Well here I am. A throwaway comment from my parents saying that they were thinking about taking me to Fiji later this year has blossomed until TWO full language learning missions about to reach wondrous heights in the coming two weeks.
Well here I am. A throwaway comment from my parents saying that they were thinking about taking me to Fiji later this year has blossomed until TWO full language learning missions about to reach wondrous heights in the coming two weeks.
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):
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!)
I’ll be posting something about my underaccomplishment with the 30-Day Challenge in Greenlandic in the coming days, but I thought it would be very humorous for me to try something else for a change.
By the way, my Fijian is getting FANTASTICALLY better with each coming day (I still have some blind spots that will be weeded out in the coming weeks, not also to mention the fact that I’ve been focusing mostly on speaking rather than listening or reading right now, given that I’ll be doing most of THAT when I’m in Fiji. Listening, reading and writing will no doubt follow, and I’m not even sure if writing exercises for Fijian would be effort ideally paid off because the only people I know who have lived in Fiji have been expats that only know a few words / sentences of Fijian.)
My list to be cleared with Fijian includes:
– numbers up until 1 billion
– FULLY mastering the complication plural pronouns (they come in four persons, singular, dual, paucal and plural — indicating 1, 2, a group and a BIG group)
– Family member words (significantly more complicated than in the languages of Western Europe)
– Grammatical kinks to be ironed out (especially politeness tiers and transitive suffixes on verbs).
Anyhow, you’ve come for humor so that’s what you’re getting. Please don’t take any of these too seriously 🙂
English – Even if you speak me natively, there will always be one proper noun that throws you off–so deal with it!
Ancient Hebrew – the closest a language ever got to resembling the mechanics of alphabet refrigerator magnets.
Bislama – Most people found out about this language through either a friend, a phrasebook or most likely of all…a Polandball meme!
Pijin – It’s Bislama without any French interjections. 🙂
Tok Pisin – What do you get when you cross Australian English with 800+ languages?
Trinidadian Creole English – Good luck trying to find written resources for this one.
German – The language that you realize is dangerously similar in many ways to Shakespeare’s English, but you only realize it if you’re beyond the intermediate stage.
Spanish – How many layers of slang would you like with your language? (I almost wrote “the language that people learn to say that they’re learning a language.”, but I decided against it. Or did I?)
Yiddish – you’d be surprised how much American English slang borrowed from me, but you’ll never know unless we spend quality time together.
Norwegian – exactly the linguistic kaleidoscope you would expect from a country that is 96% uninhabitable land.
Swedish – be prepared to learn EVERYTHING about syllable stress if you expect to be friends with me!
Danish – rumors of my difficulty have been very greatly exaggerated.
Icelandic – the language whose future everyone likes to freak out about.
Salone Krio – it’s like what American English would be if it were grammatically consistent, had regular spelling and made sense.
Hebrew – the language of the Bible, sprinkled with influence from French teachers, Russian emigres and American TV, among others.
Finnish – don’t let the big tables intimidate you, a lot of those forms you’ll almost never use in conversation.
Fijian – Wait, if there ARE enlongated vowels, how come they’re not written out? What do you mean, you’re just supposed to know? WHY?!!!?
Jamaican Patois – If you want to find out how open-minded someone REALLY is, mention the fact that you’re either learning this language or speak it fluently as an L2….be prepared!
Hungarian – Native speakers will love you for this…100% guarantee or your money back!
Polish – one of two langauges that caused me to nearly throw my computer in rage (the other one is below this one)
Greenlandic – How long do you like your words? 15 letter? 26 letters? 62 letters?
Lao – we disguised our Indo-European loan words really well. Come and find ’em!
Kiribati / Gilbertese – And you thought Dominican Spanish was fast.
Irish – Frightening learners with its orthography since time immemorial.
Myanmar / Burmese – There are four tones. Make that three tones. Make that two tones.
Tajik – Contrary to popular belief, Tajikistan is NOT a fictional country…Farsi’s little sibling lives there!
Palauan – Consonant jumble jamble!
Vincentian Creole English – I’m actually not a tonal language.
First off, let’s start by listing the variety of things I do NOT consider. And you can probably already guess what the first one is:
(1) Number of native speakers. Doesn’t mean anything, isn’t necessary in building an emotional connection to the culture. All languages have their worth and it shouldn’t be measured depending on how many people on this planet speak it. Sure, it might be easier for you to find people to practice with, but in the age of the Internet, does finding people to practice with, even in person, really matter?
(2) Lists of Articles on Publications Like Business Insider Telling Me That It’s a Good Idea. I don’t outsource my decisions to giant publications and I don’t think you should, either.
(3) Any charts that point to a language or a series of languages being “the most lucrative” or “the best to learn”. Especially in the United States where most people don’t learn ANY language (interestingly among Jews this really isn’t the case given how many of us have some passive knowledge of Hebrew at the VERY least), ANY language is a boon and it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Palauan. Come to think of it, given that 60% of high school students study Spanish, maybe just MAYBE Palauan and Spanish might be fairly equally waited. Again, do which one you like the most.
(4) What other languages people are learning. The world doesn’t need more followers. Nu uh. The world follows the lead of the leaders. And leaders do what is different and unexpected. (Again, don’t take this as discouragement from wanting to study a language like French, just don’t consider the crowd as the sole deciding factor or even ONE of the deciding factors.)
So here’s what I consider:
(1) Am I Healing the World by Choosing to Engage In This Culture? One thing that I’ve used to decide several of my languages in the past year (such as Gilbertese or Lao) is the fact that I realize that I can use my language to bring about healing.
With Kiribati, looming climate change and rising sea levels is something that defines the cutlure at the moment, and by choosing to learn Gilbertese I have committed to keeping their culture alive AND letting other people know about the realities of these threatened areas.
With Lao, I got to glimpse a country (that I haven’t visited yet) with extreme poverty that also has the distinction of being the most bombed country in all of human history. (More bombs were dropped on Laos by Nixon and Kissinger than all of the bombs by all sides in WWII everywhere COMBINED).
With a language like German, Polish or Hungarian, all associated by some more close-minded Jews as “languages of people who have anti-Semitism in their blood” (saying that hatred is embedded in someone’s culture is extremely offensive, in my opinion), I actually realized how many Jews (past, present and future) strongly identified with these cultures, and how much they’ve influenced the Judaism I’ve known for my whole life.
Thankfully German-Jewish relations have drastically improved during my lifetime, and I’m doing work to help Jewish relations in both directions with the other two (and many others!)
(2) Do I Have Music or Other Media that I Deeply Like in This Language? I fell in love with Greenlandic music and it became a motivating factor in wanting to studying it more. With music in other languages like Tok Pisin and Burmese, I found a lot of songs that I really liked and it caused me to have not only motivation to learn the language but also positive feelings when learning it.
Some languages, like Tajik and Lao, I haven’t found REALLY good music that I like. Yet. But with Icelandic I also remember having that struggle for months, and eventually I found Icelandic music that I really, REALLY liked. Or, if you know anything about this, you could give me recommendations, maybe!
(3) Will Engaging with This Language Make Me More Knowledgeable about a Culture I Don’t Know a Lot About?
Some languages, like Finnish or Palauan, I learned as exploratory journeys into “places” that I didn’t know very much about at all. I’ve never regretted learning a language for this reason.
(4) Is this language spoken in my immediate neighborhood? Hence the reason I learned Jamaican Patois ‘n friends. In Crown Heights it genuinely feels like a pan-Caribbean neighborhood, and especially given our zeitgeist of cultures distrusting each other, I felt as though “being a good citizen” involved me learning Patois. So glad I did!
(5) Did my ancestors speak this language? Hungarian and Swedish were both on the agenda precisely because I had great-grandparents who spoke both as their mother tongue (on opposite sides of my family)
(6) Do I need it for business, travel or romance? I think this is fairly clear. Sometimes (like my travels to Italy in 2014 and in Jordan in 2015) I felt as though I was half-hearted in my attempts to learn the local language and my trip felt genuinely lacking in comparison to when I did know more of it (such as, most notably, my recent trips to Greenland and Iceland). This is the reason I’m learning Fijian right now (and Fiji Hindi is also on the agenda in a month or two, and preparations for it were underway for a while).
(7) Have I dreamed of finding out what this country or culture was like since childhood?
Some places, like Greenland, Laos, Burkina Faso or Ireland, are places that I’ve wondered about since early childhood sometimes for silly, sentimental reasons. Somehow within my unconscious I feel as though places like these would be “good fits” for me. And I’m almost always right.
Between these seven reasons, a combination of all of them dictates which languages I choose to have in my life and which ones I devote time to. Feel free to share some of YOUR motivating factors below!
I’ve noticed that whenever the seasons are on the verge of changing I seem to think about what sort of languages I am enjoying (or not) and I make changes accordingly.
Some languages like Dutch and Northern Sami I used to have impressive command of but now they seem to have dwindled to nothing. Others I really enjoyed learning but it occurred to me that, for whatever reason (some of which couldn’t be articulated), I didn’t really feel as though I “had the spark anymore”. Faroese, Estonian and Russian were all obsessions of mine that fell by the wayside as a result (although I still speak a bit of all languages in this paragraph and, if the need arises, I could revive them).
So I’ve decided to clear my list of all of the following. The most noteworthy clearances are Breton and French just…don’t do it for me anymore. And French I mostly learned for peer-pressure reasons anyhow. It would be one thing if I were actively planning to go to the Ivory Coast or French Polynesia instead of Fiji in the summer (and if I were even headed to Vanuatu I would make it a priority). But right now, I’m just not feeling it. Same with Breton, and I’m glad for the times we’ve had together, but for some odd reason I feel as though I need a break. (Cornish I’m still undecided about, given that St. Piran’s Day is coming up on March 5. Cornish is probably the one language that I’ve been on-again off-again the most).
I also really need to start focusing on quality, especially as I continue to enter the global spotlight with both my polyglotism AND my video games being released later this year. I’m already getting more messages than I can humanly deal with… a day that I DREAMED of seeing as a high school student.
Anyhow, on my languages page I reduced it to 31, and all of my fluent languages (B2 or higher) got to stay except for Breton which I hadn’t been practicing too much as of late anyhow. Also while Spanish and German get to stay, they are, along with English, the ones that I have the least amount of emotional attachment to (sorry).
Anyhow, let’s go through my list from A0 (a few words) to B1 (intermediate plateau) and I’ll go through the reasons I decided to keep those ones in particular.
First off, Guarani is my opportunity to glimpse an indigenous culture of South America (Paraguay) that may be under siege. I devoted a lot of time on my YouTube Channel last year and I actually met a fluent speaker in Fall 2017 who absolutely refused to use it with me for some reason (I’m not going to lie, I felt snubbed and borderline offended. In an age of mass language death, you should be sharing with anyone willing to partake of your culture.)
Despite that, I shouldn’t let one bad interaction with a speaker get me down and I’m gonna be up again because it occurs to me that I need to know more about indigenous South American than I already do (it’s probably the one continent that I know the least about, actually, even if you include Antarctica).
Given that I’m headed to Fiji later on this year, Fiji Hindi is also a priority despite the fact that I’ve struggled with this one more than any other Indo-European language that isn’t Celtic. Resources are scarce and ways to rehearse it are difficult, but I’ll attempt an “attack plan” once I feel as though I’m a solid B2 in Fijian, which may be sooner than I think (a “Why Fijian is Easy” post is coming soon!)
Given the relations between the native Fijians / iTaukei and the Fiji Indians have been difficult at times, it behooves me to learn about them both, especially given that I’ll get to see close up hand. I’ve heard that Fiji Indians are prominent in the tourist industry and my chances to interact with them will be many.
Next up on the A0 list is Uyghur. I’ve gotten so much fantastic feedback from attempting this language on YouTube, not also to mention the deep pride that many Uyghurs have for their culture, that I’m going to continue it. It would be, in a sense, one of my first Chinese Languages (and I still haven’t forgotten about Mandarin quite yet but I’ll reveal everything in good time. With both my one surviving grandparent coming from a Hungarian family and my Oceania venture, I feel time-crunched from multiple sides. It seems that Uyghur is not going to be too much of a serious investment in the near future, but I’ll see what I can do with it and I have no plans to drop it completely).
Last among the A0 list is Tuvaluan. While Tongan has been dropped for the time being (too close to Fijian for me to actively work on both at the same time, as is Tuvaluan), Tuvaluan is something I want to at least be able to use in SOME capacity before heading to Fiji (if I even end up going there at all) by virtue of the fact that Fiji’s only endangered language is Tuvaluan (y’know, the expatriate community). Also given that Tuvalu is in a similar situation to Kiribati with the whole climate change thing, it’s something I believe is a moral duty. If only there were readily available good textbooks for it, otherwise I’ll have to write my own from dictionaries, grammar books and Bible translations, not also to mention help from the Tuvaluan sub-Reddit (I believe the Kiribati sub-Reddit is by invitation only. I applied to join. No answer. Hey, mods at Kiribati, can you approve me? Kam raba! [Thank you guys!])
Probably the language for which I have been lauded by native speakers the most, Palauan gets to stay and will be a constant feature of my programming. You guys have fantastic music and have given me very concrete and useful advice and not a DROP of discouragement! Also that Palau Pledge and that movie with the giant is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve read / seen all year!
Probably not at A1 anymore because of months of not practicing, but I’ll have African languages in part represented by Mossi (Krio’s still on my list, don’t worry). My first tonal language from outside Asia, I think I really need to learn more about Burkina Faso, given how Christian and Muslim traditions (not also to mention elements of traditional African religions) really blend together. There’s a lot on my plate right now so no actively working on Mossi now, but at least you get to stay on my radar as opposed to the many languages that I decided to drop.
Probably my favorite Caribbean Creole is that of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I discovered Vincentian Creole through Bible recordings and one of these days I’ll make sure to spend more time with you. You’re probably the one Caribbean nation most Americans know the least about. Can’t wait to start spending more time together!
Lastly among the A1 category (I dropped Arabic but I’ll probably be putting it back later this year when my Fijian and Fiji Hindi is secure), Tajik. Everything about you is fascinating and also very distinct from the Western Culture I experience every day in the United States. You and Uyghur will be my Central Asian projects for the not-too-distant future.
Burmese music is something I have in huge doses and that I’m fascinated with. Also the Burmese-American community here in New York City, not also to mention plenty of professional opportunities with politics and translation work should I choose to get good enough. Alongside Tok Pisin, Burmese really gave me a glimpse into a country that was severely wrecked by imperialist meddling (you could pretty much say this for…well, almost everywhere on the planet, which is why I believe learning languages from these areas of the globe is a morally correct decision for all of us who want to learn some).
Irish is a language of my ancestors and one I’ve dreamed of learning well for a decade. I used to be better but I slumped terribly in progress leading up to the Polyglot Conference in 2017. I still don’t consider myself that good despite the fact that I remember having some manageable conversations in it. Probably my most poorly managed language learning project.
Gilbertese of course gets to stay. As does Fijian.
Greenlandic is the language I’ve struggled with the most and STILL the hardest I’ve attempted. But given that I’m working on a video game set there I’m going to continue this fantastic relationship I’ve had with my favorite language (even though it is now tied with Gilbertese for my favorite).
Despite the fact that I SERIOUSLY need good music that I like in it, Lao is staying around too. I’ve seen heartbreaking homemade films in Lao that I will never forget for as long as I live, and this is the first language I’ve learned from a genuinely communist state. A truly meaningful experience…besides, I really like the sound of the language despite the fact that the tones still “get me”.
Lastly, Hungarian and Polish get to stay around. Hungarian is an ancestral language of mine and my deepest regret in my polyglot life is having not chosen to study it earlier. But luckily I still have time…as long as I focus. Among European Languages, Hungarian has THE most supportive native speakers (although I’ve met one or two who gave me a hard time on the surface but then gave me vaguely reluctant support…sort of?) Polish is the second-most commonly used language on my Facebook feed. Being able to speed-reed it is something I should really learn sooner than later.
So my current list reads like this:
A0 – Guarani, Fiji Hindi, Uyghur, Tuvaluan,
A1: Palauan, Mossi, Vincentian Creole, Tajik
A2 – Burmese, Irish, Gilbertese, Fijian
B1 – Greenlandic, Lao, Hungarian, Polish
B2 – Hebrew, Finnish, Krio, Jamaican Patois, Icelandic
C1 – Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Spanish (EU), German, Trini
C2 – Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin, Tok Pisin
Native: English, Ancient Hebrew
I haven’t been having the best month and so I may have under-practiced some of these but I think a good dosage of focused Saturdays should get me in shape, especially with my priorities straightened out.
February is almost on its way out, and with it my Greenlandic 30-Day challenge (cut to 28 days, or so it seems) in addition to Fijian. Next month is more Fijian and another language on this page that I haven’t decided yet!
May you only know fulfilled goals!
Before I begin, I would say that it is in a more tongue-and-cheek manner that I refer to “What do you use to learn languages” as a WRONG question. But too many people see processes as something that can only have (or can only need) a handful of ingredients.
I look at my most successful language-learning missions and, as it turns out, the most successful that I have had overwhelmingly had one thing in common, whereas my least successful language-learning missions also had the exact OPPOSITE of that one thing in common.
Before going further (gee, I really know how to make cliffhangers, now, don’t I?), I should also say that the “what do you use to learn language?” question is something I achieve with GREAT FREQUENCY. From my students. From my distant family members. From people who met me five seconds ago.
I also hear variations of it, such as “what’s the best way to learn a language?” or “what apps do I need?” or “what do you do to learn languages?”
But here’s what I always say:
I don’t ask myself “what DO I use to learn languages”, but rather “what DON’T I use to learn languages!”
The fact is, when I look at the most successful languages I have, I’ve used EVERYTHING.
Let’s Play Videos.
And dozens upon DOZENS of other factors.
To give some examples from my own life that have been successful, Finnish (the one that won against all odds) I used ABSOLUTELY all of these elements I listed above. Others on that list would include: Danish, Bislama, Yiddish, Swedish, Tok Pisin and Norwegian. (Note I did not use Let’s Play videos for Bislama, Yiddish and Tok Pisin given that, as of the time of writing, none of those exist in any of those languages)
Ones that I failed to deploy AS MANY resources for? They fell down by the wayside. The languages I learned that got harmed the most because of this included: Fiji Hindi, Lao, Irish, Welsh and Tajik.
Then there are others in which I usually tried to use an excess of cultural immersion (Greenlandic and Burmese) or an excess of book studying (Hebrew and Spanish) and as a result some of them have been imbalanced with varying results (I can still speak Hebrew well and Spanish manageably most of the time, despite my self-admitted begrudging apathy towards global languages).
I go on to tell people that I see language learning like a strategy game. The more pieces and resources available to you that you USE, the more likely you are to WIN. Sure, it may take a lot of time to win and some “levels” are going to be easier than others (Bislama’s grammar is easier than Finnish’s by any stretch despite the fact that both of them use vowel harmony [Bislama only does it with some of its verbs, though]).
I can tell if people struggle with a language (even myself) and it’s almost ALWAYS because their “diet” has been (1) imbalanced (e.g. too much studying, not enough immersion or the opposite) or (2) inconsistent (e.g. I didn’t rehearse Irish for a month before the 2017 Polyglot Conference and it SHOWED, sadly, having been the “biggest loser” of my collection during that particular conference).
In antiquity, health was believed to come about through a perfect balance. My father (who holds an MD) believes very little about ancient medicine but this balance idea is helpful regarding mental discipline.
If you are struggling with a language that you’ve been working at a long time (certainly a year or more), that means that there is either an imbalance OR untapped resources you still have yet to apply to your own journey.
Keep in mind that I’m guilty of having these imbalances and untapped resources myself.
So here’s an idea;
It seems that it wasn’t long ago I heard someone in my general studies class at my Jewish “middle school” pronounced “Vientiane” as “vee-ent-tee-ane” (it’s pronounced “vee-en-chan”).
Many years later, I fell in love with the Lao language after having encountered it in my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia Phrasebook (which I primarily purchased for Burmese but in 2014 [YEARS before I even deemed it a possibility that I would set foot there] there wasn’t a standalone Burmese language guide that could fit in my pocket).
November led me to great strides in Lao, and today is December 2nd, which is Laos’ National Day (an anniversary of a communist takeover, no less). Given my tradition of writing pieces on national holidays (despite the fact that I sometimes have forgotten a few), it seemed appropriate for me to just take this opportunity to write this piece.
Take a look at the intro for a German-Language Lao Book:
“Laotisch – Wort für Wort”
Translation: “Barely anyone believes it at first: Lao is easy to Learn! The new letters seem too hard, the six tones seem barely learnable and the completely different-sounding vocabulary inscrutable. After many years’ time as a resident in Laos, I would, on the contrary, offer this to those interested and wanting to learn it: Lao is, for German-speakers, really quite easily learnable! It’s worth it!”
My 30-Day Journey in the Lao Language aligned PERFECTLY with this understanding, despite the fact that I’m not fluent in Lao (yet) and have significant gaps in my vocabulary.
But as far as grammar is concerned, Lao is very simple.
I remember one time that I was leaning on a bar during Language Exchange NYC. A middle-aged woman had told of her troubles with Spanish verb conjugation and asked me what language I was focusing on. I told her about Lao, and she proceeded to tell me exactly “how hard” it would be to learn an Asian language.
I told her that I could literally summarize Lao verbs in ten seconds. So I said this:
“Verbs never change.
To indicate past tense, put “ແລວ” (lὲεw) after the verb.
To indicate future tense, but “ຊິ” (sī) or “ຈະ” (já) before the verb.
No need to plaster your apartment with conjugation tables (as I’ve seen many students of languages like Spanish, French and German do during my college years).
Lao has no grammatical gender either, and a lot of the gendered language that Thai (its sister language) has (namely, that men and women will say hello differently) was done away with (yada yada yada, communism). While languages like Thai and Khmer have “pronoun zoos”, Lao’s pronoun system is significantly simplified, making it similar to that of English.
There ARE some honorifics left, but the royal language that still exists in Thai was made illegal by the communist regime.
Some languages like Yiddish have a wealth of possible plural forms (I mentioned Yiddish because it has the most possible, I think, of any language I know of, given that they draw from Germanic, Slavic AND Hebrew sources). Lao doesn’t change any of its nouns, instead using classifier words.
In English, you can say “two coffees” but it would be more proper to say “two cups of coffee”. The “cups” is a classifier words that you use in order to indicate things that come in small drinkable containers. It also has another meaning (classifier words are wont to have other meanings).
Much like languages like Spanish, there are two verbs meaning “to be” in Lao, but they are divided along different lines.
One of them is used primarily for objects “ແມ່ນ” (mε̄εn) and another is used primarily for people “ເປັນ” (bpen). Oh, and between nouns and adjectives, you can just leave out a verb altogether! (This would be like saying “it very good”.
There were also pieces that reminded me of other languages that I had studied. Much like Bislama, Lao uses the word “to say” in order to mark an indirect statement (like the “that” in “I know that Lao is beautiful”.) Much like languages with strong influence from holy religious languages (Yiddish, Tajik and Burmese also qualify with influence from Hebrew, Arabic and Pali respectively), Lao also has loanwords from … Pali, a holy language of Theravada Buddhism. Pali words are also used in Burmese, Thai and Khmer (despite the fact that these three are spread across THREE different language families).
Because Pali is Indo-European, that meant that I noticed some similarities and cognates to words from the Indo-European family tree (spanning from India to Iceland), not to mention more direct cognates to Burmese (via Pali) which I had previously studied (and am focusing on right now!)
Articles in Lao are…compeltely non-existent, as is the case with many languages throughout the world. I’ve also noticed that Lao news broadcasts are significantly spoken more slowly than those in many other Asian languages. I could more readily recognize English loan-words and place names (despite the fact that loan words from European languages are significatly rare except for place names).
Above all, the Lao language is fascinating and already I’m starting to use it on YouTube in order to enjoy a wealth of independent films (and I can’t wait for the day in which I’ll be using it to read literature in depth!).
Lao films tend to be interesting because I’ve seen a significant amount of them that work the Hollywood formula in reverse: everything is going fine, and then everything falls apart IN THE WORST WAY POSSIBLE (that doesn’t involve monsters or special effects). Again, I have a lot more of the Lao independent cinema to explore, so there’s that.
To many more years with you!
Just the right thing I needed in order to drill the “ONE LANGUAGE AT A TIME” thing home: came across a link to a 30-Day Speaking Challenge in a Facebook group and decided to get in on the action before the new month of November came in.
You can read more about the challenge here: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/
For those of you who probably don’t want to click on the link, I’ll share the concept here: film / record yourself speaking a bit of your target language for thirty days in a row, publish the results in a group and get feedback / encouragement / what have you.
Now interestingly the language that I chose was Lao and there’s a strategic importance behind it:
I just submitted my second recording to the spreadsheet and may consider publicizing the 30-day result depending on how much I like it. Hey, it seems that I’m 1/15th of the way done!
Here’s how I predict the challenge will affect me:
When I was interviewed by Ari in Beijing in April, I mentioned the fact that the most important thing for learning a language is the fact that you need to build a “temple” to your target language within your time routines.
The only real way I’ve been doing that so far is with my YouTube channel. Sure, reading Lao dialogues out loud with some funny commentary and messing up the tones can be entertaining, but there’s so much more I could be doing.
I could become as immersed in Lao culture the same way I was with Greenlandic or Yiddish. I could truly feel as though understanding this poor and “forgotten” country is something I shouldn’t back away from.
My peers in the group have been very supportive of me thus far, and I’m thankful for that.
I don’t speak languages from East Asia very well (although Burmese is by far my strongest out of…two…). I should expect to make mistakes and realize that I’m not getting any Lao trophies or getting to watch any Free Lao YouTube movies without any subtitles without a lot of work. And that work is going to involve discipline, learning how to make sounds I’m not used to, and, very importantly, on the importance of tones.
I hold myself to extremely high standards. A lot of people in the group are uploading recordings upwards of three minutes on the first day. Most of them are learning European Languages and are native speakers of European Languages so they have an advantage that I just don’t have. It’ll take me longer for me to make progress in Lao than it will for an English speaker to make progress with French.
And that’s okay.
And sometimes I worry that I mess up the tones entirely and completely.
And that’s okay too. For now!
Already within these two days I’ve begun to see it happen. I’m monumentally increasing my exposure to Lao and commitment to learning more about it, even if it involves reading books and travel blogs in English.
I’m beginning to see more of what the world looks like through Laotian eyes. And with each new culture I feel more human, more fulfilled and more righteous.
I have a bunch of languages to improve, but I think that if I give the lion’s share of my focus to one task, I’ll be able to gain confidence more quickly and that will carry over to my other languages, both ones that I speak fluently and ones that I don’t speak as well.
Come to think of it, I’m feeling a lot better focusing more on improving just my Lao rather than improving Lao alongside Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and Tajik. I can maintain those on the side (or what I know of it), but I think that this focus is helping me fall in love.
And it seems that this is the beginning of something lovely!
Another autumn, another reflection, another cycle of sadness and rebirth…on any given year I have two “New Year’s Days”, one of these is, of course, January 1st, where I reflect about my professional life and set goals for the coming year (fun fact: after having gotten Lyme Disease in late 2015 I let this blog “sleep”, and my big project for 2017 was reviving it, which is probably one of my big successes of the year. Welsh, Tajik, Hungarian, and Krio have also been on my “to-do” list for 2017, the latter two of which have, so far, been astounding successes (Krio during the Summer and Hungarian during Summer-Autumn and Autumn).
For Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, my resolutions are different. Instead of focusing on goals (such as “establishing project X, revive blog Y and strengthen / learn languages ABC”, I focus on personal character traits.
Part of me things that our outlooks and our character really change as a result of extremely painful experiences (e.g. failures of any variety, romantic breakup, death, getting fired etc.), and while these have no doubt caused me to change I also think that change can come about with intentional focus.
Truth be told, I set a number of goals for myself in 2017. I haven’t met all of them (e.g. revive my comic books on DeviantArt, get my Patreon Page seriously going, get Kaverini Nuuk Adventures published this year), but I’ve met a significant amount of them, especially as far as language learning is concerned.
I’m going to make a list of personal things I need changed in the coming year so that I can enter this coming year a more fulfilled spiritual experience:
Probably the most important point on this list, but it’s a very heavy one. I’ve had unfortunate experiences with language-learning, including times in which I feel I haven’t done enough or made really stupid mistakes (I’m less forgiving with myself than most native speakers are).
Ever since before my Bar Mitzvah (which, for those unaware, takes place at age 13 for boys), my memory has been “collecting” literally every single failure and rejection I’ve ever had, and they tend to carry a lot more weight in my memory than any success, ever. So much so that one snide internet comment carries more weight in my mind than being accepted to prestigious conferences and receiving awards. (I wish I were joking and I KNOW it sounds silly, but I’m working on trying to fix it…)
One moron online told me that I sucked at Spanish (in that video back in March) despite the fact that the SAME VIDEO was featured in a Mexican magazine and that I’ve received many compliments from Spaniards on my accent. (By the way, that magazine should know that my name is not actually “Jared Gimbl”.
And I haven’t even touched on my various academic shortcomings either (which I’m more open to talking about now given what I’ve become since then).
Maybe it had to do with living in cultures of conformity, maybe it had to do with having graduated from Wesleyan University and entered other areas of the “real world”, but since 2013 until quite recently I’ve noticed that I’ve been more inhibited in my personality.
I look at my videos right now and they don’t contain the wackiness that I usually portray to my siblings and other family members, although one day it very well may get there.
Obviously behaving like a joker maniac in public is never an option, but thanks to some very judgmental people I’ve met over the course of my life I’ve subconsciously set a “self-defense” mechanism in which I don’t express my personality as much.
Autumn 2017. That season ends. I’m gonna show more of my personality everywhere I am from now on to try to undo the damage that “experience” dealt me.
I’m a towering figure that many people look up to (even though at times I don’t think that I deserve it at all). In so doing, I will attract skeptics and “haters” (i.e. people who deliberately try to knock achievers down when they are threatened by them.) I’ve encountered these people both in real life and online, and I can’t be afraid of them anymore.
I’ve had my real-life doubters apologize to me when I show my skills at events like Mundo Lingo. Online ones are obviously significantly more difficult to dissuade but one day they’ll learn and I look forward to the apologies I get from them.
And even if I do attract haters, it’s actually a really good sign because it shows that I am creating change that the world needs but that most people are uncomfortable with.
Losing subscribers isn’t an excuse to hold back, either. I do what I want and I’ll leave the approval-seeking Jared to the past back when he needed it. (I think that being approval-seeking is a toxic habit that, again, the education system instills in many of us).
Ah, yes, sometimes when I post things in groups or online I worry that there are some people who are trying to judge me and knock me down. Thanks to past experiences, part of me sees the world as “achievers vs. haterz”, in which the latter group aggressively tries to take down the former.
As a result, I’ve become possessed with a slight paranoia in which I’m distrustful of other people, especially when I first meet them.
Again, my education made me SO afraid of the red pen and the bad grade, as well as instilling the illusion that everyone else was doing better at everything that I was, that I worry too much about my image at times.
I literally avoided online forums for years because of it, and avoided posting things about myself on YouTube UNTIL THIS YEAR.
I’m quite certain that every champion ever has the same variety of insecurities but don’t get arrested by it in the slightest. In fact, some of my great heroes in the language-learning community have been very forthright about them and actually earn respect for being vulnerable because of it!
Gotta be the same way, y’know?
When somebody calls my skills in their language “good” as opposed to “very good” or “excellent” (note to word: in every language I speak well there is a distinction between all of these), I somehow feel that I haven’t done enough.
When speaking German last night, I feel that I messed up grammar and idioms more than I would have liked to, and I got genuinely vexed because of it. My Irish and Hungarian didn’t live up to my standards either (and I’ve just been working on Hungarian seriously for like a month and a half now!)
I was worried that there would be someone nearby who thought “this guy isn’t good at all!” (despite the fact that I used Swedish, Yiddish and French both during that event last night and earlier on that day, and I think I managed extremely well with all of them). I left home thinking that I was a fake and that I would never get a polyglot video good enough to impress millions of viewers…and that my own emotional shortcomings and perfectionism, coupled with growing nervousness, would forever make it out of reach…
I’ve managed well with German and Irish in the past, it was probably due to a lack of practice, to be honest, and that can really be fixed. I had a similar incident with Icelandic back in November and I intensely studied for a month to ensure that it would never happen again.
I have to learn to say “yes” to things more often, and this includes translation jobs, meetings, or any opportunity to create or speak.
The Jared who somehow tries to shield himself from the rest of the world, perhaps because he’s been hurt too much at some points (see no. 1) isn’t the real Jared. The real Jared always strives for great adventure.
As a result of my increased presence in the world, I get a lot of people messaging me for advice, inspiration, or just wanting to talk about anything. Sadly, I have not been as good as a responder as I would like to, and I would genuinely like to change that.
Part of me thinks that I am being judged all of the time, and as a result I have to wait until I’m “feeling well” in order to ensure that I can come off as my best self.
But one thing that I’ve (debatably) notices is that … even when I think to myself “I’m doing a horrible job”, others can still be thinking “wow, everything he’s saying makes so much sense!”
Maybe one thing I would need to do is set aside three times a day in which I deliberately “clear out” my Facebook messenger inbox with responding to all of my unread messages. That may help. Also if I get a message at one point and I think I have a good enough response to it, I can answer it immediately.
Point is, I think this is something I need to fix right now. But something tells me that the day isn’t far off when I get thousands of messages a day and it won’t be possible for me to sort through all of them…
In what sort of ways are you trying to improve yourself? Let us know!
Yes, I understand that not everyone wants to learn an endangered or minority language. I’m perfectly okay with that (as long as you don’t mock or put down people who do).
I’ve put forth enough cases as to why learning rarer languages is a good career move, a good move from a moral standpoint (whether you look at the world as a whole or what it does to you) as well as a character builder.
This is not that article.
Instead, I’m going to write about various attitudes you can adopt in order to ensure that you can change the contemporary climate (present in many places) that is encouraging people to give up their smaller cultures and languages and thereby cause the continued extinction of our beloved human tongues from all over the world.
I learn languages like Breton, Tongan, Yiddish and Krio. I realize that that path isn’t for everyone. That’s perfectly okay. There is, however, one thing that I really would like to change, and that is a general set of opinions that I think most people would be do well to do away with for the sake of our cultural diversity.
I remember talking to a Burkinabe bartender once. He spoke ten languages fluently but he said that aside from English and French there was “nobody” that spoke languages like Mossi, Fulani, etc.
A few months later I spoke to a Spanish-speaker (you don’t think I was using English, did you?) at a polyglot event and he said that he had a Fulani-speaking taxi driver (Fulani is a language spoken in many places in West Africa and Burkina Faso is among them. Fulani-speakers were also sadly well-represented among the many victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Well, so much for “nobody speaks it”, right?
And of course that one time there was a Bulgarian girl in New York City who told me that “there would be better things to do with your time than learn it [that is to say, the Bulgarian language]”. Apparently she was so imprisoned by a culture of “smaller languages and cultures are economically useless” that she seemed to imply that her culture was something that was holding her back…and based on my prior experience I know that she wasn’t the only one…
Esperanto, Cornish, Tajik and all Creole Languages are among the languages on my list that I’ve heard regularly insulted the most and some have even gone so far as to question my judgment as to why I would want to learn them.
Thinking different will always get you validated in the end. Trust me on this one.
But in the meantime, stop referring to languages as “useless” and try to stop other people from exploring the world. It just serves to perpetuate cultural destruction which goes hand-in-hand with income inequality (believe it or not).
Ah, yes, referring to Italian Regional Languages / Creole Languages / Yiddish and Afrikaans as “dialects”.
This really doesn’t serve any purpose except for silencing other people’s decisions to go off the beaten path. If there’s anything that threatens the current order of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, it’s thinking differently.
It’s one thing to refer to American English and British English as dialects of the same language, but to refer to various regional dialects within places like the Arab World / Italy / Persian-speaking countries is misleading. Keep in mind whether your choice to call another language a dialect is actually privileging one dominant culture over another. Be very careful about that.
Scots, Nigerian Pidgin and Trinidadian Creole are separate languages in their own right because they feature grammatical patterns and distinctive vocabularies that distinguish them from the English in which you are now writing this. It is true that speakers of these languages can understand what I am writing right now, but by calling their languages mere dialects you rob them of a distinctive personality and the ability for others, certainly in the academic world, to take their differences seriously.
Perhaps the first part is true, but with this way of thinking we’ve seen the proliferation of terrible habits because of it.
For one, a lot of cultures throughout the world may see themselves as duly inferior to the grand culture of the United States of America and their language as inferior to American English, the language of money and science.
Having a lingua franca is a necessity and we’ve seen that wherever empires are, all over the world. However, saying that only one language is worth study is poisonous. It seriously will prevent other people from exploring other languages and ways of thinking. Other ways of thinking is the one reason why corporate power hasn’t taken root any more strongly than it already has. With diversity of thought becomes a diversity of leadership, and when a handful of people control nearly half the wealth in the world, I doubt that they might be looking for any competition in the slightest…
This. Is. A. Big. One.
And this has collectively caused more damage to global language learning than almost anything.
The “why bother if everyone just speaks English?” myth.
And yet, so many people will just do the lazier thing and use whatever language is made “easier” rather than doing what the right thing for human diversity is, to encourage usage of many human tongues rather than only the tongues of empire.
It’s okay if you want to “juggle” the sort of languages you know with other people. I do it. I understand that people see my English-language abilities (as a native speaker) as a gift that they want to learn from. Even if they speak a language that I’ve never spoken before and I want to practice, I wouldn’t withhold it from them if they really want to speak English with me (for example, speakers of Spanish, Hebrew, German and Russian, so I’ve noticed, can get very self-conscious about their English skills if you continuously address them in their native language. I’ve seen the looks in people’s eyes. And I doubt these four are the only ones.)
But if you can’t even be bothered to use a handful of basis phrases with a learner, or, even worse, use English with me when I’ve demonstrated that I’m fluent in your language, then I will see you as terribly insecure and / or just plain mean. (The latter situation has only happened a handful of times, including one in which I got THIS *makes hand gesture* close to telling someone off very rudely)
There is one exception I’ll make: if your native language has painful memories associated with it (e.g. my memories of that Jewish school of hard knocks weren’t always very nice in the slightest, and hearing Yeshivish-English at times gives me very uncomfortable feelings, I’m sorry to say). I’ll find it out eventually one way or another and I’ll understand it. Oh, and if you forgot your native language later in life (which DOES happen, surprisingly!)
I think if your family were dying, or if a family member of yours were dying, or if your species were dying, I bet someone would want to save him/her/you/them, right? How do YOU like it?
This is a big one that the press and journalism is largely responsible for, including “which languages to learn to earn the most money”, “which languages are the most ‘useful’”, and other clickbait mind-controlling garbage of this sort.
I understand if you only want to learn global languages. I’m even okay with that! As long as you respect the choice and the possibility for OTHERS to learn whatever languages they want. Several of my friends wouldn’t consider learning endangered languages but have been very thankful and supportive of my efforts to encourage other people to do so.
There is this one YouTuber who is not my friend and who I’ve never met and whose opinions I do not respect. He pretty much does nothing but insult several of my friends and acquaintances who have inspired thousands all over the globe. He pretty much said in a comment that only learning languages that give you a “bang for your buck “are useful, proceeding to list languages of the UN as the gold standard.
Does he know how often I got solicited by translators who wanted stuff from Greenlandic, Icelandic, Yiddish, Faroese (back when I knew it) and even the Melanesian Creoles, and it got so “bad” when I had Lyme Disease that I even CLOSED MY ACCOUNT on a translation forum because I was getting so many messages? Do you think that if I chose the UN official languages (English, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, French and Spanish) that I would come ANYWHERE CLOSE to how many solicitations I got?
This troll obviously never worked as a translator in which the odder pairs and choices will usually be more hunted after, judging by my experience of having people beg me “pleeeeeaase don’t turn this job down!” (When I had Lyme Disease, well…I sorta had no choice…but I didn’t know I had the disease at the time, I just knew that I was feeling very weak and “not feeling up to it today. Sorry”).
I probably made more money off my languages that he has in a lifetime over his. And I’m probably half his age. But that’s none of my business in the slightest. (I would say that Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish have netted me the most earnings, followed by Greenlandic and Hebrew…translating from all of these languages into English, of course)
If it sounds to you that I am discouraging you to study global languages, don’t take it that way.
Just be aware of the benefits that various languages will net you on a market (e.g. Spanish will give you a lot more material online and many opportunities to speak it in person, but not much leverage as a translator or in employment markets in which “every idiot learns Spanish”. Small national languages like Danish or Bulgarian will be more balanced in this regard, fewer materials and opportunities to speak it but more leverage as a translator and in employment markers. And then, of course, the glass cannon of the endangered or minority language. May not have almost any opportunities to use it, depending on where you are, but it will you will STAND OUT to your employers because of it. And there are probably many other categories that fall between these, and whatever you choose is good as long as you choose it from the heart and not for the sake of conformity or “money” or “job opportunities” in a vaguely defined sense).
In conclusion, I realize that there may not be a lot I can do to assist with attitude changes in the language-learning community. But this post is a start. And whenever I hear opinions the likes of which I have heard, I feel like an arrow shot me in the gut.
Maybe the world will come to know healing. If so, I want to know that I’ve been a part of that.
And you can, too!