the curious: she herself doesn’t speak Hungarian or understand it, I even wrote “Happy Birthday” on her Facebook wall in Hungarian and she didn’t even recognize the language until I told her.)

I’ve found Hungarian a relief because of the sheer amount of materials both for learners and native speakers. One thing I definitely could do is watch more animated films and cartoons in Hungarian and I really haven’t been doing that, instead focusing more on learning materials. Maybe that’s a bad sign.

Also, the Hungarian Duolingo course is very, very difficult (and I’ve heard even native speakers found it moderately painful to go through). I’m on Level 9 with one-third of the tree completed and I doubt I can complete the course without a notebook. What’s more, that voice is something I’m hearing in my nightmares already. (I’ll go on record saying that the Catalan voice is the worst that Duolingo has, period. It literally sounds like an alien parasite. My favorites among the courses are Vietnamese, Irish and Guarani, in that order)

Goal: Long-term, I want to be able to talk about my life, my job, the Kaverini games, language learning and my family. Short-term, I want to master cases, verbs and the most common 300 words in the language.

Where I am: I have the Colloquial Hungarian book and the audio for the book on my phone, I have an Anki deck of 3,000 Hungarian sentences that are surprisingly useful in demonstrating the grammar. I’ve plugged 17+ hours into Hungarian Mango Languages during my commute (you can play it on auto mode when is helpful if I’m on a crowded subway and I still want to learn things).  I also have a Memrise course with 3,000+ sentences in Hungarian and I’m about 800 sentences in.

In short, I have everything deployed and I’ve begun to see results. I’ve begun to have conversations with some non-native speakers of the language although sometimes I have to slow down.

I tried immersion (with Let’s Play Videos, etc.) and while I’m picking up some vocabulary with them I feel that I can only understand 15%. But the idea that I’m using the language of my ancestors that came to this country in the past 150 years gave me the same warm feeling when I was learning Yiddish, Swedish and Russian.

Tried finding Hungarian music I liked, so far haven’t found anything that clicked…

Plan: Part of me thinks “you’re doing a great job, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fluent in no time!” But I want to sprint further.

I don’t want to be “manageable”. I want to be great.

To that end, I need to change my routine.

In a car ride, I only have so many things (and made even more complicated by the fact that I tend to get ill when reading in a car).

Luckily, the book will never run out of electricity it doesn’t need.

But what exactly should I do with the book?

  • Study vowel harmony. This is important because I think I mess it up a little bit (For those unaware: Hungarian suffixes will change form depending on the vowel makeup of the word it is attached to. Hungarian uses suffixes to indicate “to”, “in”, “on”, “of”, etc. That’s called vowel harmony, and given how often Hungarian uses suffixes this is not something I can afford to screw up. In Finnish it came by more easily but in Hungarian there are some suffixes with two forms and others with three. Unless you’ve studied a language like this, this probably means absolutely nothing to you and so I’ll stop writing it at this point).
  • Study possessives. Possessives come in two forms in English. We have “my book” and “the book is mine”. Both of these exist in Hungarian. The “my book” is expressed with a suffix and “the book is mine” with a separate word. The possessive suffixes (e.g. letters you put at the end that make the word change meaning to say “this belongs to you / me / us / etc.”) are VERY important in Hungarian because without them, you can’t express any concept of “to have” clearly enough to have a conversation. (Hungarian has no “to have”, it just has “there is my book” instead of “I have a book”)
  • Study relative pronouns. These were an almighty pain in Finnish that I literally NEVER would have learned properly if it weren’t for immersion. For those of you who don’t know what a relative pronoun is: the book that is mine is good. (the “that” is a relative pronoun, saying that it is a pronoun relative to the other elements of the sentence). The only thing I can really say about relative pronouns in Hungarian right now is that I think that they tend to start with the letter “a” somehow.
  • Study transitive verbs. This is a big one. In English we say “I choose you” (totally not think about Pokémon here, I promise!) In Hungarian, the “you” bit is actually expressed to a suffix on the verb. I literally can’t converse without these, so I need ‘em.
  • On top of the book, I should go through the Anki deck and review as many sentences as I can. (I know some people don’t like “turbospeeding” through Anki decks, but with some languages like Tok Pisin I’ve done it with no problem. I’m also probably going to go on an Anki-binge with Hungarian shortly before my trip to Milwaukee, actually. That binge, if all goes according to plan, is more likely to be review).

 

 

Weaknesses to keep in mind: Sometimes my eyes get weakened from staring at screens too much, and sometimes I can’t manage reading in a vehicle for very long. I expect the latter point to be less of an issue if I am reading VERY small bits of information. I can always put the book down and rest. Or use it over the course of the weekend when I’m actually not in a vehicle.

 

 

 

Trinidadian Creole

t n t

I have one (1) book for this language, one that I got as a gift upon recovering from Lyme Disease and moving to Crown Heights in Brooklyn shortly thereafter.

Immersion in Trini Creole has been both easy and hard. Easy because I can understand a lot of it already, hard because Creole is often interspersed with Standard English very often among Trinidadians. (Again, keep in mind that there are those that don’t even consider it a separate language!)

Where am I?

I have excellent vocabulary except for the loan words from Indian Languages. I have a good although not great grasp of every grammatical concept and I understand how the grammar of Trini and English are different.

So what’s my plan?

  • When I have internet access, undergo immersion with Calypso music and Radio and PAY ATTENTION. What sort of verb forms are left out? What words are different from standard English? How do Trinidadians pronounce their vowels and consonants, in both Creole and Standard English?
  • Learn the Loan-Words from Indian Languages. Got a list of them in my book (the Kauderwelsch book which is literally the only learning-book for Trinidadian Creole I’ve ever encountered anywhere). I never heard of any of them before.
  • Master all aspects of grammar with a thorough review by reading out every sentence from your book in the “grammar” sections.

Combined with occasional speaking exercises, I think I could make very deep progress.

Unlike Hungarian, I’ll be using primarily book sources (or, more accurately, book source) for this rather than for a combination of digital and book sources.

 

Bileez Kriol

 Bileez

I literally have no good book for this and what I’m using now is…well…the Memrise course that I have in development (in which I’m writing all the sentences and words from the dictionary published by the Belize Creole Project [Bileez Kriol Projek]).

I’m going to literally have to be a detective and note general patterns in the sentences. Before I go, I should get the dictionary as a PDF on my phone and any other devices I’m taking with me.

Another thing I need to do is read things out loud in the course, otherwise my memory development isn’t going to be as honed.

Where do I stand now with Bileez Kriol? I know pronouns and a rusty form of verb conjugations, but that’s pretty much it. And I’m supposed to be speaking it on camera in less than a month. Great place I’m in!

But given how close it is to Trinidadian Creole, I expect to sprint much in the same way I’ve done with similar languages before (such as within the Scandinavian family and within the Melanesian Creole family).

I may need a notebook of sorts with this. Of all of the projects that I think will take the most effort to succeed this weekend, this one will be it.

Reading resources I found online: the Bileez Kriol Wikipedia Incubator, the Gospels in the language (I’ve only read Matthew and pieces of Mark in English in my college courses), my Memrise course, the dictionary.

And the one song that I’ve encountered so far in the language is probably not appropriate for younger audiences. (For the curious: just put “Belizean Music” in YouTube and see if something in the first few results catches your eye…)

The dictionary is probably going to be my best friend during this time.

 

I’ll let you know how it goes when the week is over.

Wish me luck!