Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

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.

20171027_173837

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!

June 2017: Improve Reading Greenlandic + Learn Krio!

With the Myanmar venture completed, I now turn my sights to June, as well as the intention to have a different Language-Learning or Language-Maintenance related task each month.

Speaking of Language Maintenance, stress related to my video game design has caused me to set aside Tuesday and Saturdays to intense Language Maintenance—to the exclusion of all other days (which will just be flashcarding and other apps when I’m on the subway or what-have-you). I’ll see what this actually ends up doing to my routine.

Anyhow, for June, two missions!

 

  1. Improve my Reading Ability in Greenlandic substantially

 

My ability to write in Greenlandic, oddly enough, is almost non-existent (although perhaps once I get something like a predictive-text keyboard with it, that will actually change, maybe). Casual conversation and tourist things—pretty much whatever is in “Grönländisch Wort für Wort”—is my forte, although I really wouldn’t call myself consistently fluent in Greenlandic at all.

Going through that book endlessly isn’t going to help, what I think I’ll actually need to do is go through intense reading exercises, not involving song lyrics that have translations on the side (I’ve probably memorized everything from Nanook’s songbook by now after three years of listening to their music constantly).

I have three weeks, and I’m going to commit a half-hour per day to reading Greenlandic and using the “gloss” treatment on them (which was something I inventing in teaching classes).

The gloss treatment is, namely, that I take an article, and do the following:

  • Each sentence gets its own paragraph
  • All words that I haven’t encountered before (or, in the case of what I do for classes, that the student is unlikely to have encountered before, or rarer still, that I haven’t seen) get highlighted.
  • After each paragraph I provide the glosses. (In my classes, I often white out the definitions with MS Word on Screen Share, often I’ll get them to guess the words first, a helpful memory technique, by the way, sometimes provide hints or cognates, and then I’ll reveal the definition)

 

greenland asanninneq

 

Here’s my plan:

  • For the first week, I’ll focus on Facebook posts (from fan pages, people who I follow, or friends) in Greenlandic.
  • For the second week, I’ll do song texts that are NOT translated into English, and I’ll choose songs for which the texts are available but that I’ve never seen a translation for
  • For the third and final week, I’ll use news stories while deliberately IGNORING the Danish translation that often accompanies stories in Greenlandic (Fun Fact: in Greenland a lot of signs, etc. are translated in both Greenlandic and in Danish, same for articles, but in the Faroe Islands this is a lot less prevalent)

 

And here is the only Greenlandic dictionary I will ever need, with the comprehensive vocabulary of 18,000+ terms: http://www.ilinniusiorfik.gl/oqaatsit/daka.

Also, one piece of fantastic news that I neglected to mention on this blog: I’m going to be presenting at the Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik in October 2017, and apparently one of the presenters is the head advisor of the Greenlandic Language Secretariat, Per Langgård. Imagine something like “Mr. Greenlandic” and you’ll understand why I remain in absolute awe (and, what’s more, even more motivation for me to perfect this language as much as I can).

I’ll give an update at the end of each week (on the 7th, the 14th, and the 21st).

 

  1. Because I always have to be learning some other language somehow…Krio! Of Sierra Leone! Long Overdue!

salone

Back in 2015 I got a gift for Hanukkah (as I was coming out of Lyme Disease, or so it seemed at the time). I decided that, when I got better, I would commit to learning a language for family reasons, namely Krio. It followed that a printed and bound version of the Peace Corps book (or one of them, anyhow) would do the trick.

Yes, I am very well aware of the fact that the book by itself will not make me fluent, but it occurs to me that without the Internet I wouldn’t be anything close to a real polyglot at all.

My parents words in Sierra Leone before I was born, and sometimes even recalled a word of Krio or two. After having picked up three other English Creole Languages in my lifetime (the Melanesia trio of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama), I thought it would be a “relaxing” project to try this one.

At some point in my life I would also like to learn the following for family reasons: Hungarian (slated for this year at long last and after dozens of lazy attempts), Swahili, Arabic of Sudan and Navajo (my Grandmother’s family spoke Hungarian and you can probably guess where my parents worked for the other three. Fun fact: I was actually conceived on the Navajo Reservation!)

I’ve worked through about thirty pages of the Krio book and I can say that I’ve mastered the grammar (Creole Languages are not known for having very complicated grammar at all…)

What’s more, given as this is my first African language (I know, long time but it finally came!), I’ve been amazed on every level given how many elements of Krio carried over to American English (no doubt through the African-American experience, which also had similar ingredients from too many local African languages to count, much like Krio has from Yoruba, Arabic, Twi, etc.)

This is going to be a welcome break from languages with very complicated grammar systems (Finnish, Greenlandic, Hebrew) or pronunciation schemes (Irish, Faroese). It will also be very helpful as a confident builder, not also to mention that I find that languages from outside the European bubble are more likely to change my outlook on life.

Will let you know how it all goes!

jared gimbel pic

Portrait of a soon-to-be Krio speaker.