Mixed-Up Polyglot-Ville

Not all news in my language endeavors is good. Last night at the Polyglot Bar I felt as though I deliberately dealt a sub-par performance.

How? Well, for one, I caught myself mixing up Spanish and Portuguese, and in Portuguese I kept switching between the European and the Brazilian varieties without able to distinguish them well.

ay yay yay

Up until my New York City residence time, I only used various Portuguese’s with native speakers (e.g. the guy who lived in my building in Heidelberg who had a Portuguese flag visible through the window, Brazilian friends, and so on). Now that I am dealing with students, I should probably keep in mind to use the Brazilian accent only, but sometimes slip-ups happen. And it is a lot easier to mix up the two Portuguese’s than it is to mix up Spanish and any variety of Portuguese.

My Dutch attempts were better, but I still felt as though I was sometimes grasping for simple words. And between German and Yiddish I did something interesting: I used as many words from “Loshn-koydesh” (“the holy language”) as possible with speaking Yiddish, to ensure that not an ounce of Deitschmerish would have a hope of creeping in. But having to juggle them jointly still was an issue.

And this is very odd when I consider the fact that, while I did use some Norwegian and Danish at the Swedish conversation hours in Heidelberg, I didn’t actually mix up the languages. And even if I accidentally did, then it certainly didn’t elicit any reactions from anybody in any direction.

Looking back as to my beginnings with the Scandinavian Language, I remember Ulf, a priest in the church of Sweden, giving us a rundown as to how Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian differ from each other in terms of their pronunciation and register. And this was before I even considered learning any of these. As a result, from the very beginning, I but these in different groups, and my accents between the three are cleanly cut and I have been told this summer that my Scandinavian accents are impressive, especially the Norwegian one.

So, I have a problem:

I mix up Spanish and Portuguese and the West Germanic Languages (German, Yiddish, Dutch, and yes, English)

What am I going to do about it?

Interestingly in JTS’ Yiddish sessions I never mix up Yiddish with German or Dutch (I only created “Holandyiddish” last night)

Maybe I just had a bad night. But I’m not going to use that as a cop-out.

My plan:

I have to create a zone for the various accents, the way that I learned to do with the Scandinavian Languages since the beginning. Back when I first learned Spanish in high school, I didn’t really have any “accent zone”, nor did I even know the concept. Now I know better.

So…this means that I have to consciously speak aloud to myself (or, better yet, with others) and make sure to use a European Spanish accent ONLY. Thanks largely to watching dubbed cartoons, I can be cognizant of the differences between European and Latin Spanish and adjust my speech accordingly.

Now for the Portuguese, it is a bit difficult. I will have to force myself into speaking like a Portuguese person and like a Brazilian, and tease out the zones so far so that there is no overlap. Again, the only way that I am going to manage this is by talking out loud.

I remember how I learned the Danish Stød by practicing it on while crossing the street but also in the shower, getting dressed, etc. I will have to use that time in order to rehearse these accents accordingly. This is a problem that I have, but it is capable of being fixed with discipline.

I also have to develop stronger association with these languages.

I have a confession: when I speak Norwegian, it is only a matter of a few seconds until I think of Max Mekker, the infamous Big Bird equivalent from Sesam Stasjon (Norwegian Sesame Street). Let’s be honest: he probably taught me more Norwegian than anyone else.

max mekker with magic wand (ep. 36)

Because of this, I am not tempted to let Swedish or Danish into the Max Mekker Zone. It just doesn’t work.

Maybe I should watch the Co-Productions from Brazil and from Iberia, then? Worth a shot…

The mixing up of Germanic Languages occurs less and less often, but I think the Romance Language one requires instant address.

Speaking of Romance Languages, I do have some good news:

It took me a while, but I met someone at the Polyglot Bar last night—an American enthused with the Italian Language, and he managed to get me having my first Italian Conversation with my DuoLingo knowledge and occasional feeding of words and told me that my accent and that my word choice was very good!

I’m nowhere near confident, but it gets an upgrade!

Benvenuto, Italiano!

italia

Unfortunately, I might need to knock Portuguese down a notch on my language list until I’m more disciplined. So it isn’t among my best languages anymore (until I get more disciplined, that is).

Estonian is also showing remarkable signs of progress. This is because I have been studying it due to false hopes that Estonians would show up to the Polyglot Bar (lots of people told me that they had friends or acquaintances who spoke it), not also to mention its similarities to Finnish which makes it easier for me.

Anyhow…I’m ending the article here, but I’m raising a toast to my Spanish, Portuguese, and Brazilian accents…and no more mixing up things in Polyglot-ville!

The Case for Many Languages

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Antwerp Stadhuis, August 2013. Photo: Jared Gimbel

It is often Europeans that wonder why I would focus a lot of my efforts on many languages than all of my efforts on just a few. It is also often Europeans that wonder why I would even bother with a language with few speakers.

With people from the rest of the world, especially the United States, I don’t receive such reactions and encounter a lot less condescension. That isn’t to say that I haven’t received support for my efforts from my European peers—far from it.

But now I’m going to make the case as to why I studied many languages to small degrees (as well as getting very good at a handful of them) rather than just focusing all of my efforts on a few useful ones.

In my view, there are two goals to learning any language: (1) usage (conversations, bureaucracy, ordering food, and the like) and (2) the revelation of an entire new world.

Interestingly there are many people who just think that the first reason has any validity at all, and I’ve encountered this everywhere.

My last post was on the Greenlandic Language. I may have not had any conversations in it as of yet (although I have spoken it to people who did not understand it—namely, those who ask “How do you say XYZ in Greenlandic?”). However, the fact is that I have experienced music, TV shows, and other media that I just simply couldn’t have if I not learned the language at all. The Danish and the English translations just don’t cut it, if they even exist at all.

I only get one life, as do the rest of us.

There is only so much time I can spend in this world and I don’t want to give all of my effort to understanding just a small portion of the human experience. (It is true that I focus a lot of my cultural work on Europe, but this is because of the nature of my project and my work at the time being.)

When I talk about other countries and cultures that most people don’t know anything about, I usually think, “this entire world could be yours with even just minimal effort…even if just a part of it will suffice, it will change your life”

I’ve encountered many people who expressed a desire to learn one language or another. To have the desire is common. Acting on the desire isn’t. And if you have the desire, act on it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the time. Any small effort can be rewarded. You should be proud of your efforts, even small ones—and others will, too!

High-caliber polyglottery is effectively a juggling act. There are languages that I have forgotten because I can only juggle so much at a given time.

The Finnish Language was useful for what I have been doing for the past year and a half, but in my next MA Degree Project I can’t imagine that it would be as necessary for me as other languages. But in the event that I forget that language (or any other) and need it again, my latent knowledge is still there, waiting for it to be reactivated with noteworthy effort.

But even if you forget a language, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have some cultural context—and a good head start in the event that you want to take it up again.

I learned French as a child, and now I have forgotten almost everything, and Russian and Italian have gone similar ways in my life. I don’t see them as having been lost forever—I see them as waiting for me to come and pick them up.

But now I have to carpool other languages as my clients. One day I may drop a number of them off, but I can pick them up if I need them. I may have not learned all of them perfectly, but nothing is stopping me from bringing them up to a professional level if I need to—except for maybe procrastination.

Back on topic:

Languages are not just about usage.

They are about empathy with a culture.

They are about understanding how a culture relates to others.

They are about changing the way you see the world outside your own linguistic spheres.

If you look at the most essential words in any given language, they will, more often than not, not align with the most important ones in any other. One of the first words I learned in both Northern Sami and in Greenlandic was the word for reindeer. Obviously this word isn’t going to be as important in Israel.

While learning German, my first experiences were with urban vocabulary. With Swedish, it was with nature-oriented vocabulary. With Yiddish, words relating to religion are of primary importance. With Greenlandic? Not a chance.

(It occurs to me that I may be one of the only people on the planet that has a command of both Yiddish and Greenlandic. If there are any others, please let me know.)

KNR’s modestly successful TV show for kids, “Pisuttuarpunga” carries a completely different essence from America’s “Sesame Street”. Even if you compare the various international localizations of Sesame Street to one another (e.g. Israel’s “Rekhov Sumsum” or Norway’s “Sesam Stasjon”), it is obvious that there are differences and that the language makes the differences between the cultures even clearer.

In the professional world, there is one imperative: be useful.

Knowing a rare language to any degree will make you a commodity, whether you like it or not.

Learning many languages to okay degrees has enabled me to have an “I-Thou” relationship with many other cultures. My peers who study a handful of commonly studied languages to full professional proficiency tend to not have this—or they don’t have it the way I do. That isn’t to say that you should avoid that path—but be aware that being different will always give you the edge. Always.

Thanks to my excessive language juggling, I find myself very empathetic to other cultures and attuned to the human experience as a whole.

If that isn’t useful, I don’t know what is.