An Enlightening Conversation with Richard Howeson, Founder of Britain’s Biggest Language Learning Company

In October 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Richard Howeson, the founder of uTalk. Since I discovered it over the summer (and became a subscriber less than a month later), uTalk has been a godsend for every area of my language life.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 17

For one, it has enhanced my pronunciation greatly, as well as teaching phrases that are useful in conversation and focusing on getting you to SPEAK above all else. The various professionalized skills are also extremely useful, such as ones related to the Olympics, Golf and even rescue missions (!)

Before I present the conversation to you (well…what I edited down to something easy to read), I should also add that Richard, in addition to having brought uTalk into existence and won royal awards several times (as to be discussed below), also keeps himself both physically agile with an impressive variety of sports and mentally agile with uTalk. I’ve heard that he is someone who enjoys cycling, bike polo, sailing and windsurfing.

The languages I am learning with uTalk right now are primarily Greenlandic (on Monday and Thursday) as well as Hungarian (on Tuesday and Friday) and Vietnamese (on Sunday and Wednesday). That said, I’ve also hopped around with various other languages in uTalk, most notably in Southeast Asia (Lao, Khmer and Burmese) and in Oceania (Samoan, but also reviewing Fijian and Tok Pisin to see how the app approaches those topics). Then, of course, there is Tumbuka, which I have a year-long-challenge to complete every skill starting in September. (I should also add that the Basque and Galician courses look MIGHTY tempting for me, but I seem to be spreading myself too thin as is. Luckily my work keeps me focused with a good amount of languages that I HAVE to keep fluent!)

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Already I’ve noticed a before / after effect when it came to uTalk in places like Mundo Lingo. The recording games not only improve my accent and make me a LOT less self-conscious but also serve to fasten all phrases into my memory. If you have ten minutes to use an app to prepare you with a conversation with a native speaker as an ABSOLUTE beginner, uTalk is your best choice. If you need to rehearse your tones, uTalk is your best choice as well. Also unlike many other apps there is a certain focus on subtle dialectical differences (as is present with how the male and female voices have subtle differences in both the Fijian and in the Burmese courses). Each voice actor is positively unforgettable. (And if I had to pick favorites of what I’ve savored so far, I would pick the Greenlandic male voice, the Burmese female voice, the Fijian male voice and the Tumbuka female voice, with my probably overall favorite being the Samoan male voice.[I have an ultra-weakness to Samoan voices in general]).

Anyhow, let’s show you some very interesting conversational pieces. Be prepared: there are recipes for having your memory be almost perfect in the exchanges below. Your life will never be the same!

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Conversation Between Richard Howeson and Jared Gimbel

 October 23, 2018

 

Jared Gimbel: All right, so I think this should be working very, very well! I hope things are going fantastic with you. I was literally doing uTalk a matter of seconds ago. I can even tell you what language and what skill! And I am very pleased to be here with you! Okay, so, yeah, I had my morning regimen of uTalk with the Greenlandic illness skill in the recording game, so in any case…a pleasure to meet the legend and long last! I really have to say that there have been so many gaps in my language learning that uTalk has covered up extremely effectively. I recommend it to all of my students, bar none, ever since I have discovered it. And I’d really like to thank you and the rest of your team for really having made this a reality for so many dreamers!

Richard Howeson: Jared that’s fantastic to hear that.  So yeah. It’s amazing. I’ve been hearing that you’ve quite a few languages under your belt!

J: Keyn ayn hore, as you say in Yiddish. Without the power of the evil eye, in a sense. It can be quite fun in bars sometimes, as we shall say. In any case, he did tell me that you were investigating some new projects concerning using language learning as a means to really help with health and memory going into old age. Is that correct and do you want to provide any information or insight on what you’ve experienced?

R: First off all, we’ve heard from people how it has helped them. We’ve been working also with a charity that helps people with dementia. Basically helping by providing them language learning materials and carries them to do it. I think that there is a huge amount of research that says that if you keep your brain active then, it’s just like your body. If you do a lot of exercises, it can work beautifully. But if you sit there, it stops working. And you brain is very, very similar.

J: Yes.

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R: So the key thing is to keep it active. And learning a language seems to be one thing that really, really does help. And that is the interesting thing, because you are fluent in several languages, which I am not. I want to get by in languages if I have to, and I come from a background where I find that my skill is that I’ve…I know what it is like for people who find it really difficult to learn languages.

J: Hmmm…

R: Because I am initially…concerned as one of those. I struggled in school.

J: I did too, actually!

R: Oh good! (Laughs) Glad to hear that! I’m a convert. I was talking to a guy who taught me at school, he is quite old now but…and he said that of all the people he taught, and he had a very long list, it is quite a lot of students, and he said that if there was someone at the top who was the least likely person to have anything to do with languages, it would have been me.

J: Indeed.

R: But here we are. I have actually learned a lot about languages, I have learned a lot OF language, but fluency is a different story. That comes from, and think you’d probably say this too, a lot of your fluency comes by living in places.

J: That is correct as well, but on the other hand, I think in some respects it has something to do with friendship and circles as well. Also hobbyists, especially online. And I think that especially concerning Yiddish and Tok Pisin, I think that really being surrounded by other people who are very curious, in these cases about Yiddishland (that is to say, the literature and the songs) or Papua New Guinea and the rainbow, the bird of paradise as it were, there is a reason it is their national symbol, that really makes up the most linguistically diverse country on earth…that fact is that I really encourage a lot of my friends to realize that you can pretty much gain any skill if you actually surround yourself with an environment which is conducive to that or friends who also have it as well. And in New York City, it is very easy to be surrounded by hyperpolyglots or literally by anything else! And so as a result, I’ve encountered several people who said, “oh yes, I have encountered five-language conversations between multiple people on an almost weekly basis!” And so I actually know very much, given the various negative programming that really exists in language learning, the fact that in many countries some people believe that it is not possible for certain varieties of people or impossible beyond a certain age…I really know how it feels to actually feel hopeless and then to gain hope again. And so one thing that I do with my students is that I turn the hope back on. And that is something that I believe is extremely essential and I believe that uTalk is very much doing that. I did prepare a number of questions. And so I think the first question is how did you get involved with making uTalk and what makes uTalk stand out? How does your personal story echo in the uTalk story? You did provide some details as to your somewhat “back from the brink” story, but I’m curious to hear… how does your personal story interweave with your award-winning creation?

R: Yeah. If I go back to when I first started, as I told you before, languages were difficult in school. I was having anything to do with languages. But it started with a charged conversation with a then co-director at another company, where he was discussing how annoying it was that the French spoke French when we had meetings with them in France, and we thought that it was rude of them, and then we realized, actually WE were really rude with not learning THEIR language. And then we thought, “well, that’s our teacher’s fault. We weren’t really taught very well” And then we thought “that’s the really lazy learners”. And then we thought “actually, we are in the right area in technology to make something that could really work!” And the fact that language learning IS difficult without the right resources, there’s no doubt about it…

J: Yes.

R: And when I say it is difficult…the right resource is the easiest resource…the resource is to go live there. But if you haven’t got something like the ability to do that, then what else do you do? I should say that “books don’t work very well because they don’t make any noise”

J: Yes.

R: And the language comes from…

J: Fantastically put!

R: This is the bit that has got to do the job at most times. So we came up with the plan for making a language-learning product. We looked at everybody else’s methods, we did a lot of research on it. And one of the things that became clear is that all of them disagreed with each other on the right ways to learn a language. That means that it was up to us to come up with something else. And certainly over the years, there is no one product I would say that can teach anybody a language.

J: Agreed.

R: And if you’re trying to do that, you’re in very deep doubt. That’s where we came to. uTalk came from…we had a product that wanted to make people to be able to get by, to start off with, and we were doing lots of in fact to learn how to make a business disk. And I was on a trip to Hungary to see a new client, we already made some language learning products by then. I was waiting to be met there at the airport, and our plane got in early. There was no one in the airport, it was pre mobile-phones and all that sort of thing. I wanted to go to the loo. And there were two doors there and they had ladies and gents written on them.

J: “Női” and “férfi”?

R: I didn’t know which was which. And I waited for twenty minutes before someone went and. And to my worries I couldn’t quite work out the sex of the person who had gone in. So it was a bit strange. So then I realized if I were on a business trip, I wanted a business disk with “invoice” and “fax”. I wanted something that would get me by in any country. So the idea came that what we need to do is teach people the language they need to get started. And the second thing we realized is that actually, there are, you know, when you go to school you tend to learn one language, but what you should be learning is the skill to learn any language.

J: Very true.

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R: The reality is, you could end up anywhere in the world. So that was the idea that we came up with, to make a disk without too much in it, not to frighten people away, but to get going.

J: Indeed.

R: That disk ended up with fifty words, then we came up with 1500, and we slimmed it down to about 250 and we decided to do it in all the languages of the European Union. So we’ve got to do Russian as well, you’ve got to Japanese, you’ve got to do Chinese. So we ended up with 20-30 languages, and we made this disk, and this is sort of how it started. This was with a small corpus, not as much as uTalk, but that gave us the … with that disk, we ended up adding on these languages. People loved it, it went really, really well. And as a result of it, we were asked to apply for a Queen’s Award for Innovation. And after that, we had to fill in quite a complicated form, and this will answer your second question, actually “what makes uTalk stand out?” And one of the things on the form it said, “who’s your competition?” and you’re not allowed to put “none”…and I put “none”! And we were very honored by Her Majesty, the Queen of England to get an award for a grant towards innovation, because basically what we were doing, nobody else had done before! And this thing, I think you’ve learned Danish before, along with Greenlandic?

J: (In a Danish voice) Ja!

R: Well, at that time, there was no such thing as a Danish-Greek dictionary.

J: Yup!

R: It didn’t exist. So if you wanted to learn Danish from Greek, you had to go buy English or another language. And so we were actually the first people to do this crossover of languages! Because as you know, you can learn every language from your own language. We are now up to 20,000 combinations.

J: (Gasps) Very well done.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 25

R: So what sets us aside is that fact, it’s that… we love languages. We can’t resist if someone asks for one. Hence, Pidgin or that Yiddish will be coming along in a new uTalk course! I should say one other thing. TalkNow, it was brilliant, but people came back and said “we want more!” So we spent ten years making TalkNow, adding languages all the time, we got up to 150 languages, we put it out as an app on the IOS App store and it was going great guns. And then the complaint we got, this was the first time we really got good feedback for something on the app store, people were saying, “we need more! We love it, but we want more languages!” So we went back to the drawing board, spent a year and a half going through what the corpus should be. And as you’ve seen…you quite like uTalk! What we wanted to do is that people would have the vocabulary. Because that … in order to speak a language, you need more, than anything else, to have the words.

J: Yes

R: If you HAVE to get the grammar wrong, that is not the end of the world. I have looked at four year old bilingual children. They speak beautifully. And all of their grammar is perfect. And they’ve never had a grammar lesson.

J: Also I think some kids manage to say some things like “I goed to the store” as well. Even in that respect, they would no doubt be considered fluent. But in any case, I think it was Steve Kaufmann that really said “fluency, not perfection”. That said, I think very essential verbs should obviously be perfected as a matter of course. But the fact is that if you’re really expecting to know every single idiom all of the time…Lord knows, Australians, British people, people from all the British Commonwealth countries, and certainly India have showed me my native language in ways that I didn’t think it was possible to misunderstand.

R: Good! That’s the thing! It works! Someone once asked me “what do you do?” and I said “we help people make friends all over the world.”

J: That’s fantastically put!

R: Yeah! We sold 30 million CD-ROMS, but we’re gonna go way above that!

J: Indeed. Very well.

R: From friends like yourself as well!

J: Indeed. And I’m always really glad to put you into contact with any speakers of rare languages that I may know in New York. Or elsewhere, for that matter!

R: On uTalk, we haven’t got Yiddish yet. So we’ve been catching up!

J: Good!

R: So TalkNow is up at 160 I think, and uTalk is now 142, but there are some in uTalk that aren’t in TalkNow, and so we’ve got about 20 we want to catch up with. Yiddish is in TalkNow but it is not in uTalk.

J: I think the same with Tibetan as well if I recall correctly?

R: Tibetan…Tibetan is seconds away! It is ready for someone to press the button. There is always some last-minute reason! But Tibetan is out any second! Although we do…we are worried that we have had nasty comments from China before about it.

J: Indeed. But on the other hand, throughout the world over, I think most people are willing to be bridge-builders. This is really one thing I’ve really seen all throughout the world between…I’ve seen very deep friendships between cultures that are “supposed to be enemies” and surprisingly I think most people really want to make friends, want to live happy lives, and are actually quite glad to actually explore things. And certainly, there might be the occasional nasty comment, but I think most people in China and in the rest of the world are explorers and kind people at heart. And this is true anywhere. Okay, so another question! How have you found the language learning process change for you throughout the various stages of your lives? How about learning processes in general, such as learning how to play sports, learning new skills or I think…I saw one of your pictures that was in India. It looked like the Hungarian flag at first but then I saw the Devanagari script on the sign!

R: Was I on a bicycle?

J: Yes, it was a bicycle. Yes.

R: One of the things in terms of people able to learn a language. Your brain is a muscle like the other parts of your body. You’ve got to allow it to be relaxed in order to learn. The other thing that is really, really important in learning a language is that…I did some research, I read about how the brain learns before I started the company. What you need is dopamine coming up through the middle of your brain.

J: Aha!

R: And If you want to suppress dopamine, then take any of the anti-depressant type, valium and things like that, that will stop you from learning anything, and that surpresses dopamine. On the other hand, all the scientists were looking and asked “how can you make people have more dopamine?” And the answer is a very, very simple one, and there’s not much any drug company or scientist can do about it. It is to make you laugh. When you laugh, you produce tons of it. It is how human beings functions really well. You remember the good times! Your synapses are growing when you laugh!

J: That’s fantastic! I think I should be recommending all of my students to check out joke pages in their target languages. And come to think of it, I think that that’s probably…the reading exercises through which I’ve had the most vocabulary retention. And the fact that stupid jokes exist in every single culture. My personal favorites are the Yiddish Hershel Ostropoler stories, he is a trickster-character in many respects who really outwits very rich people who are used to getting their way all of the time, despite the fact that he himself has nothing. And, of course, within Scandinavia, we have the Swedes telling stupid jokes about the Norwegians, and in the other direction as well. And that I also found extremely amusing in many respects. Because they take them from one another and use the jokes in both directions!

R: Oh yeah! Like the Irish! We do it with the Irish!

J: Oh, like with the English, Scots, and Irish jokes?

R: Yeah, that! Anyway, the ejective of how we design a product is to make it fun.

J: Yes. And you’ve done that.

R: And you probably know, it is about scoring points. Scoring the points means you learn the language. It is not saying “you’ve got to learn this NOW!”, that just doesn’t work.

J: Yup.

R: So the whole thing is based on fun. Right from the beginning, you learn that. And you’ve probably noticed, some people complain about it, but the most challenging game is the hard memory game?

J: YES!

R: Do you utilize that or not?

J: I really have to confess to doing this but…on the Desktop version, I use the snipping tool to capture the…

R: My daughter does that as well! But that doesn’t matter! What will happen is that you’ve feel pleased with yourself when you got them all right! And THAT is actually what makes you remember it!

J: Indeed. And then what happens sometimes on the train, sometimes the train is significantly loud and I lose valuable seconds on account of that because I don’t hear something. But that’s MTA’s problem, not uTalk’s!

R: It is worth saying that the background to that is when we first did that game. We did it in Russian and we didn’t know any Russian…as beginners. What we found was that it was very difficult. We were going to scrap it. And then we thought “just try it, we’ll record it in English quickly, play it in English just to see! It is obviously impossible, this game!” And we find that in English it was very easy. We decided to keep the game. It is perfect! Here’s what it does…the target is to think in the language you’re learning. If you can think in the language you’re learning, you can get full marks! That is what it does!

J: You’re very right about that, actually!

R: That’s what you want! You don’t want to be half-learning words, you want them as if they come off the tip of the tongue, as though they are in your own language! That’s the goal! And that’s why uTalk works so well. There are a lot of language learning products where you half-learn things, and half-learn a lot! Then you can get a dictionary and say “I’ll read the dictionary” and then you won’t remember anything.

J: Yes.

R: And if you do any of our exercises, you’ll learn a number of words. If you go through the games and score top marks, including in the recording and recall sessions, then you’ll know that you won’t forget them!

J: Indeed. It is interesting because I find that even within a handful of days, my accent goes VERY VERY HIGH and already I think I have vocabulary that is actually at the forefront that I associate with the picture. And with the perfect voices that I really think are really suitable for every single one of the exercises!

R: All the actors come to London. It is special. The whole idea is that the company has a lot of fun.

J: A lot of the voice acting is snarky at times. I found that with the Fijian course and with the Lao one as well. And sometimes it can show residue of an almost fake anger to the degree that it can actually be humorous.

R: That’s exactly what it is meant to be!

J: Fantastic points! Another thing. One of the biggest battles I’ve seen from my students is challenging limiting beliefs. How does that struggle morph with age and how does it become easier or harder?

R: Right. That’s an interesting one. When you talk to people, and they’ll try to do a language learning product and they buy one and say “it didn’t work”, what you’ll find is “I’ve never used it” (for the most part). The most important thing is getting them to use it. I challenge ANYONE using ANY of our games not to learn the words. They should try and get full marks. At any age! You’re absolutely right! To a certain extent it can be self-imposed as well. There is loads of research that shows that children up to the age of five accumulate language at an incredibly fast rate. They remember words SO AMAZINGLY! And at the age of five, what happens? It suddenly stops and goes off a cliff. The reasons, I think, is what happens at the age of five…they go to school. Suddenly, language becomes regimented. It no longer becomes fun. And the key thing is to keep it being fun. What happens when we get older is that sadly people tend to treat things more seriously. If you do that, it isn’t going to work. And I look at you! You love learning! All you need to do is change your attitude! At uTalk, we say “do this, have fun” and away you go! That’s the key! The next thing is to say “when do you do it?” This is another one of the things that uTalk is strong on, I think. People say “I haven’t got time”. But if you look at your day, for old people, that’s one reason they actually do very well. Because they have time after they retire! No rush! Nothing more to do! They can spend time learning a language! But when you’re young, and this is particular to your age group after you’ve left school in your 20’s and 30’s, and then you ask them what they’re doing, “I spent an hour in a commute in one direction, in the other direction, nine hours in a plane going to New York…” With this app, you can get on with it anywhere!

J: Yes

R: Five minutes, ten minutes a half hour, an hour and…it works! A key feature of uTalk is that it carries on working even if you don’t have the Internet! It will sync up again later! It doesn’t mind! If you like doing it on your computer at home, or …

J: In the Subway, where the lack of Internet counts for a lot!

R: No Internet down there!

J: I remember during my last trip I was in Milwaukee leading High Holiday services at my grandmother’s synagogue. I am currently in my Brooklyn apartment. I think I got three skills of Greenlandic done in just simply one hour alone. And also I think the speaking game can be done in well under a minute. Either that or my memory is crazy good.

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R: The speaking game has a little purpose to it by the way! Most people are terrified of speaking! What they find is that they can score all of the points without speaking or it one of those with voice recognition which…doesn’t recognize your voice or gets upset with background noise and you can’t use it anywhere. So we came up with the recall games we have. But we wanted to do is get people comfortable with recording your own voice. So 50 really easy point to get there. The easiest points you’ve got! We want to get people to do it! They are pleased with themselves afterwards and they think, “I CAN speak the language! It works! I am happy with it!”. When they come to the recall game, they know they can do it.

J: Also for tonal languages, it is a godsend. I noticed that Lao doesn’t actually have the tones in the transliteration and I think one possible reason for that is that in Vientiane and in Luang Prabang they actually have different tone sets? Slight differences! I haven’t looked at the Thai one. Or the Burmese. Or Mandarin. Or Vietnamese for that matter. (No longer true as of the time of transcription. I have done the Burmese and Vietnamese courses since). Gee. I’m way too obsessed, am I not? But I have seen in the Mandarin snapshots that they did include the tones. Through sheer imitation, I got over my fear of getting tones wrong, especially since I think that some perfectionists may be a little bit afraid to say a single tone wrong. Especially how …I think a friend of mine said that, in Thai, there is a tone difference between “I like to ride horses” and “I like dog shit”.

R: This is something that happened to me at school. Probably what put me off language.

J: Tell me.

R: The first thing I was taught was the danger of getting it wrong.

J: Oh! I tell my students to embrace their mistakes. This is one thing I have to deprogram my students from.

R: If you make mistakes, this will make people laugh, which is great. When someone says something wrong in a language, we have an automatic sense which corrects it. Half of the time we don’t hear it.

J: GOOD POINTS!

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson on easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 2

R: Don’t worry, no one is going to mind. Obviously a sense of humor helps. I was made to feel frightened of getting my accent wrong in French or saying the wrong thing. Just have a go! British people staying in the US for a few weeks take on an American accent.

J: Even when I was in Fiji I noticed that there was English spoken in the business sphere and Fijian between a lot of the locals. Most of the signs in Fiji are in English throughout the country, but the conversations on the street are in Fijian, with the exception of Indo-Fijians or the students of the University of the South Pacific from which all of the countries of Oceania are represented. As soon as you enter the university, you see a promenade of all of the flags of the Pacific. Very interestingly I noticed that over the course of my time in Fiji my s got very, very thick. Because, as is also demonstrated greatly by your voice actors, the Fijian s is pronounced thickly. Hence “sssssssega” (Fijian g = ng in English) is “not”. I actually….uTalk was helpful as well because I learned to imitate the voice actors. It was like having a private tutor, in a sense.

R: That is what it should be. By the way, one of my friends works an airplane as well. We have a number of interesting projects. We got asked by Emirates if we wanted to do something for language learning. What we’ve added to their in-flight entertainment is uTalk. They can learn about 15-20 words, the most important ones, but by watching videos. Now we are up to fifteen languages and you can learn them from five.

J: Wow.

R: Including from Mandarin and Arabic.

J: I love the representation of Colloquial Arabic varieties and local languages of India. I think that in that respect, you’re without competition!

R: We’re up to five Arabics, I think. We are working with some of the short-call carriers that don’t put anything on the back of the seat. On EasyJet, we’re putting language learning as a part of the wireless system.

J: I saw your photo ops.

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson boards easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 1

R: You can log onto the inflight system and learn any language from any language. We have the range. We are the go-to app for any airline system. No one else can match us! We want to get people to realize what you can do in one flight, and it is a lovely resource…because we all know what happens. You have the intention to learn a language and then you think “I wish I got around to it!” And now you can! Then another motivation can be “I wish I did learn the language” on the return journey. And uTalk is useful for that, too!

J: It seems as though you covered literally all of the main points. One final thought before I have to prepare for an English class: what essential ideas or techniques should the world know about language learning in general? Or words of encouragement?

R: Believe in yourself. Anyone can do it. And don’t believe anyone who told you you can’t. Because you can. Get uTalk. Do the easy game. That’s all. Do the easy game. And then do the next one up, the hard game. And you’ll release how much you’ve learned in a FEW MINUTES. It is not difficult. Start off easy. And don’t worry about grammar or reading or writing! This is about being able to speak to people and making friends! My final comment: even one word in their language can make a HUGE Difference!

J: I remember one time when I was making signs for a protest in the US and there was an American woman who showed up and she lived in Cambodia. She was fluent in Cambodian and I just say “sour sdey” (= hello) and her mouth dropped out of sheer excitement!

R: It feels so special to be able to do that! And tell people not to worry about being fluent!  Just have fun and do it! Presenting people with being fluent is like putting everything on the table at once! Just have one small taste! And then a bit more! Then away it goes! And learn what you want to learn! That’s featured in the app…you choose what you’re interested in!

J: I found that in the Fijian golf Course (no pun intended…sorry, I just had to). The five…the only reason I know the names of the clubs is because of the Wii sports games and I’m not ashamed to admit it. They used the exact same word to refer to all five of the clubs (=nai tavi ni golf)!  Like driver or…

R: They just called it a club, didn’t they?

J: Yes. I think so. On the other hand, I come from a very sports-illiterate family. I sometimes got invited by some of my friends to see the world cup matches and sing the Danish national anthem in the Denmark-Croatia final game and then I watched them get slaughtered in the penalty kicks. Both of my friends were rooting for Croatia, but whatever. And very interestingly, yes, other finer aspects of Judaism I can’t really discuss in any other languages other than Hebrew. Even in English, I have to default to Hebrew to discuss that. In many respects, one thing to note is that “di gantze velt iz a velt mit veltelekh”. The whole world is a world with little worlds, it is true about the world and also with individual languages in general. have been letting other people know how fantastic uTalk is and it has made a huge difference with Greenlandic which I say is the hardest language I’ve ever learned. I fell in love with it back in 2013. I was in Greenland last year and I struggled to put sentences together, but even when I did that I got free drinks galore.

Mother of the Sea and Me

I do not say this lightly: this is one of the most enlightening conversations I have had this year, if not in fact in my entire life, on this topic!

 Greece

You can begin learning one (or more) of over 140 languages RIGHT NOW at www.utalk.com. Dowload the uTalk app at utalk.com/app

 

4 Let’s Play Channels for Optimizing Your Swedish

June 6th is Swedish Flag Day, and by now you probably know exactly what I’m going to do.

Swedish pronunciation is intimidating. The syllable stress games can be daunting, the shifting vowels as well, not also to mention the various tomfoolery with letters like k and g when placed before certain vowels. This throws off a lot of absolute beginners and yes, does cause a lot of them to give up.

The grammar may be very familiar and easy to adapt to if you’re a native English speaker, but sounding genuinely Swedish is a great challenge (even though, contrary to what I’ve read in some travel guidebooks, it IS very much possible for a foreigner).

One thing I definitely recommend to my students and friends is to imitate the accent in an almost over-the-top way at first and then learn to “tone it down” accordingly. This helped me with more recent languages as well, such as Hungarian and Fijian.

Anyhow, topic at hand!

A lot of people may know that videos of people playing games with commentary have not only gotten very popular in the past decade but also that PewDiePie, the YouTuber with the most subscribers (as of the time of writing) is himself Swedish. For better or for worse, he has been one of the forces behind the immense Swedish culture boom that is only gaining momentum by the year.

That said, there are many other Let’s Players that actively use Swedish in their videos—such videos can be harnessed with shocking effectiveness in order to ensure that you learn to speak casually, naturally and with very believable pronunciation.

My talk at the 2017 Polyglot Conference did deal with this in detail. But that’s for another time.

Anyhow, predictable listicle, right now!

 

  1. Matinbum

 

 

His style is not only very accessible for more advanced beginners, but also includes many theatrical improvisations that make it very much worth watching. Matinbum’s improvisational singing is certainly worth mentioning as well as his ability to draw forth cultural references from Swedish and Anglophone culture to maximum humorous effect.

 

The game in the video above (“I Wanna Run the Marathon”) is an extremely difficult “rage game” that draws together themes from many well-known game franchises as well as every single unfair trick you can think of. This video series is a winning combination (as are many of Matinbum’s other ones).

 

  1. Figgehn

 

 

His style really does lend himself emphatically to not only a very memorable voice with a distinctly Swedish texture to it but also, from a learner’s perspective, serves to enhance all of the advantages of “context learning” that this genre represents. The narration being on point is a huge advantage to you, the learner, in picking up new words based on context alone.

 

  1. Mustachtic

 

 

Probably the most beginner-friendly of the channels on here, this channel has upwards of a thousand videos spanning a VERY wide variety of family-friendly games.  If you’re in the beginner plateau and want to advance in a very fun way, I definitely recommend almost all of the videos that Mustachtic has to offer.

 

 

  1. The Kilian Experience

You’re probably wondering what an English-language channel is doing on here in the first place. Surprisingly Kilian’s voice does have many features that make a Swedish-accented voice stand out, which is very helpful for not only learners like you but also people who may think that the Swedish Chef is somehow a realistic portrayal of what Swedish actually sounds like.

 

If YOU are a Swedish YouTuber and also have a channel (esp. a Swedish-Language one), let us know about it in the comments accordingly! Chances are I may have not discovered you yet. 🙂

Anyhow, one thing you should also know is that I’m on a break for a while (with the likely exception of 21 June’s Greenlandic post that a lot of you have been asking for) to work on my dream project, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” a.k.a. “Greenland: The Game”.

I’ll still be able to read and approve comments accordingly. Until we meet again!

 

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!

The Key to English Language Immersion: An Outsider’s Perspective

May the Fourth be With You!

Okay, this isn’t a post about Star Wars. Not at all. But a friend of mine (actually, several friends of mine) wanted me to write about various roadblocks / sticking points in English-Language immersion and how to overcome them.

Often when I try to bring up these techniques in groups, sometimes there is the occasional voice that just says “HIRE A PROFESSIONAL TEACHER AND THAT WILL SOLVE EVERYTHING!”

In order to truly bring something into your life, it has to be all-encompassing. No one solution will solve everything concerning language learning sticking points, which is why part of me is vexed by the “how do you learn languages?” question. This is because people expect one or two routes to fluency when there are HUNDREDS of possible ones that intertwine various methods.

English, especially the American variety, is intimidating. The r is difficult for speakers of many languages, a lot of the vowels are perplexing for native speakers of almost anything, and an idiomatic depth that seems unparalleled given that English, in the words of one Tumblr user, is “three languages wearing a trenchcoat”.

But the English learner has one advantage that is UNPARALLELED:

Imagine if four out of every five companies on the planet had a name in your target language. Imagine if loan words in your target language were commonly used in almost all languages on the planet. Imagine if your target language was the most studied language of all time as well as, arguably, the most powerful in world history.

Perhaps the closest things that could come to it would be, French, Spanish, German, and possibly a case could be made for Mandarin Chinese or Japanese or maybe Italian even. But very little else. Finnish has five words that found their way into English (“sauna” would be one you would probably recognize), Greenlandic also has a few (igloo, anorak) and Fijian had one that comes to mind (tabu = taboo). By contrast, English loan words have been in literally EVERY language I’ve ever studied.

The key to learning a language is to engage with it, and with English it is literally more possible to engage with it than any other language on the planet, given how coveted and “necessary” it is.

There is one BIG advantage to the English learner, however, and it is something I’ve seen over and over again.

Let me put it this way:

In Sweden, there was pressure on me to have a good accent. If I didn’t, that meant that people might answer me in English without a second thought. That accent could be anywhere in the Swedish-speaking world (or even plausibly anything Scandinavian—like that one time I accidentally addressed a Swedish staff member in Danish and he responded in Swedish without flinching). Luckily I think that many Americans can manage, if not a Stockholm or Gothenburg accent, something from either Finland (as in sounding plausibly Finland-Swedish) or southern Sweden without issues.

In Myanmar, I had to get my tones right. The fact that I was white didn’t help matters at all. I also had to answer on point all of the time. Otherwise, it was a one-way ticket to English-town (or German-town, even).

In the United States, if someone has a mediocre or even bad accent in English, unless he or she is in an ethnic community (e.g. Hispanics, Mandarin-speakers, Polish speakers, etc.) they don’t run the risk of getting answered in their native language.

Learning English with foreign accents can be seen as cute, learning many other languages with foreign accents, especially Anglophone ones, can be a liability. (The only place I can think of where English-native accents could be passable was Israel, and even then it could be an issue more often than not).

There are several nodes that advanced English learners struggle with, and I’ll identify them right now:

 

  • The Finer Points of Pronunciation
  • Idiomatic Expressions
  • Irregular verbs
  • Germanic-cum-French Sentence Structure

 

The key to solving all of them is twofold: (1) make lots of mistakes and (2) imitate native speakers to the best of your ability. Pretend you are American / British / Australian / etc. Fall in love with the cultures and find things to link about them.

Let’s go into each of the nodes in detail:

 

  • Pronunciation

 

The short vowel sounds are a big issue for a lot of learners (if you need help with these sounds, put the words on the right side into Google Translate and have them read out loud):

 

Short a -> bat

Short e – > bet

Short i -> bit

Short o -> bot

Short u -> but

 

You CANNOT sound like a native English speaker without having mastered these sounds, and you’ll notice that a lot of English learners can bypass them entirely (pronouncing words like “bitch” and “beach” identically).

American English in particular has a lazy feel to it that has “legato” (or notes / sounds being drawn out). Some languages have a bit more of a “staccato” (=short quick notes / sounds) feel to it (languages like Fijian and Solomon Islands Pijin come to mind, even though they are spoken in places where English is an official language. In such countries in Oceania, you’ll notice that English speakers mimic Australian speech very well but have traces of their native accent, too).

Think about WHAT makes the sound of English different from your native language or languages you already know. Mimic the differences accordingly. That mimicry will eventually turn into a believable accent.

 

  • Idiomatic Expressions

 

This is an issue in all languages and even English speakers can be confronted with difficulties with varieties of English they’re not familiar with—even within the same country!

The key with idioms like these is to “hook” them on various memorable elements – like a product, movie scene or advertisement.

The more of these you have, the better, but keep in mind that even native speakers may not have a perfect knowledge of idioms all throughout the English speaking world and even some non-natives have introduced me to British ones I haven’t heard before!

 

  • Irregular Verbs

 

Looking at a table is, in all likelihood, not going to help you. Clozemaster in the upper levels definitely will, but exposure and immersion (or using the language in your daily life as much as you can, or in your entertainment / recreational life if you use other languages at your job) will help you.

 

Keep in mind that there are some irregular verbs that can be inconsistent across generations. One example is the English verb “to sneak”. Older people will say “sneaked” (for the past tense) but younger people will opt for “snuck”.

 

  • Germanic-cum-French Sentence Structure

 

There is a clear difference between an English non-native speaker who says “do you know what is this?” vs. “do you know what this is?”

 

This is BY FAR the trickiest thing about learning English, in my opinion. Surprisingly I also think that if some English learners took on a study or two of another language they would get a lot better at this aspect (and not necessarily if it is a one related to English via the Germanic or Romance family trees).

 

Auxiliary verbs can also be tricky. Perhaps in mimicking very informal English some learners may ask “you have a book?” rather than the more formal “do you have a book?”

 

How to get over this? Well, the first thing is to not be scared. You CAN do it and there have been a few people in my life who have been so good at English that I have mistaken them for native speakers (and they’re not all from one area of the world, mind you).

 

The second thing is to PAY ATTENTION TO THE DIFFERENCES between your native language and English. (Also pay attention to the differences between all languages you learn, it’s good discipline and it really helps in creating good grammar).

 

 

Conclusion:

 

The biggest thing that prevents people from being satisfied with their English level is the idea that they can’t get better or that it is “too much work”. You don’t work more on English, instead you work smarter. Work on English in a way that makes you happy to work with it (e.g. with material that you genuinely like). Make the presence of English in your life a source for positive feelings. That way, you will find yourself sounding like an American (or any other English-speaking nationality) before you know it!

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5 Things That I Liked About Living in Poland as a Jewish-American (And 5 Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

May 3rd. The Day of the Polish Constitution. Sure, I could write a piece about Verb Conjugation. I could write a piece about the cases in the Polish Language, or even a list of my favorite Let’s Play Channels in Polish (which I’m going to watch as soon as I’m done writing this article.

Poland is a fascinating country and one that used to be the largest in all of Europe (not to mention the fact that it was deemed very powerful in “Civilization V”). The landmarks are memorable and virtually every tourist I’ve encountered who has been there has been changed on a very deep level (and luckily I think even with Holocaust tourism there are new dimensions opening up that are facilitating Polish-Jewish dialogue like never before).

Unlike many tourists, I’ve had the privilege of actually having LIVED in Krakow for one year. It was a fantastic experience and one of the best years of my life. As that experience continues to fade into memory (even though it will always be a part of me), I thought it would be wise of me to make some reflections about what I liked and what I didn’t like so much.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: “Straight-Talking” Can Get Time to Get Used to (As an American)

 

Unlike in many English-speaking countries, the culture in Poland encourages people to be blunt with what they’re feeling. Surprisingly, when I look back at it, I’m somewhat…grateful for this mindset. In the United States, where you usually have to be all smiles even with someone who you have intention of getting along with, you constantly doubt social interaction as a façade. In Poland, I knew that if I was doing a bad job, I would be TOLD so, and that if I was doing a good job, I would also be honestly and straightly told as such.

In the United States, a major error would result in a delicately worded speech. In Poland, people would be visibly angry. Like in Israel (in which much of the same culture exists), it felt painful at first. One of my Polish friends told me that it was the primary reason he disliked American culture (he didn’t dislike it as a whole, just that aspect of having to be “nice” all of the time).

For the first month, it was very much like there was a nagging voice telling me that “I would never fit in”. Not even in a previous year in Israel prepared me for the return of “straight-talking”. And…a lot of Polish people can actually be PROUD of the fact that they do this!

 

Liked: A Lot of People Were Willing to Ask About My Story (And Listen)

 

Poland has a distinction of being what is nowadays a very monolithic society in terms of its ethnic makeup but before the Second World War there were significant minority communities from all of the neighboring countries as well as Ashkenazi Jews (yes, contemporary Jewish communities exist in Poland! I know because I visited them every week! Several times every week, actually!) Almost all Poles have a trace of German / Ukrainian / Lithuanian / Jewish / Belorussian / anything I forgot ancestry somewhere in their family tree (and sometimes more than just a trace).

One result of this is that there is a certain “phantom pain” concerning the communities that were killed off en masse (in the case of Jews and Roma) or forcibly repatriated (in the case of many of the others). A lot of people wanted to hear about my story as an American, as a Jew and how my relationship with the Polish story came to be.

Sometimes I would find out intriguing Jewish stories as well, including childhood friendships their grandparents had before Hitler invaded, or noteworthy acts of resistance as well.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Can Ditch Political Correctness Entirely

 

The fact that I heard a number of Islamophobic macroagressions (not a typo in that last word) can’t be ignored. Thankfully they were sparse (very sparse, come to think of it. As in “five times max over the course of a year”). Some of the locals parroted a similar variety of Islamophobia that was motivated in part by “horror stories” from Sweden and Germany, not also to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When I was headed to Sweden for the following year and made the announcement, some people were actually…legitimately worried for my safety.

Dialogue can definitely help with this. And learning the Polish Language is one way with which to meaningfully engage!

 

Liked:  A Lot of Forward-Thinking People Who Are Constructively Critical of Their Milieu and Have a Good Relationship to Their Polish Heritage and History

 

I wasn’t pleased about the Holocaust Bill that passed earlier this year. I understand fully that the Polish Government was dismantled by Nazi Germany and that the Polish state itself did not exist at the time the Holocaust was carried out. I also recognize the acts of resistance as well, wholeheartedly. That said, a full reconciliation will come with a look into the past, including the acts of some Poles who either stood by or may have actively aided the genocide.

I say this as someone to whom Polish culture has changed on a deep level and to whom this country and people mean an awful lot to me and…yes, I owe this country and the fact that I lived there the bulk of my future successes. My relationship with Poland, like my relationship with the other countries in which I have lived, is overwhelmingly positive.

With that also comes a “relationship maturity” in which you will help your country be the most forward-thinking, productive motherland it can be. And I think a lot of my Polish friends have well-developed resistance strategies and constructive criticism that they use to bring their country forward. It is something that I think Americans can really learn from (and, possibly, have been).

It is one think to criticize a country you have no relationship to (and I never do this with a place that I either haven’t visited OR don’t speak the language / haven’t studied the language). It is another thing to reason with your homeland as an adult and bring him or her up via acts of constructive criticism. And that criticism doesn’t take away from the fact that Poland has a lot to admire.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Can Be Very Defensive

 

Some outsiders have this image of Poland as a backwards place where everyone is racist and anti-Semitic. Poland is very divided but in all honesty it isn’t worse or better than the United States (which has similar divisions as well). Krakow in many respects is a lot more accepting than New York City is, as are many other Polish cities.

Several of my Polish friends in Israel got subjected to a significant amount of macroagressions (again, no typo), and to some degree I can understand why some can be defensive, especially if they’ve had negative experiences abroad.

Be prepared for some people to be defensive and make sure to listen and ask questions. We have to learn from each other.

 

Liked: If You Express Any Love of Polish Culture, History, Language or the Like, You’ll Instantly Make Friends

 

My Polish isn’t the best (and given my whole Fiji thing I sort of haven’t been working on it actively), but if you want to make friends with Polish people, learn about their culture. You’d be surprised how easy a connection can come with that. Even a handful of words of Polish can have a magic effect on people.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Police Can Be “No-Nonsense” To Unbelievable Degrees

 

That one time a friend of mine was holding a beer and took ONE TINY STEP beyond the rope indicating the “bar territory” and into the square. She was fined on the spot.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the story I heard about the German police officers who positioned themselves at a stoplight at 2 AM after a party for the express purpose of fining people who were jaywalking.

Jokes aside, given the history of “being invaded by everyone”, this element is significant unsurprising. Maybe.

 

Liked: Being an American was NEVER a Liability in Any Regard, and Poland and the United States Do Have a Lot in Common and Many of the Same National Strengths (and Faults)

 

In Germany, saying that I was American would subject me to a three-minute rant about the military-industrial complex by my barber. Israel was, to some degree, even worse in that respect. In Poland, Americans get a variety of special treatment, almost (even if you’re not Polish-American). Only once or twice was I told that Americans “have no culture”.  Instead, I would get asked about my roots or otherwise be told about someone’s family members in Chicago (where it is very much possible to buy tickets in Polish in public transport).

We also have shared histories of multiculturalism and our expatriates being everywhere. Our constitutions guaranteed religious freedom (yes, the Polish Constitution of May 3rd which is the reason I’m writing this piece). Jewish culture and the Yiddish Language very deeply influenced both places. As a Jew, I notice that German-Jewish and German-Polish relations have a lot in common (a history of reconciliation and a lot of people who are mutually interested in both cultures, drastic improvements in Germans’ relationship with Jews and with Poles over the course of the past few decades, etc)

“We Love Americans”. That’s what a Polish friend told me. I doubt more needs to be said.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some People Conflated All Jews with Orthodox Judaism

Some people expected my family to look like Hasidim. Thankfully there were also others who understood fully that Jews, like any other people group, have a wide variety of appearances and classes. Others expected me to constantly live under the shadow of deep prohibitions all of the time (to be fair, I was more religious back then). Some had perceived that my religion was primarily a list of things I wasn’t allowed to do, rather than a collection of texts, traditions and cultures (come to think of it, it could have been THIS rather than my time in Sweden and Germany that propelled me to becoming less religious).

I will say this: in Poland religions are respected, and Judaism was no exception in this regard. Fun fact: even Polish Catholics sometimes leave notes at the graves of Hasidic masters (!)

 

Liked: Poland Had a SUPERBLY Encouraging Environment for People Wanting to Learn Polish (and an EXCELLENT Balance Between Polish and English / Other Languages)

 

As an elementary learner of Swedish, I felt pressured to really, REALLY not make mistakes, and that some people would switch to English without a second thought if I hesitated. (This, obviously, changes the more you progress “up the ladder”, and now that I’m fluent in Swedish this is a non-issue). Israel sometimes felt the same way outside of the classroom. In Germany there was a bit of the opposite, in which some people who knew English but not German felt that they were saddled with every imaginable difficulty.

In Poland, in contrast to all of these places, there was literally a PERFECT balance between people wanting to use Polish or English to whatever degree you were comfortable with either. A lot of Poles have relatives in literally every corner of the globe (and Polish and English have the distinction of being the two languages I’ve heard spoken in EVERY country I’ve been to, Spanish and Hebrew would have been on the list but I didn’t hear them in Greenland).

I never felt as though I was “bugging people” with using elementary Polish, and I felt that everything I said was heartily appreciated and I was heavily encouraged to continue. Last summer when I devoted some time to “awakening” my Polish again, I felt very much the same way among Polish speakers here.

I really wish that the rest of the world would be a lot more like Poland in this respect. Linguistic diversity and encouragement in language learning needs to be had. Everywhere.

kroke 018

Did YOU ever spend three months or more in Poland? How did that go for you? Did you ever try learning the Polish Language at all? How was it? Let us know!

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

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

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  1. To Start This Blog

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were some of the best decisions of YOUR life?

Tips and Resources to Help You Begin Learning Yiddish

Virtually every American knows something about Yiddish whether they know it or not. 100 years ago, Yiddish newspapers were so mainstream and respected that they often received election results before ENGLISH newspapers. The Yiddish literature rush that occurred from the 19th century up until some decades after the Holocaust is considered by some the largest outpouring of human thought in all of history, anywhere.

Yiddish has changed countless lives, and not just those of Jews. Isaac Bashevis Singer spoke of it as a language never spoken by people in power (you are welcome to debate this accordingly). In comparison to languages of nobility and large, established countries, Yiddish established itself as “mame-loshn”, a mother’s language, not necessarily tied to any earth or ground, but transcending the Jewish experience wherever it may go.

In online Polyglot Communities, there’s one Yiddish-speaker or Yiddish learner that seems to get everyone enchanted with one Yiddish phrase, or at least cause others to take another look at it.

Well, today we’re going to teach you exactly how to BEGIN that journey.

Before we begin, however, let’s outline exactly how Yiddish is different from High German (with which it shares a lot of words):

  • The pronunciation of words is different. Yiddish has a distinctly more Slavic lilt to it, and those who speak languages from that area of the world can often just use their “home accents” and be passable (e.g. Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, etc). There are vowel shifts that are followed with great consistency. German au becomes Yiddish oy. In many Yiddish dialects, the German ei sound is pronounced like “ey” (to rhyme with “hey”).

 

  • The grammar is also closer to that of English or even that of a Slavic language at times, although it can also follow German conventions. “Du herst?” (are you listening?) makes complete sense as a question, even with the subject first…much like the casual English “you hear?!!?”

 

  • Some common words in German have vanished completely and replaced with Hebrew / Aramaic or Slavic equivalents. Surprisingly I’ve noticed that linguistic borrowings from liturgical languages follow similar patterns in language throughout the world (e.g. Tajik uses Arabic loan words in many of the same places that Yiddish would, such as the word for “maybe” being an Arabic work in Tajik (Mumkin) and a Hebrew one in Yiddish (Efsher).

 

  • Using too much German pronunciation and / or Germanic loan words in your speech results it what is called “Deitschmerisch”, which was a variety used by some Yiddish speakers in more enlightenment-related spheres to make it more acceptable. Throughout most of its history Yiddish was deemed the language of “women and the uneducated”.

 

  • German can help, but using too much German influence in your Yiddish can have negative effects. Knowledge of Jewish Liturgical Languages definitely helps, especially given that “Yeshivish” exists (or, roughly put, English spoken amongst some Orthodox Jews with the Hebrew / Aramaic Loanwords from Yiddish intact). Knowledge of Slavic Languages can also prove helpful, especially given that some gendered nouns in Yiddish can lean more towards Slavic than Germanic (not also to mention many Latinate loan words end in “-tziye”, which shows obvious Slavic influence).

 

Keep in mind that there is also a lot of incomplete and flawed material out there, but you probably knew that.

 

Yiddish also has no centralized academy. Among secular Yiddishists, the prestige dialect will be Lithuanian Yiddish (which I speak). Among many Hasidic communities, the prestige dialect will vary depending on the sect. For example, among the Satmar Hasidim, Hungarian Yiddish will rule (which sounds slightly more like High German and a very, VERY distinctly Finno-Ugric rhythm to it. In areas of Williamsburg you can hear it spoken on the street with regularity. Did I also mention that you can order your MetroCards in Yiddish in various subway stations in New York?).

 

Oh, and one more thing! With the exception of Yiddish texts from the Soviet Union, the Hebrew and Aramaic words will be SPELLED the way they are in Hebrew and Aramaic, but the pronunciation is something you’ll need to MEMORIZE! And I bet you’re wondering, “oh, if it’s the Hebrew word, I could just memorize its Hebrew pronunciation, right?”

 

Nope! Because Israeli Hebrew uses the Sephardic pronunciation (precisely so the Zionists could detach themselves from the “Diasporic” pronunciations of Hebrew words) and Yiddish’s Hebrew and Aramaic components use the Ashkenazi Variety (which is still used by some Orthodox Jews in prayer). The Yiddish words “Rakhmones” (mercy) would be “Rakhmanut” in Hebrew, although they are spelled the EXACT SAME WAY.

 

The meanings aren’t necessarily the same either. A normal word in Hebrew can be a profanity in Yiddish (I won’t give examples here).

 

So here are various resources you can use to begin:

 

For one, Mango Languages is put enough together with good accents to the degree that you can begin using Yiddish with your friends RIGHT AWAY. The Hebrew alphabet can be learned accordingly with writing out the words on the screen. (Also! Words that are not Hebrew or Aramaic in Origin are written phonetically, exactly as they are spelled. If you are a reading a Soviet Yiddish text, ALL words will, much like Lao standardized Pali and other foreign loan words. Communism did the same thing to two completely different language families).

The book I started with nearly ten years ago was Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish textbooks, which were very well put together and also outlined the differences between Yiddish and English / Hebrew / German. Between dialogues there were various songs and the grammar was explained clearly in a way that you can begin making your own sentences in no time!

 

Uriel Weinreich’s immortal classic “College Yiddish” is also a fantastic choice, given that the stories themselves are extremely topical and cover a wide range of secular and religious topics. Some of the topics include: Chelm Stories (the equivalent of Polish Jokes in the US and Swedish / Norwegian jokes in Norway and Sweden respectively), sociology, songs, Jewish holiday origin stories, and even a quaint piece about moving furniture.

 

The book is mostly in Yiddish although glossaries are provided with English translations.

 

Routledge’s Colloquial Yiddish also covers usage of the language in classroom situations, ordinary conversation, as well as stories about Hasidic Masters and the aforementioned Chelm stories (which you can never truly get away from when you know enough Jewish people).

 

The Yiddish Daily Forward is also very well put together, with topical articles that would be equally at home in its English edition (and sometimes featured in both). What’s more, the articles will come with an in-built glossary function where you can highlight any word and have it defined.

 

If you choose to get it sent to your inbox, the titles and summaries will be bilingual in English and Yiddish, which makes for good practice even as an advanced student because then you can see how the translation changes things.

 

Lastly, SBS Radio Australia has its archives of Yiddish programming, given that Yiddish was discontinued (I believe). That said, a lot of interesting interviews with fluent Yiddish speakers from throughout the world are provided as well as “snippets” of English that can also provide context clues for the beginner. If you want to know how to discuss politics in Yiddish, THIS is the place to find it.

Yiddish will change your life. It provides a huge amount of untranslated literature that you can spend several lifetimes with. Your other languages will be enhanced with new idioms that possess the story of a people who have been everywhere and continue to be everywhere. You will become more theatrical, you will become cooler and, best of all, all Yiddishists everywhere will pretty much be willing to become your friend.

Zol zayn mit mazl! (Good luck!)

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