How to Learn Your First non-Native, non-English Language

 

I would like to dedicate this post to the mighty and memorable Miguel Nicholas Ariza, who celebrated his birthday yesterday at the famed Mungo Lingo Language Exchange events.

I hope that this article will inspire people to return to language learning again and again, as well as to the events that you help host!

 

be like miguel

This is Miguel. He is open-minded, friendly, curious and a great human being. Be Like Miguel.

 

In much of the world, people have 1 ½ native languages, English being the 1/2 , and the local language being the 1. (Sometimes there are areas with two local languages, possibly even more, such as areas of Spain or India that have regional languages)

The dynamics of learning English are very different from learning other languages. While Iceland may excel at teaching a lot of its students English, there were (and sadly continue to be) snags when it comes to the country’s Danish education system, which may be on its way out.

To compare the experience of learning Danish (in the case of Iceland) or Swedish (in the case of Finland) or Irish (in the case of the English-speaking areas of Ireland) to learning English just isn’t fair.

Imagine if, out of 20 products (such as computer programs or company names or refrigerator brands), 19 had names in (insert name of language that isn’t English here) Imagine if (that language) had among the best known movie and entertainment industries in world history and had a significant amount of  import words in every language in the developed world and, to boot, was more learned than any other language on the planet by people who have been told their entire life that not knowing it is to be left behind, and that sometimes a nation’s economic worth and potential in the eyes of the world is dependent on how well (or not) they speak that language.

That’s reality for non-native English speakers, almost anywhere, regardless of what continent they’re on.

No wonder people get answered in English when starting to learn languages. The native speaker may feel an inherent shame on not having won the “native language lottery” the way I did. Even if they come from a place like Iceland, where English proficiency is a standard.

(For whatever it’s worth, I think English will lose its cool factor when it starts to more seriously threaten other languages and cultures, and English proficiency is already starting to lose its impressive factor, even in places like Iceland, and will continue to do so. Contrariwise, learning non-English languages of all stripes will continue to be seen as an even more impressive feat if English continues to be on the ascent. These are my opinions).

 

I am beginning to learn my dream language. It is (XXXX), and, right now, I only speak English (or English + My Native Language). I feel that I’m struggling a lot. What can I do?

 

The first thing I would recommend is take your first field trip to omniglot.com, look at the language you are learning from the A-Z database (I can almost guarantee that it will be there, no matter how exotic), read about it, get used to the sounds of it, click the links offered at the bottom of the language profile page to either read more about the culture or get language learning resources (many of them free online pages)

If there is a “phrases” section, copy out everything in it into a notebook or put it into a program of your choice. You will use these countless times throughout your life if you are to succeed! Exciting, huh?

From there, you have a number of options, are your primary goals are as follows:

  • Learn all of those phrases.
  • After that, say, “I have, I need, I want” followed by “do you have? Do you need? Do you want?”
  • Activate the following “checkpoints” (I’m not thinking about Duolingo right now, I promise!). Think of these as your “collectibles” (so this is what was going through Luis’s head, right?). Just learn how they work in a basic sense: articles (if any), adjectives (how to say “I am X, you are X, he / she / it is X, etc.), verbs (in order of importance: present, past, future, imperfect, any conditional tenses), conjunctions (start with and, but and or, they get you pretty far), prepositions (size will vary tremendously depending on language), case system (If there is one. How many? How often are they used? Which are regularly used? In some languages, like anything Finno-Ugric, case system and prepositions overlap.), noun genders (if any, there are entire language families lack them)
  • Give a stump speech about yourself and prompt others to do the same. (I am a X, I come from Y, I was born in A but now I life in B, my current goals are CDFG because of H. I am learning dream language because of reasons IJK.)
  • Learn associated vocabulary with your job and the things around you.
  • Common mistakes made by learners (unless you are learning something very rare indeed. Even something like Welsh will have an article about it about this topic)

 

From then on, learning the vocabulary in that language will be like assembling puzzle pieces, except for the puzzle NEVER ENDS!

 

Congratulations, you just got in for life! You’re always going to be learning new things about the language, maybe even if you try to forget it…even if it is your NATIVE language! Ha ha ha ha!

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Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

 

Okay, Jared, that is great and all, but how do I go about memorizing it?

 

Imagine you have a giant pizza or other fantastic meal you like right in front of you. You wouldn’t try to shove a whole piece in your mouth…(I would hope…)

 

Some ways you can assist the memorization project:

 

  • Memory devices. This is easier for languages closer to English, obviously, but even with something like Greenlandic I made it possible (Even something like “sumingaaneerpit?” [“where are you from?” In Greenlandic] I memorized in this fashion.) Memrise.com has it as an in-built function that you can store your memory devices in. I imagined that the word resembled “some gunner pit”, and while it didn’t even make sense, it got the job done. (If you have a notebook, feel free to put your “mems”, as Memrise refers to them as, next to the words)

 

  • Repetition. The same Burmese learning audio every day for a week sure doesn’t hurt…

 

  • Funny incidents. True story. One day I got “Colloquial Hungarian” shipped to me, and that day there was a Jewish event (Lab / Shul in New York City, for those curious). I met a Hungarian native speaker that evening and I told her that the book arrived today. I asked her how to say “pleased to meet you”, and I hear “örülök hogy megismertelek”. After nearly destroying my tongue after four attempts (and a lot of laughter), I explained that I got the book earlier that day. When I heard it again a few days later, having it associated with that incident made it stick better.

 

  • Mental Images from TV or Audio “Images” from your Dialogue Tapes. When I was learning Dutch from watching a lot of the Pokémon Anime in it, I remembered a lot of key phrases by virtue of remembering certain poses of characters or certain plot points that I would remember. If you do something less visually oriented (like a dialogue tape), you can note anything unusual about a certain phrase or intonation and you may remember it better.

 

 

And here are some general pointers:

 

  • Do NOT be hard on yourself! This includes: (1) do not compare yourself to other learners who have had more time than you (2) do not compare yourself to native speakers of your target language and their English skills and (3) do not expect to know all vocabulary. No one ever knows all vocabulary in any language (true story!). 10,000 words will net you something very close to a native speaker, 2,000 words will get you through almost all conversations with significant ease (others would even argue that 600-1,000 would suffice)

 

  • Start off by simplifying your language. You may be tempted to think of everything in terms of flowery English idioms, instead, at this stage you should train yourself to simplify your speech and once you’re assembling that puzzle you’ll acquire useful phrases and idioms along the way for which English has no equivalent for.

 

  • If you have to lapse into English, do so confidently. A perfect example includes how people from places like India and the Netherlands may use English phrases in casual speech to make a point.

 

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions of native speakers. Almost all of them want to help you, actually, even though they may not explicitly express it.

 

  • Don’t get discouraged from native speakers. Some of them may have no intention of becoming polyglots and may be threatened. Anyhow, if you encounter any amount of discouragement from a native speaker at any time, it is thoroughly their This is different from constructive criticism! Constructive criticism: “this word is too formal, be aware of that”. Destructive criticism: “your accent is awful”.

 

  • There will be hard times ahead. There will be a lot of people that may belittle your efforts or unknowingly make you feel bad. Just keep on going forward. The more forward you’ll go, the more you’re hear native speakers ask you in amazement. “How on earth do you speak such good (XXXX)?”

 

And then you’ll think of the times that you were struggling, that you thought of giving up, or even times that people were not very nice to you on behalf of your choices. But congratulations! You won!

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You, someday, with twice as much happy and the fact that you’re probably not an orange if you’re reading this. 

Myanmar Saga: Burmese after 1 Month

Once upon a time I went to a bookstore and I was chanted by the fact that guides to Southeast Asia seemed to be everywhere. In libraries all around Manhattan, as well as in too many store shelves to list, it seems that the region is headed in the same way that Iceland is: the travel destination(s) that everyone talks about and almost everyone dreams of visiting.

(This is true about all of the countries in the region)

That was late 2014, shortly after returning from Germany to the United States.

Years since the day that I saw a Lonely Planet guide on a library shelf, I am pleased to announce that in less than one month I will be setting foot on the Golden Land after a very long journey from…the other Golden Land.

(Fun fact: Yiddish speakers called the United States “Di Goldene Medine” [the Golden Land], which is also a title used for Myanmar/Burma/”That Southeast Asian Country”)

The last few times I tried to play “language tourist” in France (seeing how far I could get with Duolingo alone…hint…DON’T DO THAT!) and Jordan (didn’t put almost any effort into it at all due to things I was going through with school), I failed extraordinarily.

I won’t let it happen this time.

And, of course, I am reminded of the time that my father expected me to know a lot of Spanish as a result of being halfway through Spanish II in high school. On a trip to various cities in Spain, he used my floundering as a validation for “Language learning for adults is impossible” hypothesis. Thanks to what happened in Iceland, he adjusted the goalposts (saying that I was capable of my okay Icelandic because I was exposed to French and Hebrew as a child), and I guess the goalposts are sorta…stuck there for the time being.

ANYHOW. BURMESE.

 

Burmy

If you can get this, then you should be my best friend. Obviously not my picture.

 

SUCCESSES:

Here’s what I’ve mastered so far:

  • Thanks to the “Burmese by Ear” course, the tones are not a problem for me (although when listening to them in singing they become an issue)
  • I can ask for the hotel and I can say that I want things and that I want to do things.
  • I can address a lot of tourist functions, including asking for food, how much something costs, and, of course, essentials such as basic greetings.
  • I got used to the sentence structure (particles at the end indicate grammatical context, such as whether it is a question with or without a question word, or what tense it is)

 

FAILURES:

 

I feel that my burnout and my laziness are intensifying with age, as is fear. One result of this is that my knowledge of reading the Burmese characters is not as strong as I would like. And I haven’t even got around to the confusion of the various words in Pali that can sometimes be spelled differently in Burmese.

What is Pali?

It’s the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, a bit like the Ancient Hebrew / Quranic Arabic / Biblical Greek of the Buddhists of Southeast Asia (this branch is dominant in Myanmar / Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia).

Liturgical language influences are common to many of the world’s languages, and, as with Yiddish, this phenomenon in Burmese actually creates words that do not conform to normal pronunciation rules.

I’m going to have to read a lot of signs in Burmese and I have less than a month to fully get to reading them well.

Here are my other blindspots:

  • Numbers (a bad blindspot to have! Very bad!)
  • Understanding of politeness systems.
  • Understanding of colloquial vs. formal speech (although I understand this at some level).
  • I don’t feel that I can put together very complicated sentences.
  • Listening to Burmese music and radio is a complete joke, I can barely understand any of it.

 

HOPES:

 

If I were a weaker person, I would chalk up my failures to the fact that “Burmese doesn’t have a lot of learning materials” (in comparison to the most popular languages of that region, which would probably be Thai and Vietnamese).

I won’t do that.

Yes, it might be harder for me on the short term (and that’s where I am headed at the moment), but I can always do something. And something is better than nothing.

I have my work cut out for me at the moment:

  • Be able to read signs (esp. street signs. This is important because the transliteration systems are inconsistent across guidebooks and tourist materials!)
  • To that end, possibly make cartoons and other drawings, like “Chineasy”, to help OTHER people do the same.
  • Know your numbers.
  • Rehearse and role-play various situations more often.
  • Read more about people like me learning Burmese online, whether for scholarly purposes or travel.

Who knows? Maybe Burmese will end up being one of my favorite languages down the line!

Any advice is highly appreciated!

Have you studied any language for travel purposes? Success stories about that? Share them in the comments!

grand central

Definitely not Southeast Asia here

Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

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Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!

The Top 5 Catchiest Songs I’ve Heard in My Whole Life to Date (March 2017 Edition)

 moving forward 1

Today is Purim, a Jewish Holiday that does involve costumes, celebration and the reversals of fortune.

Interestingly, it occurs to me that it may be the closest thing to a “troll holiday” that really exists in the Jewish calendar.

My identity, especially my Jewish identity, is something I struggle with a LOT more than I should.

But that’s a story for another day.

True to the spirit of reversal on Purim (vnahafokh = Ancient Hebrew for “and it was reversed”, referring to the denouement of the Book of Esther which you should read one fine afternoon, if you haven’t heard it already today or yesterday evening), I ain’t gonna be writing about language learning.

I’m going to be posting the catchiest songs I’ve heard. Ever.

Actually, what am I thinking? Does this have anything to do with Purim? No, it probably doesn’t. There isn’t even any Jewish performer on this list (as far as I can tell…sorry)

But I hope all of you regardless of background or level or anything else can enjoy this playlist.

Want the lyrics? Leave a comment. Didn’t include them because I thought it would clutter this post more than message. I didn’t include commentary for the same reason. You came to hear catchy songs, not a lecture.

So more music, less wordz!

  1. Basshunter, “Boten Anna” (Swedish)
  1. The Tokens, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (English)
  1. Daniel Bilip “Mangi Mendi” (Papua New Guinea / mostly in Tok Pisin)
  1. SUSSAT! “Sila Qaamareerpoq” (Greenlandic)

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Staysman and Lazz, “En Godt Stekt Pizza” (Norwegian)

Juan Magan, «Mal de Amores» (Spanish [Spain])

Marc Fussing Rosbach, «FIIST!» (Greenlandic)

And now for the first place you’ve all been waiting for…

  1. Keatly Kalulu, «Kava» (Bislama [Vanuatu])

The Tale of the American Accent

“You’re an American, and everybody knows it…”

“When I first met you, I thought that you were Dutch/Norwegian/German…”

For the past year and a half, I have had to live with two versions of myself: the one who was unmistakably American, and the one who most Americans (and many others besides) thought was a foreigner (and who were surprised to find out that I was born in the U.S and lived there for twenty years).

Being a native English speaker certainly has its advantages—the fact that, just by virtue of me writing in this language, more people are likely to read what I have to say (even in the world of Google Translate). It has enabled others to treat me with respect and to turn to me whenever they need editing, help, or even a slight suggestion for what word to use.

There are other times when I am so unspeakably frustrated with having been born an Anglophone that I would trade it for literally any other native language on earth. If I were born a Scandinavian, I figured, then I could be seen as having excellent English skills and know a host of other languages perfectly, as opposed to the American identity, conflated with an idea of refusing to speak anything but English:

 

“It’s a well-known fact that Americans are bad with Languages…”

“But you speak German so well! Where did you learn it?”

“Jared speaks very good Yiddish” (Me, thinking to myself: “No, I don’t…”)

 

Because of this prominent idea that Americans are monoglots, I sometimes feel self-conscious when making any single mistake.

German grammar scrambled?

Hebrew verb mix-up?

Lapsed into Danish during the Swedish conversation hour?

“Ah well, I’m an American, after all…no one really expects me to be good at these…”

And then there are the pangs of insufficiency whenever I tried to speak in the local language and get answered in English. A few months after my most recent vacation (Naples, in February 2014), I noticed that there is a simple way around this: using complicated sentence structure and sentences that are clearly not phrasebook material.

But before I realized that, getting answered in English, wherever it was (outside of Anglophone countries, that is), made my heart sink. “Why did I have the terrible misfortune of being born into a nation imagined for being naïve, stupid and unworldly?”, I figured.

Especially when speaking languages associated with people who speak very good English (my next post will be on the value of learning the Scandinavian Languages!), I realized that I had to cleverly disguise my accent somehow.

I asked my friends from some other countries (especially Spain and Italy) what they do for accent reduction. The answer I most commonly hear: I don’t do anything. Why? “Because people like my accent”, I hear.

And there are so many times I have heard that American-accented anything sounds awful.

But interestingly, there is an advantage to having the accent: for one, American English does have a wealth of phonetic sounds in ways that many other languages do not. The various influences of American English enable me to see how many languages contributed to its development.

Last, but not least, the surprise factor from people when I hear “that’s very unusual for an American to be able to speak like that” is always enough to make me smile.

Just like any identity allotted in life, my American accent sometimes hurts, and sometimes it can be a source of comfort.

And one thing I’ve learned about staying in Germany especially is the fact that Americans are very much not the only people who go abroad and never bother to learn the local language to any degree. People of all nationalities tend to do this.

It is high time that we also stop trying to pretend that Americans can’t learn about the world, much less its many languages, when all such an endeavor takes is wise use of time, commitment, and media exposure.

I look forward to the day when my case of American polyglottery becomes the rule rather than the exception.