Jared Gimbel: The Story You Never Knew

Tomorrow is my birthday (when I’ll be writing something else).

As my 20’s come to a close tomorrow, I will forever remember this decade of my life as the one that transformed me to a confused follower into an internationally-minded, confident explorer.

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Around age 24 I started to invest seriously in my studies of Jewish and Nordic Languages, thereby setting up the primary basis of my income (until my video games start coming out!)

Around age 25, weeks before my 26th birthday, I discovered Tok Pisin for the first time, one of the most transformative experiences of my life that left me with a soft spot towards the developing world and I am in awe of how efficient and poetic Tok Pisin is on every level. It serves as a testament to human endurance, that even when being enslaved and bereft of dignity, humans will hold onto culture, humor and the resilience that defines us all. Other Creole languages I studied since then from the Atlantic and the Pacific had very much the same features.

At age 29, I was told that my parents were floating the idea of travelling to Fiji. Within the following days, I went to Barnes and Noble and got myself the Lonely Planet Fijian textbook and began memorizing phrases IMMEDIATELY.

There is a lot of victory that I had over the course of the language journeys of my 20’s, but there are also the stories and sides that had deep defeat as well.

Sometimes I made silly mistakes in classes on the most basic level, sometimes even concerning things I said about the English language.

Within every one of my language successes I had dozens of times in which I encountered discouragement from native speakers or “beat myself up” because of my high standards.

While my videos were gaining traction in Palau and Kiribati I also had to deal with an angry Subreddit and woke up one morning to an entire webpage dedicated to insulting me. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened.

When abroad I worried that I would never “get good” at the target language and sometimes called up my family on the verge of tears. I also sometimes was made to feel like a stupid American or, even worse, that my religious upbringing in my teenage years left me with a permanent handicap in how I understood the world. (As a girl I dated once told me, “you know a lot about books, but you do not know life”.)

I also had to realize in my later 20’s that there would be a lot of dreams I needed to let go of. I couldn’t seriously become native-like fluent in a language I didn’t really care about (and unlike most people, the “languages that I didn’t really love” were actually the global giants of Western Europe. My heart has been with “the little guys” for quite a while now. )

In all likelihood, barring romance with a Spanish-speaker or business or tourism, my Danish will always be better than my Spanish, no matter what. But I’m okay with that because hearing Danish spoken on the streets of New York City (or anywhere else) always makes me happy. I remember one time when I was returning from a Bar Mitzvah in Washington D.C. I get off the bus and Penn Station and I hear a teenage boy on the street saying, “ja, det er jeg meget sikker på” (Yup, I’m really sure of that”) into a  smartphone. I smiled and knew I was in New York again.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to be someone else and I still remember a teacher in the Paideia Institute telling me that “life is too short and too precious to be wasted on something that you don’t care about” (that was Barbara Spectre, in case anyone who was also in the program is reading this).

In college and in high school I was deeply religious and looking back I think it was largely not because I myself wanted it but because I myself was afraid of divine punishment. In 2013 I made the decision to walk away from religion, bit by bit, and there were a lot of woodland walks where I was worried that some force was going to punish me if I made the decision to turn on the computer on Saturday. Shortly I realize that my fear was preventing me from having the life that I wanted and that I had actually thrown away many years and opportunities on account of being someone I didn’t really want to be.

I became ultra-competitive deep down inside. Hardened by my experiences in higher education, I had learned to become ruthlessly perfectionist to the degree that several friends told me that “no human being can [feasibly] live like that”.

I figured that in any field, whether that is in business, romance, success in getting clicks on your blog posts, etc…that you had to be as GOOD as you possibly can in a world of infinite choice, otherwise you would be thoughtlessly tossed aside in favor of someone better. Perhaps the first time I really experienced something like this was with the college application process, but it was deeply toxic because only years later did I realize that we live in a culture of fear in which our deepest insecurities are made omnipresent so that we can be sold stuff more easily.

Throughout my entire life, even as a toddler, I had known that I was very different. At age 3, I was perusing atlases and wondering about what life was like in areas far away from the DC area. At age 29, here I am in a room in Brooklyn and to my left is a bookcase with language learning books from every continent (except Antarctica). Then as well as now, I somehow felt as though my interest in places and things far away from me would be a cause for stigma.

One time I even had someone at Mundo Lingo tell me that learning Kiribati was not a wise investment because “they’re going to be underwater soon”. I was calm with him but deep down inside you can imagine how furious I really was at this display of heartlessness.

With each growing year I see that there is an ongoing struggle for control of the world, between ordinary people who want to save it and those who treasure short-term profit above humanity and don’t care if the world goes to pieces because of it. Too many people have told me that my work with languages of Oceania / the Arctic is essential to the assist in the struggle of the former.

With each language of the developing world I learn, I see man’s inhumanity to man even more pronounced with each page. But despite that, I also see that the human tapestry is something to admire in all of its glory, despite the fact that I’ll never get to experience the whole thing no matter HOW hard I study.

To some degree it shook me to my core. I saw exactly how rigged the system seems to be in favor of the world-destroyers and doubted my ability to change anything.

But I’ll end on this note.

April 2013. I’m in Woodbridge, Connecticut, my parents’ hometown (for Passover). I go to the library one day and I go to the travel section and I find a book on “Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands” in the language section. I discover the Greenlandic Language for the first time and I fall in love. I obsess about it and the very thought of me seeing another Greenlandic word makes me giddy.

I go to the library the day afterwards and I take a digital camera with me. I photograph all of the language section (it was about five pages or so) and then I go home and I make flashcards out of it on Memrise (it was the first-ever Greenlandic course on Memrise. Now there seem to be about a hundred more from all languages!)

Despite the fact that I was not good and it (and still don’t think I am) I wrote blogposts about my experience, consumed Greenlandic TV and music and told many of my friends about it.

In 2018 I’ve noticed that, at least online, there is a lot more recognition of all things Greenland. Especially in the language-learning communities. Back when Memrise had hundreds of course categories available on the app version (before relegating them only to the Desktop version), they had a Greenlandic category…one that was added because of something that I myself did. Thousands of learners have at least sampled the language from the looks of it. And it seems that Greenland-o-mania will grow even more with my release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” later next year (despite the fact that it got delayed MULTIPLE years on account of difficult circumstances in my life).

Perhaps I had a part in bringing about this “revolution”. I will not know for certain, but back when I made the Palauan video series I actually encountered several commenters saying that they were inspired to teach Palauan to their significant others because of my videos.

That’s. Not. Nothing.

Tomorrow is my birthday and I’m going to go get some gifts. I’ll say this: Clozemaster Pro in its custom sentence packs is going to be HARD to beat!

See you at age 30!

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.

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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.

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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.

Trip_Planning

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

 

Fun Facts about Fijian

Yes, I know that given that Fiji is in a perpetual state of tomorrow-ness (at least from the vantage point of my Brooklyn apartment) that it isn’t Fiji Day anymore. BUT! It still is Fiji day in many other areas of the globe as I write this, and so let me use this opportunity to share some fun facts about the Fijian Language!

  1. Among the languages I’ve learned that are distant from English, Fijian has been the easiest.

 

That said, Fijian does require work in many other ways (especially if you want to get REALLY good and identify and use dialectical and regional types of humor). But concerning the ways in which Western European Languages are considered hard, Fijian has absolutely none of it.

 

  1. Verb conjugation is non-existence, verbs change for “transitivity.”

 

Not surprisingly, this same pattern also exists in Tok Pisin and its relatives as well.  For those unaware, Tok Pisin and the other Melanesian Creoles could be described as “English poured into the mold of Melanesian Languages (with bits of other ingredients)”. Given that Fijian is the bridge between Melanesia and Polynesia and has many elements of both, this is unsurprising.

 

A transitive verb has a direct object (I eat apples). An intransitive verb has no direct object (I’m eating right now).

 

In Tok Pisin, the –im suffix is used to indicate transitivity. (It is related to the English word “him”). In Bislama it even changes depending on the vowel content of the original word.

 

Fijian has transitive and intransitive forms that are quite irregular but usually involve a two-word suffix added. Vuli – to learn. Vulica – to learn something. Guileca – to forget. Guilecava – to forget something.

 

  1. Fijian has a LOT of English Loan words.

Because of this, it is quite easy to know which animals are native to Fiji and its surrounding areas and which are not. “Vonu”, the turtle (and the name of one of Fiji’s best-known beers) is not only native to Fiji but a commonly found national symbol of sorts.  As to the elephant or the tiger, however, they would be “elefade” and “taika” respectively.

Words relating to many specialized fields are also in English as well, such as for government or administration.

An English speaker will therefore feel fairly comfortable with large chunks of Fijian vocabulary even in the absolute beginner stage.

  1. Fijian Consonants are Very Juicy

The Fijian “s” is a wonder to hear. A book told me that all s’s in Fijian are pronounced like the “ce” in “Joyce”. I remember on my flight to Nadi that the stewards said “excuse us” closer to “excussssssssse usssssssss”. Unfortunately sometimes in my earphones it can be so sharp that it sometimes hurts my ears. And given how common it is (the words “sega”, meaning “no” or “not” predictably shows up a lot),

 

The k sound also has a very sharp character to is, as does the t. Saying the word “totoka” (beautiful) shouldn’t sound lazy, it should vivacious, in a sense.

 

The r is also very thoroughly rolled, stronger than in ANY European Language. Those listening to Fijian for the first time will probably say that it sounds very unique but can’t possibly explain why that is.

 

What’s more, the d is pronounced as “nd”, the b is pronounced as “mb”, the q is pronounced as nG” and the g in pronounced “Ng”.

 

Hence, the one word that ALL tourists to Fiji will leave knowing is pronounced “mBula”, although spelled “bula”. It means “life” but also “hello”, “cheers!” or anything related to life or flourishing.

 

  1. Possessives are “classified” in three categories: things you eat or that are a part of you (ke-), things that you drink (me-), or things that you own (no-).

 

And further mixing it up. Ice cream is something you drink in Fijian, as is medicine or coconuts. And if you refer to “bia” (beer) as “noqu” this means you intend to keep it in the fridge, and if you refer to it as “mequ” that means that you intend to drink it shortly.

 

You apply endings on them to indicate who it belongs to.  Nomuni – all of yours. Noqu – mine.

 

And probably the hardest part of learning Fijian (for beginners, at least) is…

 

  1. Fijian Pronouns are a True Tangle to Speakers of European Languages – There are Sixteen of them.

In English and in other languages of Europe, we would say “we” (although some languages like Spanish might change it for a feminine form). In Fijian, you have to specify the following we’s:

  • The two of us (but not you)
  • Me and you
  • The group of us (not including you)
  • The group of us (you included)
  • The big group of us (not including you)
  • The big group of us (you included)

The other Austronesian Languages usually have similar things like this but Fijian has been the most intimidating (with Kiribati having the least intimidating). It should also be mentioned that yes, the Melanesian Creoles use the exact same system (Vanuatu’s National Anthem is “Yumi, Yumi, Yumi”, and even if you didn’t know anything about inclusive / exclusive we’s until now, you can probably guess what that means).

I made this a lot less scarier in my video:

 

  1. Fijian Music is Legendary AND Everywhere in Fiji

 

Sitting in a place like the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva and taking in the sounds of singers from all sides of the islands is a divine experience. Fijians will boast to you that they have the most moving songs in the world that can be found nowhere else. I don’t blame them.

 

 

And while not too inclusive, http://www.fijianlyrics.com/ is a very useful resources.

 

  1. Fijians will Compliment You Endlessly and Help You Learn

In contrast to a lot of Western Countries in which some people feel the need to force English down tourist’s throats, or somehow show off how “worldly” they are, Fijians have a deep cultural pride that will radiate if you can express anything in Fijian at all.

Many of them will be willing to become your impromptu teachers. I even had JANITORS providing me useful tips when in many European countries not even friends would give them.

This was not as true in Suva where there are Indo-Fijians and people from throughout the Pacific also present in large numbers and in which hearing the locals speak English with each OTHER is not uncommon.

If you’ve ever had any negative experiences with language immersion, do yourself a favor and learn Fijian and get some Fijian friends. They’ll love you for it.

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An Afternoon with Jared Gimbel: Your Questions Answered!

Happy 4th birthday, World With Little Worlds!

To honor all of my readers and those who have provided me praise and constructive feedback throughout the years, these are your questions, answered with love and consideration by yours truly.

 

What do you look for in a mentor?

Five things:

  • Someone who opens doors rather than closes them.
  • Someone who doesn’t pull emotional hot-buttons or regularly cause me to feel distressed, downtrodden, or discouraged.
  • Someone who, when I am done meeting with him or her, makes me feel elevated and ready to enter my life with renewed motivation.
  • Someone who acknowledges the progress I have made in addition to that I have yet to make.
  • Someone who isn’t over jealous or guarded of me.

How learn any language from scratch in my own?

The first thing to ask yourself is how much you can PRONOUNCE, how much you can READ (and understand what you’re reading), and how much you can UNDERSTAND. Depending on which combination of the three you have, your approach will have to be different. However, the more prior knowledge you have in a related language, the easier it is to get “lazy”.

Generally, I would start with “hello, how are you? What is your name? My name is… Where are you from? I am from…” and then go onto “I have, you have…” “Do you have…?” and then the same with “to want”, “to go”.

I’ve spoken about this in the interview I did with Luke Truman of Full Time Fluency a few months back:

This should help.

What was the catalyst for your interest in languages of the Pacific in general and Palauan in particular?

Climate change in the case of Oceania in general, a childhood fascination with that area of the world, and, in the case of Palau, the sound of the language as well as how it looked on paper. Oh, and the flag. Who could forget the flag? As a kid I could look at it for hours. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.

How much Japanese do you understand with your Palauan knowledge?

Same as how much Latin you would understand from English.

Apart from Yiddish and Hebrew what other Jewish languages have you studied?

A tiny bit of Ladino in college and a handful of words from Jewish Languages of Azerbaijan in the early 2010’s, but aside from that, pretty much nothing seriously.

Have you ever looked into Krymchak or the Udmurt-influenced dialect of Yiddish?

Now I may have to!

When studying Breton, do you prefer the artificial French-influenced “standard” or one of the dialects?

The KLT (Kerne-Leon-Treger ) variety used in the Colloquial Breton book and in the Kauderwelsch book is my go-to. It seems fairly consistent with what is used on Wikipedia although there are some songs that have “curveball” elements for those overly accustomed to KLT.

Apart from Northern Sami, Finnish, and Hungarian, do you plan on learning any other Uralic languages?

I never say I won’t plan on it. Right now I do feel “overloaded”, however.

When you were in Israel, did you encounter any Circassians or Hungarian Jews? If yes, did they speak their ethnic languages?

Possibly and yes respectively. My Hungarian was limited to a few words in 2009 but my efforts were appreciated. What’s more, do keep in mind that I had heavy limiting beliefs about language learning back in those times. Odd, because my experience in the Ulpan should have actively proved those beliefs wrong.

How often do you encounter peoples of the Pacific in real life apart from the times you actually go there?

Hawaiians about once every three months or so, same with people who have been expatriates in places like Fiji and Samoa. Aside from Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, I haven’t met anyone in person from Oceania yet. That will change this year, I hope.

Will your RPG “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” be playable in Greenlandic?\

I’m going on record: YES.

Have you ever written poetry in the languages you learn?

I believe I did once or twice in Yiddish at the National Yiddish Book Center. I also have done improvisational singing in Tok Pisin. I may have also written a piece or two in Hebrew while at Wesleyan University but I have no recollection of it. I did write an absurdist play about talking jellyfish in that same Hebrew class that makes most internet memes look tame by comparison.

How do you deal with the blurry boundary between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is, in my view, taking one element of a culture (let’s say, clothing) and claiming it as your own without having a basic understanding of where, why and how that culture or cultural element exists.

If I were to wear a national costume in public with holy significance, that would possibly be breaching a boundary in that culture that I may be unaware of. But obviously me wearing a shirt with a Greenlandic flag on it despite not being Greenlandic or Inuit (or any Native American at all) does not make me a cultural appropriator. It is a mark of solidarity and appreciation.

On this note, I would like to say for the first time that I am fully aware of the fact that there are people who are prepared to call “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” cultural appropriation despite the deep involvement of actual Greenlanders at every stage of its production. I look at the Greenlandic story as a whole in a way that contemporary American pop culture and its sad legacy of cartoonish national caricatures will probably never do otherwise.

If you would prefer Greenlandic culture would remain a virtually unknown mystery in much of the rest of the world instead of appreciated for the wonderful slice of the human story that it is, then I have nothing to say to you.

What was, to you, the most easily graspable non-Latin orthographic system in any non-L1 language you’ve studied? What was the least?

From Easiest to Hardest:

  1. Greek
  2. Cyrillic
  3. Hebrew
  4. Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary
  5. Arabic
  6. Lao
  7. Burmese

Have you ever SAVED SOMEONES LIFE with language?

The answer is: yes. And surprisingly, my own. Several times.

For one, my decision to become a tutor of several languages actually ended up saving my life. Shortly after graduating from JTS, I fell ill for a while. My own parents, who hold medical degrees, misdiagnosed me several times.

What ended up saving my life was one of my students of Swedish, who casually recommended based on my symptoms that I had Lyme Disease. Thanks to his suggestion, the disease was caught in time and my life was saved.

There is also the story about how Greenlandic saved my life, but I will relate that in future interviews when “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” is released. There is a specific reason I chose Greenland as the setting for my first video game (well, one of several specific reasons) and one of them in particular may come as a shocker to many of you.

Speaking of which, I’m going to continue doing character sketches for Nuuk Adventures right now!

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Happy Birthday, O Beloved Blog of Mine!

I Want to Learn Tok Pisin. What Do I Do?

The most commonly spoken language of the country in the world with the most languages, Tok Pisin is a language that unites Papua New Guinea and its manifold ethnicities. My first English Creole Language, Tok Pisin was described by a friend of mine as “Jamaican Patois that seems completely unintelligible to the native English speaker”.

Let’s head over to Glosbe, a fantastic resource that combines the dictionary and sentence database in many languages of the world, and look at a sample sentence to see how much of it you can understand:

“Em i nambawan gutpela pasin bilong laikim ol narapela, olsem God Jehova yet i kamapim.”

Rendered by the English translation as:

It is the highest form of love, as exemplified in Jehovah God himself.

But try looking at it this way:

“Him is number one good fellow fashion belong like him all ‘nother fellow all same God Jehova yet is come up him”

And let’s try the sentence after that (I looked up “love”  in Glosbe and that’s where I’m getting these sentences from)

6 Ol gutpela wasman i wok strong long tingim olgeta wan wan sipsip long kongrigesen.

(6 Loving Christian shepherds endeavor to show personal interest in each sheep in the congregation.)

Rendered literally:

“Six all good fellow watch man is work strong long think him altogether one one sheep sheep long congregation”

If you’re learning a language from the developing world, as thing stand, you’ll encounter a LOT of materials for Christian missionaries. Tok Pisin is no exception to this.

Tok Pisin is a fascinating language and the first one that I acquired a C2 level in (which is denotes being able to understand pretty much everything and use very, very well). My interest was sparked in it as a result of my father’s travels in Papua New Guinea (in Port Moresby and Madang in particular).

Various opportunities that Tok Pisin provide include:

  • A growing community of L2 learners from throughout the world, and not just in Oceania.
  • Fascinating music that is very homemade but also unforgettable and honest.
  • News reports and radio in Tok Pisin that portray the manifold struggles of what it is to be a developing country right now.
  • If you do live in Australia or nearby, many employment opportunities (especially if you work in medicine or similar fields).
  • Even if you don’t live in Australia, translators for Tok Pisin and other languages for Oceania seem to be fairly sought after!
  • Travel opportunities in the PNG heartlands.

So let’s introduce you on how to start the journey, shall we?

For one, a book I would highly recommend for beginners is the increasingly available Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook, which includes Tok Pisin and its grammar explained in detail, not also to mention cultural notes, as well as other sections in that book on Bislama (Vanuatu) and Pijin (Solomon Islands)

These two languages, while more closely related to each other, are also more closely related to English and use slightly more complicated prepositions. In Bislama the verb system has an element of vowel harmony as well that Tok Pisin doesn’t have. Bislama also has more French influence than either Pijin or Tok Pisin. Tok Pisin also has notable German influence as well, and so to say “even though” or “it doesn’t matter” you say “maski” which is a form of “macht nichts” (“never mind”, or “don’t do anything”)

German missionaries were in the process of standardizing Tok Pisin and spreading its usage but then World War I happened which through a wrench in the whole process. (Yes, Germany had a colonial empire in that area of the world, Nauru also was one of their holdings as well).

Anyhow, the Lonely Planet Book doesn’t have a dictionary but will provide very useful phrases as well as the most essential and clear grammar guide that you can ask for.

The Live Lingua Project also has its own Tok Pisin textbook that is written in more detail.

After that you can put “Redio Tok Pisin” into YouTube and rehearse your skills, not also to mention various materials for governments, industries and yes, missionaries:

An essential resource as well as is a Tok Pisin Memrise course that has 2400 words which are essential for having fluid conversations. This course was ESSENTIAL for me becoming fluent in the language. You can find it here: https://www.memrise.com/course/135215/tok-pisin-2400/

(You can access this course from the desktop and then if you connect the Memrise app to your account, you can access it [and all other user-made courses] in the app as well).

I also have the Anki Version of this course as well (ask me if you want me to send it to you).

What’s more, Tok Pisin also has a “website” (https://www.tok-pisin.com/).

Other resources would include Wantok Niuspepa, the one Tok Pisin Language newspaper still remaining in Papua New Guinea and EMTV Online (which broadcasts smaller things more readily accessible for beginners).

You’ll notice that in some materials, especially distributed in cities or towns, that there is a bit of a “hopping” between English and Tok Pisin, and the usage of English is, obviously, spreading. That said, Tok Pisin is still a very important element of PNG culture and still the most commonly spoken language in Papua New Guinea.

Lastly, Wikipedia has a Tok Pisin edition at: https://tpi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran_pes

Keep in mind that while native speakers of Tok Pisin exist, most speakers of the language will speak it fluently as a second language (as some people of Papua New Guinea may also know English). This means that already you have a chance to be on equal footing with most people who speak it.

Mi hop olsem bai yu laikim Tok Pisin tumas! (I hope you will like Tok Pisin a lot!)

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Each of my Language Learning Journeys, Summarized Humorously in One Sentence Each

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.

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Everything You Know About “How Many Languages Can a Human Learn and Maintain?” is WRONG. Here’s Why…

Possibly one of the emotionally charged topics in the language learning world (and one that no one has good answers to, myself included) is the topic about how many languages a human being can learn.

We will never know the answer to that questions for way too many reasons. Here are some of them:

  • While most language enthusiasts haven’t thought about it (or have been put in a position to think about it), the language vs. dialect debate is getting increasingly muddy. Should the Caribbean English Creoles count as separate languages? The ISO 639-3 codes seem to think so. But would governments think so? How about universities? And obviously different areas where this question is more relevant will approach it differently (such as Jamaica and Italy, two completely different countries).

 

  • There is no definite way to quantify or even qualify proficiencies (except for, maybe, extended interviews on tape or eyewitness accounts of polyglots at conferences or gatherings). Even test results aren’t safe, given how many people may pass them and proceed to forget everything. (And if people can forget their native language, this is certainly also a possibility).

 

  • Human history and, by extension, history of human languages, is too long and too varied to take all the variables into account. I may have said this before in another one of my articles, but in some places like Western Africa or Melanesia, speaking ten languages is seen as normal. In many areas of the west, especially former British colonies, ten languages is seen as nearly superhuman if not in fact outright disbelieved by some people. This is despite the fact that there is no dearth of polyglot videos on the internet.

 

  • In addition to that, different areas of the world and different time periods would measure fluency differently. Mezzofanti, considered by some the greatest polyglot of all time, obviously had no usage for words pertaining to computers in any of his languages given as they did not exist when he was alive. He probably didn’t need to discuss complicated matters of science, either. Also (and this is another thing a lot of languages gurus don’t even realize because the languages they tend to choose) not all languages on the planet have that vocabulary. (In the event that you would talk about it, you would possibly use loanwords, primarily from a colonial language, or even switch into English or another colonial language periodically. However yes, there are some languages that have that vocabulary even though you think they might actually not.)

 

We will never know the answer to how many languages a human being can possibly know, and I highly encourage you to distrust ANYONE who tries to come up with an answer to the question. Because in attacking the question, they get the methodology wrong for all sorts of reasons.

 

Here are some of them:

 

  • Only taking into account their language experiences and those of their friend circle, which tend to be overwhelmingly skewed mostly towards politically powerful languages of Europe and sometimes Asia. Dialect continuums are not accounted for. If you think that Italian and Spanish are the equivalent of closest languages there are, give it some more thought. The Persian Languages are even closer, as are the “BCS” languages (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbia) not also to mention my own pet languages, the Melanesian Creoles (of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama). Not all language counts are created equal, and this point alone would be capable of disqualifying the question altogether, but I’ll go on.

 

  • Not realizing that technology has changed and will continue to change. Mezzofanti didn’t have Memrise and many of the memory tools that I use on a daily basis. Technology has the capability of turning us into superhuman versions of our ancestors. An average person who has trained with contemporary first-person shooter games (which I never play, by the way) would have significantly better reflexes and hand-eye coordination than pretty much ANY soldier that fought in the Second World War. They would be considered SUPER SOLDIERS back then (this was a factoid I picked up from the 2016 Games for Change Conference). But for some reason almost no one considers that a similar thing is also happening for language learning and skill acquisition.

 

  • Using Ziad Fazah’s “Viva el Lunes” performance in order to automatically disqualify anyone who claims to speak 50+ languages. For those unaware, I’ll summarize it in one sentence. Liberian/Lebanese Polyglot who won Guinness Book of World Record’s title for most multilingual person goes on Chilean television, is tested and struggles even with basic sentences in most of his languages. But to dismiss any claims of that nature just because of ONE incident is a logical fallacy, and while I haven’t met anyone who has significantly pulled off that number, I wouldn’t automatically revert to skepticism. Just because of one person who may have likely overestimated his abilities doesn’t mean that we as a species should hold ourselves back. Who knows? There may be someone who may actually speak 59+ languages and who actually CAN show the skills. You never know!

 

I get it. A lot of people have deep insecurities, including many in the polyglot community. The temptation to knock others down or be dismissive only shows defensiveness and maybe a poor attempt to hide your own imposter syndrome. This is why I’m willing to consider anyone’s language proficiency based on claims alone (note I said “CONSIDER” not “definitively judge”, because there is no way to really do that.)

 

  • Using data about famous polyglots that have been dead for centuries (or even those that are STILL ALIVE) in order to draw conclusions as to what human beings in the 21st century can do. Really? In the case of the ones that have been dead for hundreds of years, they’re not relevant to our brains and our technology and our learning abilities NOW. Maybe they could be used in order to speculate about limits before the technological revolutions that happened during my lifetime, but we’re changing now and most people who answer the “how many languages is it possible to know?” question don’t acknowledge how contemporary technology sets our time period apart.

 

  • Different vocabulary thresholds for different languages. One person whose opinion I very much value said that a vocabulary of about 16000 words were required to reach a C2 level (the highest possible level, considered equivalent to a highly educated native speaker) in a language. But here’s the thing: in Bislama (an English Creole that is the primary language of Vanuatu), there are literally about 4,000 words (excluding proper nouns, which would bring the count up to 7,000) IN THE ENTIRE LANGUAGE. So if you speak with one-quarter of that amount with some languages, you get a near-native vocabulary, an advantage not afforded to languages like French and Swedish with significantly larger vocabulary lists (Swedish’s list of loan words from English ALONE is likely larger than the comprehensive vocabularies of the Melanesian Creoles COMBINED). And before you say “well, that’s just concerning Creole languages”, the same variety of comprehensive word counts can also be found the further away you get from the developed world AND the further you delve into languages without as much political support.

 

If there is a definitive limit for amount of languages learned, even to a high level, we will never know what it is, in part because of all of the factors that I lay out here.

 

It’s an interesting mental exercise that, let’s be honest, is usually used to discourage people and create skepticism so that some people can have their egos buttressed, but it’s one with no definitive answer (in the Talmud, we end such debates with the word “teyku”, meaning “let it remain unresolved”. And that’s what we’re going to have to go with this debate as well.)

 

What do I intend to do? Well, for one, I’m going to try my best and learn many languages, some to fluency, others to degrees of curiosity, and I fulfill MY vision. Because if you constantly live in the fear of judgment of others, you’ll never live your full life.

 

And that’s something you deserve to do! Don’t let ANY discouragement get you down!

come back when you can put up a fight

I really need to start using new pictures of myself.