The Most Important Lessons of my Life So Far (30 Years of Jared Reflection)

On my 30th birthday I think of all the times in which people ask me if I “feel old”. The fact is, I feel wiser and more confident with each passing day, despite the fact that this decade has probably been the most difficult one of my life (granted, the sample size is not large).

At age 20, I was a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem while abroad from Wesleyan University. Looking back, I think that I was a LOT less restrained and a lot less “polished” in terms of my behavior. Paradoxically I was both an iconoclast AND very religious. The maturity that I’ve acquired since then, despite the fact that most of it happened as a result of negative experiences, is, oddly enough, something that I’m grateful for.

At age 30, here I am in Brooklyn, teaching a multitude of languages to very curious and smart people. It was something I’ve dreamed of doing since before my Bar Mitzvah. I also wanted to be a hyperpolyglot throughout most of my life, but I think a mixture of having discovered the right blogs and the right tools made it possible.

Also, perhaps at this juncture I’ll make a list of the worst things about my personality, as well as the best things.

Bad things:

  • I question myself very often, perhaps way too often.
  • I have a narcissistic streak in which I sometimes seem openly concerned for the way that I am perceived.
  • I set EXTREMELY high standards for myself, even to my detriment.
  • I am difficult to impress.
  • I tend to blame myself for anything bad in any situation.

Good things:

  • I am on an endless quest for self-improvement (and this attracts other people with similar qualities into my life).
  • I take advice from people readily and I apply it (my rabbis and coaches have noted that I do a “fantastic” job at applying advice and changing my behavior when asked).
  • I am difficult to provoke and remain calm in a lot of situations (to a degree that sometimes scares people, but also enables them to put their trust in me).
  • I make an uncanny amount of connections between things in my brain (this is probably my BIGGEST advantage as a learner).
  • I pride myself in being different and taking “roads less travelled”.

 

Now for the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my life so far. I may have written an article like this before, or possibly not. Honestly, I can’t remember.

Here we go!

  • Frame Your Life as a Story or an Epic in Conversations.

 

Characters such as Abraham and Odysseus are memorable because their characters are formed via transformative journeys.

 

Even if you haven’t left your hometown, you can still see yourself on a similar type of journey in a sense.

 

For me, the fact that I hopped between Orthodox Jewish Day School and Inner-City Public school and then Wesleyan University and then 20+ different countries made me a bit of a confusing fellow earlier in my life but an “epic character” later on.

 

Given that I downsized my religiosity, that also adds another element as well. Given that I became a hyperpolyglot, that also serves as a “twist” in a sense. Given that I stopped pursuing advanced degrees to create my own game(s), that shows deep courage.

 

Find what your story is.

 

  • To Teach Well, Think about What your Boring Teachers Did and Do the Opposite of What They Did.

 

 

Granted, in this clip my body language could…improve a bit (I think that I’m shaking too much). But hey, it was my first time.

 

Note what I did in the clip. Used a theatrical style filled with energy. I spiced up my presentation with artistic detail and tiny “blink and you’ll miss it” details (including having hid several of my gaming user handles in the presentation).

 

I’m not dismissive of anyone’s questions and I answer them on point. If I don’t know something, I say that I don’t (as what I did with Yanjaa Wintersoul’s question about learning from different consoles).

 

Richard Simcott approached me after the presentation and said that he was told “excellent things” about my presentation including several wishes that I could “come back” for future Polyglot Conferences. (It seems unlikely that I’ll be in Fukuoka for the 2019 Polyglot Conference, though).

 

  • If You Want Something, Take the Necessary Steps to Get that Something IMMEDIATELY.

Life getting too routine? Draw up a multi-step plan on how to change it and do SOMETHING to change it.

 

Too concerned about a flaw in your life? Speak to a friend about it.

 

Want to learn the language of your dreams? Start NOW!

 

I could go on.

 

  • Make Lists Often.

The self-descriptive article at its finest.

 

  • Realize That a Lot of Advertising and News Articles Are Meant to Tug at Your Insecurity for Clicks and Sales.

 

They are most likely overstating many problems (with some noteworthy exceptions) so that you can feel more immobilized and click.

 

  • The Aging Process Does Not Have to Be an Evolution from Idealism to Conformity.

 

It may be tempting to think so at times, but one way to counteract this is to constantly “open doors” in your life with new skills and expanding the world of you.

 

  • If you’re Over-Analytical, Know When to Turn it Off.

THIS is something I have issues with. Still.

Whether it be with students’ feedback or internet comments or even dislikes on videos, do realize that creating hypothetical situations and “stories” can actually be harmful. A lot of this has to do with competitive school culture, but once you really leave you’ll realize that most human beings are actually quite forgiving of…almost anything, actually. As long as it isn’t done out of pure malice, that is.

 

  • Ask People Questions About Their Story. Frame Their Lives as a Story.

For example, I’ve met Jewish converts and “newly minted” American citizens on a weekly basis for some time now. I’m curious to hear about how Judaism / American-ness makes them feel. Same for many other identities as well, whether it be discovery of a language like (Spanish / Danish / Yiddish / Thai / etc.) or having recently moved to New York City.

Often I got remarks like “I’ve always wanted to open up to people about this, but they almost never asked”.

 

  • Open Doors for People (Well, Yes, Literally, but Also in a Figurative Sense)

When I was in Yad Vashem in December 2012 (which, looking back on it, was one of the most transformative months of my life. I visited Skansen in Stockholm for the first time and visited many of Israel’s holy sites that I hadn’t seen before), there was one remark from a Swedish priest that still rings with me to this day.

“There were some of the teachers that tried to open doors for me. And there were others that tried to close doors for me”, he said.

In my teaching and in my conversations, I want to make people realize that their dreams can come true. I praise people for their tough decisions and their artistic determination. I want to act as an energizer and let them know that becoming their ideal self is always possible.

 

  • Know that You are a Legend and Other People Will Remember You.

 

Perhaps this one requires a good deal of egoism. But egoism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you use it to lift other people up, especially in times of despair, then it can actually be a divine virtue, in a sense.

See yourself as a legend beyond compare, as if the future of the world depends on your every action, in a sense. See yourself as a comic book character with layers of deep change and vulnerability. See yourself as someone who has to use his / her / their powers for good. Use that power to make others believe in themselves and feel appreciated and cared for.

 

After all, YOU may be the person upon whom the future of humanity depends. And you may not even know it yet!

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The Five Best Decisions of My Life (April 2018 Edition)

I don’t think this piece needs any introduction.  Who needs introductions anyway?

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  1. To Start This Blog

 

Back in 2014, when I was having conversations in okay / mediocre / sort of manageable German (with perhaps too much influence from Yiddish) on a daily basis, in addition to conversations in Hebrew, Yiddish, Swedish and Danish (all of which, looking back, did require a significant amount of work but which were still passable), I thought of writing this blog to document the wisdom that I gained and struggles that I had on a daily basis.

To be honest, when I first started I thought that I wasn’t “qualified enough”, but here’s something you need to know: the world belongs to those who make brave decisions without overthinking them. (This is the biggest disadvantage of being intelligent by FAR—every single one of our decisions has an extensive map of potential consequences that could freeze up decision-making. That, and success in school does usually result in approval-seeking behavioral patterns, which usually are damaging on the long term).

This blog was hibernating from late 2015 until 2017 (due to my Lyme Disease) when I decided I would bring it back and explain that the reason I wasn’t posting was…well, because I was sick.

Despite all the praise and letters of thank you I’ve received from languages learners across the world, it hasn’t been “all nice”. My writing style has been called a significant amount of names and I’ve been accused of being a charlatan (obviously by people who never met me and likely don’t care to). But thankfully this is rare in comparison to the love I’ve received from the community built from dreamers and dream-realizers like YOU!

 

  1. To Meet Ari in Beijing for his Tea Ceremony in Chinatown

 

One fine evening in a Moishe House (it’s like a community house for Jewish young people in their 20’s and 30’s), I came across someone who told me he was having a tea ceremony in Chinatown on the following day and that he’d like me to come.

I got up and I wasn’t feeling well. I messaged Ari and told him that I may be unable to come. Then my head cleared in an hour and I’m SO GRATEFUL it did. He and I spoke about languages, travel, cultural differences and, of course, China’s cuisine, which still olds a distinctly unique place on the world stage.

I saw Chinese news shows playing behind me and I remarked on the fact that Norway also has subtitles in all of its shows as well (to assist the hard of hearing / immigrants learning Norwegian mostly). One thing led to another and the fact that I was a hyperglot couldn’t really be kept a secret.

We met on several occasions since the tea ceremony (and it was the best I’ve ever had, EVER, even if it felt like “energizer in a pot”). He wanted to interview me for his channel and I used that as an opportunity to lay forth messages I wish I heard earlier in my life to eager learners throughout the world. It has since become a noteworthy success.

He also “mentored me” in the art of YouTubing, video-making and also encouraged me to focus a bit more on depth (which I took into mind with my primary language focus of 2018 so far – namely, Fijian).

I was also afraid of making videos and in July of that year (the interview was recorded and posted in April) I started making my first ones, and then began growing into it. All because of Ari.

 

  1. To Submit my Proposal to the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (Despite the Fact That I was “Certain” It Wouldn’t Get Accepted)

It’s no secret that I like the Nordic Countries. A lot. I wear t-shirts with Icelandic and Greenlandic paraphernalia on them for many public appearances (including an Icelandic declension shirt during the Ari in Beijing interview and a Nanook shirt for … well, we’ll find out in a moment, shall we?)

I submitted a proposal on a talk on how to use video games to learn and maintain languages in April 2017. I was SO SURE I wasn’t getting accepted (there was no way I was competing with global scholars and government officials, right? RIGHT?)

I woke up one Monday morning expecting sheer disappointment and when I opened the message at 6 AM I was so excited that I felt like shouting loud enough to wake up all of Brooklyn.

Professor Arguelles and I messaged repeatedly, not only in Brooklyn but also on the shores of Inle Lake (in Myanmar) in order to create an outline that would introduce this fantastic novel method of language learning to people who had never touched a Game Boy / Atari / anything else in their life.

I went on the stage, definitely one of the youngest presenters there (I was not THE youngest, however), and I used my trademark energizing way of teaching complete with a PowerPoint presentation with tons of Easter Eggs and “secret bits” for people who knew the various languages on the screen (e.g. Undertale in Japanese, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon 2 in Polish, etc.)

Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings told me afterwards that the presentation got OVERWHELMINGLY positive feedback including many people who wanted me to do an “encore” at future conferences.

The twitter feed in which my talk was tagged also had things like “I don’t know a lot about video games but this really explained it well. EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT PRESENTATION!!!!”

The lecture isn’t up yet, but it slated to come soon!

 

  1. To Being Freelancing Teaching / Translating Shortly Before Getting my M.A.

 

This provided me such a huge boost to my language skills in addition to the fact that it GREATLY increased my interpersonal skills in ways that were not possible earlier in my life.

It also gave me fantastic insight as to how most people learn languages (and the obstacles they face in doing so). It also enabled me to fine-tune my own missions as well. (Often in a lot of classes I’ve taught in 2018 I also mentioned “I’m learning Fijian right now and l’m having many of the same issues that you are!)

Once Nuuk Adventures comes out, I may begin “winding it down”, but for now I’m still doing it (and I can be your teacher! Contact info above!)

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

 

To Focus More on the World than Just My Jewish Heritage in Particular

I got my M.A. in Jewish Studies but I think one significant issue that I had was the fact that a significant amount of people there, both among the staff and the students, maybe found it a bit “silly” that I would care about many other places so much. Interestingly when I went to Greenland (one of the only two countries I’ve been to without any organized Jewish presence, the other being Jordan [Iceland is debatable given that they have a seasonal Jewish community and, now, a Chabad Rabbi, so I’ll count it as having one), I found a LOT in common with the conversations that people were having about Jewish identities.

Examples: how do we balance our traditions with the modern world? How is it possible that we survived this long, despite everything? How will we survive in the coming years? And, of course, the underdog humor found in Greenlandic films such as “Tarratta Nunaanni” and in Yiddish theater sketches have a LOT in common (whether Marc Fussing Rosbach or other creators realized it or not!)

 

To Downsize the Presence of “Punishing Religion” in my Life

 

I can’t say too much about this quite yet because next month there is likely to be a “big reveal” concerning this. Some of you know about it already but I promised not to write about it until…well, you’ll know when you read it.

 

To Go to the Amazon Loft for an Event near Canal Street in Manhattan on Leap Day 2016

 

“Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” was thereby set in motion because of the people I met that evening.

 

  1. Having Chosen to Go Abroad to Krakow after Graduating College

 

I could have remained a parochial nice Jewish boy, but as it turns out, right out of college—I had so many job rejections that I felt like cracking. Then a professor of mine from Poland recommended that I work at this internship program in Krakow. I was skeptical at first (given how Hebrew University was nice but also provided a significant amount of stress).

I decided that anything was better than unemployment. And I made the plunge. I made the decision at the Woodbridge Town Library (which was ALSO the place where “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” started because that was where I discovered the Greenlandic language as well!) I was in the library because of post-hurricane power outages.

I remember sending the documents and taking in a feeling that I would  be living in a foreign country again.

The journey sent me to several other countries as well. And I remained permanently changed.

I found myself thrown in between so many cultures that I was very confused.

But the wisdom I gained from it was immense. And Poland in particular also has a fascinating history which ties together a lot of elements of being an empire and being crushed by empires at various points in its history, not also to mention a deep history of multiculturalism with a more recent past of being very ethnically monolithic (pretty much every Polish person that I have spoken to had noteworthy traces of a non-Polish nationality in their ancestry, including yes, Jewish ancestry.)

Between my time in being a permanent resident in the U.S., Israel, Poland, Sweden and Germany (despite the fact that they’re all developed countries with lots of political power), the world would never be the same.

What were some of the best decisions of YOUR life?

The Polyglot’s Guide to Dealing with Online Haters

Believe me, I’ve looked and looked all throughout the internet on finding a piece on how to deal with online hate (not that I did NOT use the word “criticism”, we’ll get to that shortly) as a language enthusiast. Perhaps surprisingly, there wasn’t any, and it is high time one got written.

I’m not gonna lie, I’m very sensitive to what other people say about me in my HEART, even though in my HEAD I know that I shouldn’t care. After all, whose judgment am I going to trust about my language skills: Richard Simcott (who told me that I spoke the Scandinavian Languages “very, very well” and was also impressed by my commitment to Greenlandic and languages of Oceania) Nanook (who also though I spoke Greenlandic and Danish well) many other famous polyglots whom I’ve met OR randos on the internet who write barbed comments?

I’ve developed deep friendships with people with virtually no English (only a handful of cases in which no English was used at all because, well, the person in question didn’t speak it, but usually my English-free friendships sometimes have to switch to English if there are others that don’t speak the target language who want to join in). I’ve had teachers, professors and native speakers compliment my accent. I KNOW I’m not a fake and that I’m good at what I do, although I have had my share of failures.

However, sometimes one comment somewhere accusing me of reading off the screen / not speaking the languages as well as I do / telling me that speaking 17 languages is “impossible” (anyone who has ever studied very closely related languages at all will know that it IS possible) / any number of things gets under my skin somehow.

This was because, throughout my life, I’ve been very much bred to please people. I know I’m not the only one, and I really need to break out of it and I KNOW that I have to, but it is a difficult journey made even more difficult by insensitive people who say “if you don’t like something about your personality, then just change it!”

Okay, enough ramblin’, let’s find out how to ensure that you are NEVER affected by online hate, ever, ever AGAIN! (A follow-up piece to this will be written about in-person haters).

The first thing to understand is that haters are NOT Critics.

 

Examples of criticism would include:

 

“I think your accent needs work. The syllable stress is something to pay attention to. Good luck with (insert language here) in the future.”

“Great work! A minor thought to consider for the future: perhaps your choices of sentences could be a bit more original in your next video. Keep it up!”

“Your (insert language here) does have significant problems, but keep at it!”

 

Examples of hate would include:

 

“Terrible accent!”

“You’re just a fake polyglot who memorize a couple of sentences and calls him/herself fluent!”

“Your (language) is awful!”

 

Spot the difference? Of course you do.

 

Criticism acts to build people up. Hate just simply knocks people down. As a friend of mine said about online haters, “they need more love in their lives”.

One thing to understand about haters is that the very fact that they sling such remarks actually indicates dissatisfaction with their language progress. There’s a reason that I don’t go around accusing people of reading off the screen or using Google Translate or having bad accents even if there’s a part of me that may think that to be true. That’s because I’m busy building up my OWN skills. (And even if they DID do things like that, honestly, who cares?)

Yes, I think some people in the online Polyglot community could “diversify” their language choices a little bit, but I never write anything to that effect on comment sections because, again, setting a good example with my own work would be more effective to that end.

Haters are dissatisfied with their life and progress and, seeing no way out (when in fact there IS one), take it out on people on in Internet enjoying the success they wish they had.

A person online who constantly accused me of being fake in my videos, inflating my skills, and telling me that speaking the languages that I do was impossible, well…suffice it to say that he tried to present himself as an expert on a language which he failed the proficiency test in. Multiple times, in fact. The fact that he tried to take it out on me just simply shows wasted effort and dissatisfaction with his life. I wish this person great luck in all of his language journeys, because I know that having these setbacks can be difficult, but hurtful comments only make you look desperate, wounded and actually…just plain silly.

The same also goes to people who agree with haters as well (e.g. people who like their YouTube comments).

Also, keep in mind that just because haters may be native speakers of a language you speak, that doesn’t mean that their opinion is valid, because as any experienced language learner knows, native speakers can have diverging opinions on what makes an L2 speaker “good”. Obviously the better you get, the higher the percentage of people who think you’re good will be, but even with your native language you can’t please everyone (e.g. some people think that I’m not a native English speaker when I am one). This is even MORE true with a language split across political lines (as global languages are wont to be).

There’s a reason that highly successful people, in the language-learning world and otherwise, have never questioned my language skills at all (demonstration or no demonstration), and that’s because there’s satisfaction with their lives. Sure, some may think that maybe I may be overestimating myself a bit, but they never voice that explicitly, much less on the Internet. That’s because satisfied people don’t “hate”.

Especially haters trying to tell you that are fake are trying to tell themselves that they need not be threatened by their success. Over the course of the past few years, yes, sometimes I have felt threatened by the success of other people, but with each coming year I’ve shrunk it and I’m continuing to shrink it.

And haters actually do an EXTREME disservice to humanity, preventing people who would otherwise show their true selves and their true skills to the world from ever flourishing. So if you’ve EVER written anything like the hate comments I mentioned above, please stop. Forever. Because it doesn’t say anything good about you and, to be honest, most sane people are going to see right through your hate for what it is—a poorly managed bandage function on your OWN dissatisfaction.

The hate is ALWAYS about the person who writes it. It is never about you, especially if you intend to keep on climbing higher and higher. The End.

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You’ve got to stay determined!

My First Post of 2018: Looking Inside My Soul (+Happy Birthday, Slovakia!)

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Let’s just do the lazy thing and get the list of goals for 2018 over with. Yes, it’s large, but I set very high standards for myself. Even if I don’t make them, I’ll ensure that I’ll still do very, very well!

  • Master Hungarian, Lao and Greenlandic (B2 or higher)
  • Get the Scandinavian Languages to C2 (understanding virtually EVERYTHING written or spoken)
  • Make significant gains with Hebrew, Finnish, French, Breton, Icelandic, Jamaican Patois and Sierra Leone Creole.
  • Gilbertese and Uyghur at B1 or higher
  • Learn Comorian to A1 at least.
  • Vincentian and Antiguan Creoles at C1 or higher
  • Brush off Russian, Irish, Cornish and Ukrainian (B2 in them would be great!)
  • Tongan, Palauan, Mossi, Welsh, Persian and several Indian languages to A2 or higher.
  • Learn Swahili, Khmer, Haitian Creole, Basque, Fijian and Fiji Hindi in earnest.
  • Colloquial Arabic dialects (esp. Sudanese) to A2
  • Diversify my language practicing materials.
  • Gloss articles in languages I speak and read and put versions of them online for learners making them “learner-friendly”.
  • Continue that same work of throwing away limiting beliefs and practice all of my languages for 3 minutes a day at least one day a week.
  • Come out with a new polyglot video every season (Winter / Spring / Summer / Autumn). They don’t have to showcase ALL of my languages at once, but at least show something.
  • Start a “Coalition Blog” with folks like Kevin Fei Sun, Miguel N. Ariza and Allan Chin and … anyone else I forgot! Guests welcome!

Also, no new languages for 2018. I will make exceptions for picking up new languages for travel, business purposes or relationships that sprout up as a result of various happenings.

Anyhow, with each passing year it occurs to me that what becomes more and more important is not so much learning new words and expressions but rather developing mental strategies.

I could be fluent in a language but if I’m in a negative headspace words will elude me. I’m certain that anyone reading this has also had them happen when speaking their NATIVE LANGUAGE.

Anyhow, here are some difficulties I’ve been noticing;

  • I remember from “Pirkei Avot” (a Jewish text about ethics and life in general that I’ve periodically mentioned on this site) that it is said that “the reward for a good deed is another good deed, and the reward for a bad deed is another bad deed”. Namely, positive feedback ensures that you’re likely to continue to speak and act in your most optimal manner, and negative feedback will drag you down in a similar way.

I’ve noticed this at Mundo Lingo. I speak the Scandinavian Languages “very, very well” (that’s what Richard Simcott told me, so I believe him). So when there’s a Swedish native speaker who shows up, I’m in a good head-space and then I speak languages that I usually am not so good at (French, for example) better than I normally do.

 

On the other hand, sometimes I’ve heard racist comments at Mundo Lingo (yes, it does happen!) Or people disparaging me for my choice of languages. As a result, I’m in no good headspace to do anything, because it feels like I’ve been “wounded” and will act accordingly.

 

I think one way to counter this is to usually start the day with some good feedback. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to post daily in a closed group called “Polyglot Polls” (you can join if you’d like! Just let me know) Given that a lot of open-minded and curious people are in that group, ones who mutually support each other with their missions, it helps put me in a good headspace. It is a good thing to start any day with.

 

  • Imposter syndrome in the polyglot community runs a bit like a fear of turning out like Ziad Fazah, the polyglot who claimed to fluently speak 59 languages and, on live television…well, he was asked what day of the week it was in Russian and said that he couldn’t understand it because it was Croatian.

 

Only this past weekend I was asked to count to ten in Tongan (a language that I am weak at) and, sadly, I couldn’t do it. But I don’t claim to speak Tongan fluently. But still I felt down.

 

I think moments like these are good for recognizing my weak points. Even in our native languages, we have them. It’s not a reflection that you’re a fake, it reflects on the fact that you have something that needs patching. That’s what life is. Telling you where you aren’t doing well and bringing you on the path to recovery.

 

Unlike Ziad, I don’t claim to have any divine gift for languages. I just spend a lot of time struggling with things until I get them. The contemporary schooling modules have taught us that learning isn’t supposed to be about struggling. That’s not true in the slightest, certainly not at the advanced levels of anything.

 

  • The last one: sometimes I feel that I’m falling into the trap of thinking that I became a polyglot for the sake of others rather than for my own sake.

Again, to tie in Jewish themes, in studying holy texts and observing ritual we use a phrase “Leshem Shamayim” – literally, “To the name of Heaven”, figuratively, “for heaven’s sake” and more figuratively “doing something for love of the subject-matter rather than for acquiring validation, reputation, praise or any other contemporary form of social currency”.

Every dream chaser has felt poised between doing something “leshem shamayim” and doing something for the sake of personal gain or admiration of others. I have to resist that, now more strongly than ever.

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Professor Alexander Arguelles (right) and yours truly, Jared Gimbel (left)

On a side note, I’d like to wish my Slovak and Slovak-speaking friends a happy Independence Day!

May 2018 be full of blessings, everyone!

The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

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It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!