Jared’s Return! September 2018 Plan and Announcing uTalk Tumbuka Challenge!

After having reflected a lot on my journey and having fully settled into New York City again, here I am reflecting on the paths I will take, with languages and otherwise.

For one, it seems that with each coming year that I will likely focus more on quality up until the time in which I raise a family (which is a LONG while away), in which case I will probably have to downsize my language list to whatever I can reasonably manage in both time AND profit (e.g. given how much the languages of Scandinavia are essential to me surviving, I have to keep them on my list…probably for the rest of my life. And I’m happy about it. Because that has been a childhood dream).

Since I got back from Fiji in mid-August my primary focus was Tahitian for two weeks. It went by…not as well as I would have hoped, but I do realize that two weeks are barely enough to form much of any variety of skill without INTENSE study (and I can’t sideline freelancing for intensive Tahitian study at this point).

That said, I was capable of having some online exchanges in the language during August 2018. I am going to be redefining my focus with that language, however: I will be using Memrise with the daily-streak function for quite a while and then when I feel that Tahitian isn’t so “strange” for me, then I’ll devote myself to studying it again. I’ve been inputting vocabulary from my books into my personalized course.

For now, Tahitian is only kept alive in my Memrise course and little else.

And then there is my commitment of thirty minutes of Hungarian. Some things I should mention about how it is going so far. Three positive, and then three negative:

  • Passive vocabulary is WAY up.
  • A lot of the grammar makes sense.
  • My accent is good.

As for what’s lacking:

  • I have trouble understanding a lot of television.
  • I sometimes am nervous to converse with native speakers.
  • My ability to speak has been inconsistent (sometimes I have to go slowly, other times I feel that I’m “really feeling it”. I had very much the same issue with Fijian four month ago as well).

I’m going to need to do active immersion more often – as I think that’s the key ingredient I’ve been missing in my studies. Watch television and piece together sentences and “what’s going on” to the best of my ability. It worked with many other languages before (most noteworthily the Nordic family) and I should expect it to work again, even though it means that I’ll have to put a LOT more effort into it than I did with languages closer to English.

For various online challenges I’m revisiting some of my “old favorites”, especially from Oceania. I’ll be making one video in Fijian every weekend for the Langfest challenge and a recording in Gilbertese every day for the Huggins International Challenge (not a long one, and unlike my normal routine I’ve been preparing elements of a script in the Gilbertese recordings because I REALLY NEED THE WRITING PRACTICE).

So that’s where I’m at in September. Creative stuff and freelancing are keeping me busy and I realize that I don’t have to put a lot of effort into “maintenance” as much as I used to because of the fact that I attend multiple language events every week.

Now here’s something fun…

Thanks to Kevin Fei Sun having won several free uTalk courses at Langfest (that I could not attend, yada yada yada Fiji)., I got intrigued by the app as well. Despite doing the freemium version in which I need to unlock individual skills, I’ve been making progress with Fijian and Greenlandic while on the train or as something to “warm up my voice” (given that there is a self-recording component).

But I’m so intrigued by it that I’m curious how well it would teach me a language by itself.

So here’s a YEAR-LONG CHALLENGE I’ll set for myself.

In the app, there’s a regional language of Zambia called “Tumbuka” (with a nice picture of a hippo which is almost the only reason it got my attention). Today is one week from Rosh Hashanah. So this challenge will last for one Jewish year – until one week from Rosh Hashanah next year.

How much Tumbuka could I learn while using the app ONLY? I may not use anything else.

Granted, because I’ll need to unlock the skills at a slow pace, and I have no routine, it seems that my progress will not be linear. Then again, I could also just get the subscription for 10 USD a month and be done with it. But I’m curious how I could manage with uTalk ALONE.

It will probably not work, but it will be a curious experience, and something I could manage with a minority language from sub-Saharan Africa.

I’ll log my progress after the first day tomorrow and I’ll give you a “first impression”. More details and a “ruleset” will be featured therein.

I’m off to try this Tumbuka course for the first time.

Wish me luck!

Jared

tumbuka

5 Things About Language Learning I Learned from Norwegian

Gratulerer med dagen! (Congratulations with the day!)

While Norwegians and their various expatriate / heritage communities the world over celebrate today (May 17th, the Norwegian Constitution Day) with parades, traditional costumes, hot dogs and ice cream (and much more!), here I am in rainy Brooklyn wondering how I can bring (1) exciting new motivation to learners of Norwegian and (2) an interesting perspective as an outsider that will be insightful to native speakers.

Norwegian was actually the first major European Language that I became fluent in and still is my favorite European Language. Contrary to what you may hear, there are VOLUMES of resources to learn it and even MORE to engage with the language even if you’re nowhere near Norway or any native speakers at all.

17 May 2018

 

(1) Norwegian Taught Me to Reflect on What English Was Throughout the Ages (And What It is Now)

 

With some noteworthy exceptions, English’s sentence structure is Norse in origin. One of those noteworthy exceptions is the fact that Norwegian (like almost all of the Germanic Languages) has verb-second construction. (To explain this: if a sentence begins with something indicating time, manner or place, put the verb right afterwards. In English you would say “today I will play a game” but in almost all of the other Germanic Languages you would say “today will I play a game”. Same if it were “Slowly” or “in Oslo” at the beginning of a sentence instead of “Today”).

In teaching languages of Scandinavia, I have to teach students how to recognize words from English as well as how to piece together words from pieces they already know. “Gjenskinn”  may not be familiar to you without this training, but once you learn to recognize it as “(a)gain + shine”, you can piece it to mean “reflection”.

Other Norwegian words use pieces of words that have fallen out of usage in English but survived in compound words. “Homestead” and “instead” use the word “stead” (which is a direct relative of the Norwegian word “sted” meaning a place).

«Å skade» means «to hurt» or «to damage», which you may recognize from the English word «unscathed».

The most common question I ask when going over a Norwegian text is “do you know what this looks like in English?”. Once you see exactly how similar the two are, it doesn’t become scary at all. In fact, Norwegian (and its relatives) are a lot less scary than the Romance Languages are (in my opinion). Consistently I have seen English native speakers of Norwegian as a second language be SIGNIFICANTLY more confident that English native speakers of Spanish as a second language. Yes, the pronunciation in Norwegian is harder to master, but the grammar is simpler and even the complicated aspects thereof feel intuitive for an English native speaker.

Norwegian is an excellent first choice for your first foreign language if your only language (right now) is English.

 

(2) Norwegian Gave Me a Glimpse Into the Reality of Heritage Speakers

Many a Midwesterner has had Norwegian-speaking grandparents who didn’t pass on the language to their children. As a Jew I hear often stories of Yiddish-speaking grandparents who did the exact same thing.

Especially in the United States, cultural erasure happens but sometimes the erasure only happens for one or two generations (with one of the future generations seeking to re-attach themselves to their roots).

In comparison to many people who I’ve met who learn languages to, in vague terms, “speak with many people”, the heritage speakers I’ve encountered approach language learning with an almost holy determination. Many of them see the Norwegian-American experience as truly incomplete without a language component, others want to communicate with their distant relatives from the small village from which their ancestors immigrated.

These people make me think about what motivation can do and how a genuine desire to become an “honorary” member of a community can make the heaviest obstacles in language learning seem passable.

Several of my students said that learning Norwegian enabled them to experience an alternate universe version of themselves in which their ancestors didn’t immigrate and / or passed down the language rather than replacing it only with English. With my heritage languages I would say that it is very much the same.

 

(3) Once You Learn a Smaller Language, You Actually See Its Influence in Contemporary Popular Culture Everywhere

American folk music has been deeply influenced by Norwegian airs. If you listen to Norwegian party songs like those written by Robin and Bugge or Staysman & Lazz, you’ll notice a clear similarity to American country music. Obviously the influence also happens in the other direction as well (as Americanization is something I’ve noticed in literally every country I’ve ever been in, although it was probably the weakest in Jordan).

Norwegian songs that have become ultra-famous in the greater world, like “Take On Me” and “What Does the Fox Say?” (despite both being songs in English), do have a distinctly Norwegian touch to them.

The city layouts of the Midwestern United States will give you a heavy dosage of “déjà vu” if you been to anywhere in Scandinavia at all.

Product names and idiomatic similarities are also some added bonuses you’ll get to recognize.

 

(4) The Norwegian Language Has Layers, as Do Many Languages Throughout the World.

At its base, Norwegian has Old Norse as its ancestor and primary influence. However, later on, there were other influences that entered the picture. The Denmark-Norway Union changed the language significantly. French and German influence also contributed loads of vocabulary to the language, not also to mention Latinate loanwords that Icelandic does not have. These layers also influenced regional accents. Now there are English loanwords as well and more of them entering the language by the year.

Do keep in mind that, with some exceptions, most languages are layered in a similar fashion. To be an adept language learner, be aware of the various influences in your target language and learn to tease them apart and note if you see any patterns as to where you see French loan words / Latinate words / German words etc. It will also show you that a language is a history map, something you can’t unlearn (in the best of ways).

 

(5) The Norwegian-Speaking Community Has Been Firmly Supportive of My Efforts and Those of my Friends

You’re welcome to share your stories to the contrary (and some of my students did have one or two people saying “I’m really impressed, but to be honest, why bother?”), but Norwegian speakers have been nothing but supportive of my journey and those of my friends. This was true even when I was an ABSOLUTE BEGINNER.

They provided honest and meaningful constructive criticism and made it very clear that they were happy with my efforts and curious to hear why I fell in love with this musical language. At no point did I feel that they were deliberately intending to show off their English skills at the expense of learners (as many people, regardless of native language, can tend to do).

Norway sadly has a reputation for legendarily unfriendly in some circles, but with the Norwegian language you’ll experience this culture in a way that you can deeply connect with it. And believe me, Scandinavians are not unfriendly—they’re just different from what you may be used to in regards to social norms.

 

NOTE: When I refer to “the Norwegian Language” in this piece, I am strictly referring to Norsk Bokmål. I have not studied Nynorsk yet but my reading skills in it are good.

Have YOU had any experiences learning Norwegian? How will YOU celebrate May 17th? Let us know!

Learning Hawaiian: First Impressions

A few days ago (four days ago, to be exact), I had grown significantly burned out from studying languages of Fiji and Rotuman proved to be a heavy challenge for me with even the most basic level seemingly out of reach (as things stand).

I decided I needed a break from my routine of having my studies of Fijian eat up any gains any of my other weaker languages would have had. I yearned for something more, a language that didn’t feel like it was a “chore” or an “obligation”. I tried to improve Kiribati and Burmese but I sort of “wasn’t feeling it” for either…not right now, at least.

Then, after having a feeling that I couldn’t shake, and a certain infatuation with a language I haven’t felt in a wrong time, I knew I made the right choice when I began to study Hawaiian (as of four days ago).

I do remember my promise to not learn any new languages for 2018. Well, the promise was to not learn any language not related to business, travel or romance. But as a game designer and someone who hasn’t played the seventh generation of Pokémon games yet (set in “Alola”, heavily inspired by Hawaii), I’m going to need to play through the games with some knowledge of Hawaii / the Hawaiian Language first. After all, I’m also designing a game set in a real world location and I’d like to see what Nintendo / Game Freak / the Pokémon Company do(es) well.

Hawaiian fit the bill. After Fijian (which I’m continuing to improve), Hawaiian seems more approachable with the sentence structure and many aspects of grammar no longer foreign at all.

What is odd, however, is the fact that there are so few letters. 13 letters (one of which is the glottal stop “ ‘ “, known as the “ ‘okina”). So “credit card” would be “kāleka kāki”. Personal names are also localized as well, and many traditional English names familiar to most Americans have been morphed into something not even remotely recognizable (Fijian had more letters so it didn’t really have this problem).

I really admire the community of Hawaiian speakers for bringing this language so far with communities and harnessing technology in every sector. I can imagine that, despite the fact that it is still listed by UNESCO as “severely endangered” (It is the least safe language in Google Translate, I believe), Hawaiian will continue to survive and proliferate contrary to all expectation.

Upon hearing speakers from universities and schools speak, they don’t speak of Hawaiian as “dying” but rather in a constant surge of revival. It seems that, from the sheer looks of it, that Hawaiian speakers seem to be more hopeful about the future of their languages than, let’s say, Icelanders would be about theirs (that said, I think that the reports of Icelandic’s “decline” are heavily exaggerated).

Hawaiian, unlike many other languages of the Pacific, has a TON of resources to learn and, I would imagine, many ways to find speakers in New York City and many other places. The amount of loan words founds in English from Hawaii is staggering (luau, kahuna, hula, wiki, etc.) The idiomatic similarities it has with Fijian also make it a lot less stressful experience and a more enjoyable one. I can imagine that future languages from Oceania will come with ease to me.

I should also say that, at this point, it seems that my true language “loves” lie with Oceania, Scandinavian and the Jewish Languages (not also to mention languages of my heritage like Hungarian, which I sadly haven’t been focusing on as much as I could have been but I was sidetracked by Fijian for travel reasons quite early into 2018. Late 2018 will get Hungarian handled, this I promise.)

I also can’t keep on picking up new languages forever and maintenance is already starting to become an issue. That said, perhaps I need to be more inventive and hopeful and silence voices in my mind telling me that I can’t. Or I need to think more deeply about what I want.

That said, at the very least 2018 brought me Fijian. It seems that Fiji Hindi (a small amount), Hungarian, and maybe Hawaiian and Kiribati can also be mine by the time 2019 comes in. Maybe deep improvements in Greenlandic and Lao as well. If I try. I had a long list of languages that I wanted to improve or at least sample in 2018, but with several new games coming out this year and changes in my life it doesn’t seem likely.

That said, I encourage you to follow your dreams in any capacity you can. Your life belongs to only you and you deserve your best shot. End of story.

kanaka maoli

How to Anchor Your Languages to Your “Mentors” So as to Avoid Mixing Them Up

A friend of mine, an English / German / Spanish / Japanese / possibly other languages I forgot / possibly I taught him a few words of Hebrew once asked me to write this post. Thank you, Mitch, with great wishes for your continued success!

Do YOU have a topic you’d like me to write on? Let me know!

I’m recovering from an illness so I hope that this will be good nonetheless.

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Many people have told me that they sometimes intend to say one thing in one language and end up saying something in another, or otherwise the general mix-up that many polyglots, even veterans, know all too well.

Believe me, even native speakers sometimes suffer from this. This is why code-switching is a thing, as well as the fact that many people from India / Oceania / Israel / Northern Europe / American Hispanics mix in English with their native languages. Even in the Arab world this is common with French words instead (in various Arabic varieties spoken in former French colonies, such as with Lebanese Arabic).

That said, there are some people who feel as though they have an “unhealthy dosage” of it, to the degree in which they want to speak Hebrew or Japanese and then Spanish comes out instead, not also to mention those who study similar languages may also suffer from this as well.

Here comes the solution:

Among “dialect continuum” areas (in which the boundaries between languages are unclear and there is a large amount of variance between a language as spoken in a particular country or geographical area), as well as areas of the Internet dedicated to the culture of these areas, you’ll notice something: some people flaunt their national flags with what could almost be described as aggression.

There’s a reason that Norwegian flags are commonly featured on clothing (especially coats and winterwear), and that’s to distinguish their wearers from Swedish or Danish people (the former of whose language closely resembles spoken Norwegian and the latter of which closely resembles the written variety).

In Crown Heights, which I believe is the largest Afro-Caribbean expatriate community in the world, I see Jamaican, Trinidadian, Grenadian and Barbadian flags (among others) VERY commonly. The reason why? So that people don’t mistake them for one from belonging to one of the other nations (despite the fact that many of them share many aspects of culture).

Listening to music from Melanesia, I’ve noticed that a lot of music from Vanuatu tends to show the Ni-Vanuatu Flag in the thumbnail and Solomon Islands music does the same. Bislama and Pijin (their national creoles) resemble each other very closely.

What’s the point I’m trying to make here?

The same way that these people anchor their native identity with imagery and mementos, YOU need to be doing that with the languages you speak as well.

The first time, which is the easiest one, is find “mentors” for each of your languages. No, I’m not saying “go find a private tutor for each one”, but rather a certain native speaker or a set of native speakers whose voice you tend to imitate most. These could be friends, radio hosts, YouTubers, or even voices from an online app.

Here are some of the “mentors” I’ve had:

  • The Irish Language Transparent Language Voice
  • My Welsh-Speaking Friend named Ivan
  • The Vincentian Creole Bible-Redux Narrator (from a set of mp3’s I got from a Bible site that one time. Yes, a lot of them mention Jesus; no, I am not Christian nor do I have any intention of being un-Jewish).
  • A number of Swedish-Language Let’s Play-ers who deserve an entire post written about them (coming soon! And no, PewDiePie is not one of them. I’m glad that he’s brought awareness about the Swedish language and culture to many fields of popular discussion but he crossed the line too many times last year. Also, he uses a lot more English than Swedish in his videos.)
  • Too many of my Yiddish-speaking friends to count, but if I had to pick one it would be Baruch, probably the one I spend the most time with (we attend a lot of the same events).

For your native language, you sort of don’t have any choice for your mentors—they were your parents or guardians. But for languages you learn in adulthood you’ll need to find “adoptive parents” for them.

Obviously if you have a LOT of friends who speak the language (as is the case with languages like Yiddish and Polish for me), your “mentor” will be sort of a blend of all of them although mostly the influence of one or two will overshadow all of them.

I couldn’t imagine Baruch speaking Vincentian Creole English (although maybe one day he’ll learn it, I have no idea). Similarly, I can’ t really imagine the “Vincy” narrator speaking Yiddish or even standard English for that matter (although the latter I would imagine he certainly would know).

Another thing that you very much can do is have different vowel and consonant textures for your languages. Once you get a mentor for any language and start imitating him or her, this will come naturally. Think about the automated voices in your language course—how do they pronounce “a” or “l” differently from the way you do in your native language? Investigate these feelings in detail and mimic them accordingly.

People who are often praised for their accent often do exactly this, and note the differences as to what they hear between speakers of various languages. Once you get good at it, you’ll even be able to keep extremely close languages separate. While I encounter with dogged consistency people who mix up Spanish and Portuguese way too often (precisely because they haven’t gone through this), I can keep straight German and Yiddish, the Scandinavian Languages, and very similar Creole languages—granted there are rare occasions in which I mix them up, but overall I’m in a good place because my “mental discipline” is very honed.

We all have separate identities. Jared the teacher is very flamboyant but he has to tone it down when he’s Jared the student. Similarly, you’ll have to do the same with your languages—allot each one a different set of feelings and a role, as well as, most importantly, ways of talking.

Happy learning!

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

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

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

I’d like to say two things.

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

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

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

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

That’s the first thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun and don’t give up!

norden

The Non-Native Speaker Language Teacher vs. the Native Speaker: How Do They Stack Up?

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I’ve taught well over ten different languages over the course of my life for various forms of payment. Back when I first began teaching one of my friends who was a graduate student in Astronomy told me that the most important thing is that you know MORE than the person whom you are teaching (about the subject) and that you are capable of imparting this knowledge in some form.

With the exception of Greenlandic (which I’ve only taught ONCE and only as a side-order to a Yiddish student), I’m fluent in all of the languages that I teach. Do I know every single aspect of their deepest cultures and can I pronounce all of them correctly ALL OF THE TIME? No, but make that “almost all of the time”. Have I been mistaken as a native speaker in all of them? Well…I have, actually…

But there’s this understanding that in order to teach a language that you have to be a native speaker of it, but having taught English as a second language myself vs. other languages that I picked up later than life, I would say that OBJECTIVELY I teach languages like Finnish better than I do English. I know the grammar better, I can explain it better, I can take apart Finnish words and sentence structure in a way that it isn’t so scary anymore. I have an ear for the pronunciation which is EXTREMELY well-honed.

Granted, I know why this is. Customers usually tend to go for native-speaker teachers and advisors in the upper levels of their studies. Those who come to me seeking to learn “the languages of the Cold North” are usually beginners or beginner-plus (a term I use to describe people who can form some sentences but not a lot, or those who have completed half a Duolingo course but don’t feel comfortable doing post office errands in their target language).

After about six months or so, they’ll usually choose to mix it up with self-study or another teacher. Some students have remained with me for a long time, but these are primarily the exceptions (and even then some of them have life-changing events that throw everything off-course).

I think that some native-speaker languages teachers can feel chauvinistic at times, especially towards people who speak their language (no matter HOW advanced). But I also think that having had some language teachers in my life who learned it as an L2 (the Russian department at Wesleyan University when I was there only had ONE L1 teacher, and even then I think she was bilingual Lithuanian and Russian. The L2 teachers weren’t any less qualified than she and they were all fantastic), I was grateful for their presence because they probably should have shown me that becoming fluent in a language as an adult was possible, despite all of the hearsay to the contrary.

I’ve also heard of non-native English teachers as well and I deem them necessary and I’m thankful for their presence, because they can often describe the struggle of learning English as an L2 that I’m not aware of in the slightest.

Anyhow, what are the advantages of a native-speaker teacher?

  • Pronunciation extremely good
  • Can be RUTHLESS (in a good way, usually) with ensuring that you get every nuance right about grammar and pronunciation. I teach a lot of my English students finer points of grammar that most NATIVE speakers don’t even know.
  • Very tuned in on the difference between casual and non-casual registers of the language.
  • Know a LOT of cultural references that L2 speakers wouldn’t be aware of.
  • Ideal for if you want to go from great to UNSTOPPABLE in your target language.

 

Disadvantages:

  • Less likely to be structured in their approach
  • May know how to pronounce words correctly but may have trouble in teaching you how to make those same sounds.
  • May somehow make your goal of fluency seem endlessly out of reach (even if they do their best to not MEAN to do that)
  • May not be able to explain grammatical concepts in a way that makes sense to you.
  • Quality for absolute beginners is all over the board. (I’ve heard of stories of teachers like these reduce a student to tears in less than ten minutes!)

 

Advantages of a fluent non-native speaker teacher:

 

  • Knows the struggle of climbing the same mountain and will give you tips on how to do it yourself (and telling you that it IS possible).
  • Can explain grammar and sentence-structure in ways that are more readily accessible to novices.
  • Can provide you tips on how to NOT get answered in English and other struggles of being a foreigner learning the language (this is sometimes relevant to language-learning given the whole tier-of-politeness systems found in languages like Khmer or Finnish)
  • Can teach you pronunciation hacks that native speakers may not be aware of or know how to execute. (Greenlandic’s q sound and Swedish’s sj sound, both largely infamous, are something that I can get you to say in less than three minutes. I know because I’ve done it).
  • Will almost certainly not discourage you from learning or continuing to learn.

 

Disadvantages:

 

  • On rare occasions, they may need to reference the internet for things (I’ve even seen this at the UNIVERSITY level)
  • May not know the VERY deepest levels of nuance the way a native-speaker would.
  • With rare exceptions, they have probably not heard of every single song, TV show or internet meme in their L2’s. (The Languages for which I have this deep cultural knowledge of the most are…Yiddish and Greenlandic, surprisingly. I don’t even know English-language contemporary music that well and I actually like it that way). You’d be surprised how much that can actually be an issue.
  • Some of them can make silly oversights on rare occasions without meaning to (a lot of them usually correct it, like that one teacher I had that told me that Classical Greek had an ablative case [it does not!])
  • The occasional cloud of self-doubt may surface regardless of how strong they are.

 

 

Now, there are many ways to learn languages and pick teachers and a good deal of my languages I’ve learned through using absolutely no teachers at all (and you’d be surprised how the ones I’ve learned in the classroom are NOT my strongest ones! At all! Well, with the exception of Yiddish, that is, but even then I feel that my Scandinavian Languages and Melanesian Creoles are above it.)

These are just general observations for you to think about in the event that you are looking for personal teachers for the next steps in your journey. There are a lot of them (well…except if you’re looking for very rare languages like Gilbertese, but I’m willing to help YOU with that if you want!)

But also realize that there is more nuance in the teaching scene than just “native speakers as teachers = strictly better”. I had a tutor who spoke basic Thai and she helped me for a little bit during a language exchange I had once and for some odd reason I remember a lot of what she told me more than from what I retained from native Hebrew speakers in elementary school. Yet again, my native-speaking Russian teacher in my senior year of college was also no less fantastic!

Happy learning!

Think Human Translators Will Be Replaced By Machines? Not So Fast!

In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:

Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)

My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.

Iso an Jekob

I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?

I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.

But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.

I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)

If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.

Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.

Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).

And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!

When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.

 

  • Gendered Speech

In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.

What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).

Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?

On that topic, there’s also an issue with…

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!

A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).

If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.

A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.

Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.

If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).

In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.

In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.

What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)

Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.

The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!

 

  • A Good Deal of Languages Haven’t Been Touched with Machine Translation At All

 

And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)

 

And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).

 

For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.

In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)

Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?

 

Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.

 

 

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