My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

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Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.

 

Final-Third-of-2018 Reflections: Where am I Going? Where Do I Want to Go?

Yom Kippur has passed and I find myself writing blog posts even more infrequently. That said, I think that I’ve come on some thoughts that need sharing.

For one, while my 30-minutes-of-Hungarian a day have been going by very, very well (I’ve been doing this since May of this year and also during January of this year as well), it occurs to me that I need something more AND that I need start using material intended for native speakers ENTIRELY.

The biggest trap that I’m falling into right now is that I sometimes expect myself to learn a lot of the words from context, and that my study routine right doesn’t really involve a lot of active learning (e.g. writing sentences).

I am almost happy with my level and I’ll see how well I can manage a conversation on Tuesday at Mundo Lingo. I remember with some languages I would readily have my progress tripped up with realizing exactly how many vocabulary gaps I had, and that I would have to go home and review them (this happened with Spanish and Finnish repeatedly earlier this decade).

That said, I think that I’ve noticed diminishing returns in my 30-minutes-a-day routine for Hungarian and I’ve decided on this instead:

  • Every evening in which I don’t have an event or work to do, I have to watch an animated film in Hungarian. The whole way through.
  • Break from the routine of 30-minutes a day and assign that to Greenlandic instead, until either Nuuk Adventures comes out or until I feel very, very satisfied with my progress (and I still maintain that Greenlandic is by far the hardest language I’ve ever learned). One reason I’m doing this is that I need to keep my Greenlandic references in the game dialogue up-to-date and by really ensuring that I interact with it on a daily basis I can do that.
  • So now my two primary foci will be Greenlandic and a secondary language that will likely cycle with each month (obviously ones that I’ve already done before).

I think I should also write a bit about my Tumbuka adventure with uTalk. Here’s what I’ve noticed.

  • The fact that there is no spaced repetition (which, in simple terms, means “the app will backtrack your progress as time goes on in order to reflect your ‘forgetting things’”) makes the app less stressful but also the learning less effective.
  • I find myself forgetting basic phrases without that review.
  • The pronunciation by example (also featured in Transparent Language) is also REALLY well done.
  • Not being able to write things, as per my self-imposed challenge terms, REALLY hurts.
  • Not being able to look up grammar terms also really hurts as well.
  • The phrases are all useful.

 

Also I can’t make any plans quite yet but it seems that I will devote 2019 to Greenlandic and Micronesian Languages primarily (Kiribati, Palauan, Marshallese and MAYBE some languages of the Federated States of Micronesia and Nauruan if I can get resources for them).

That said, I’m also thinking about maintenance and reinventing my life (as many of us do often in our lives). But that’s for another post.

For 2018 I set myself an “impossible list” to see how far I could shoot, and sadly a number of difficult circumstances caused me to burn out completely. So for 2019 I’m going to probably have significantly less lofty goals. But that’s okay.

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Venturing into Languages Highly Dissimilar to Your Own: Helpful Tips

Many of you will have the feeling of beginning to learn a new language in which you recognize almost nothing. Vocabulary you know is scant, the grammatical patterns are different and you feel that the path of least resistance is to give up.

I highly recommend you don’t give up…because learning a language highly dissimilar to your own (whether it be your own native language[s] or ones you’ve already learned as an adult) IS possible. You will need to adjust your ways of thinking ever-so-slightly.

The good news is that you can harness various skills you have used to acquire your native language (or other languages you know) to learning your new language that seems as though it belongs on another planet.

Given that my native language is English, let’s look some of my languages in terms of “how different they are” from English on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 is very similar to English, 5 is very different. Keep in mind that this is NOT the same thing as difficulty per se.

 

1: English Creole Languages, Languages of Mainland Scandinavia, Spanish, German, Yiddish

2: Icelandic, Fiji Hindi

3: Hungarian, Finnish, Fijian, Hebrew, Irish

4: Kiribati / Gilbertese, Palauan, Tuvaluan, Burmese

5: Greenlandic, Lao, Khmer, Guarani

 

The further you get away from the West, the more likely you are to encounter languages that go up the scale. The languages in (1) are very tied to the west on multiple fronts (e.g. Atlantic Creoles, German, Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish all influencing American culture to profound degrees) the languages in (3) have all been profoundly impacted by Germanic-speaking cultures but still maintain a lot of distinctness. With that said, the English influence (add German in the case of Hungarian and Swedish in the case of Finnish) is undeniable in a language like Fijian or Hebrew (given that both were under British rule).

A friend of mine was diving into Korean and he found himself struggling to remember words. And that’s NORMAL. I had that experience with all the languages 2 and higher with the higher numbers requiring more of it.

That said, there ARE ways to remember words in languages highly different from your native tongue EVEN if it seems impossible now.

 

  • Make Connections Between Words in the Language

 

Instead of looking OUTSIDE the language for connections to words you already know (as would be the standard practice in Romance or Germanic Languages if you’re a native English speaker, or even Indo-European Languages further afield), look INSIDE the language.

 

In Hebrew I encourage my students to look out for “shorashim” (or root words). These are sets of letters that will encapsulate similar meanings when seen in a sequence. Like in Arabic, the letters will dance around various prefixes, suffixes and vowel combinations that will change the meaning ever-so-slightly.

 

A more concrete example is with Fijian. The prefix “vaka-“ indicates “possessing the characteristics of, possessing …”. As such, you can collect additional words by looking at words with this prefix and then learning the form of the word without “vaka-“ in the front. Let’s have a look:

 

 

Wati – husband, wife, spouse

 

Vakawati – married (vaka + wati -> possessing a spouse)

 

 

To find words that are similar in this respect, one method you could use is to have an Anki Deck of an extensive vocabulary (what is “extensive” would depend on your short- and long-term goals with the language). Look up a root in the deck and you’ll see all words that have it:

 

palopuhuja lol

 

The folks at Transparent Language have said that, minus memory techniques, you would need to see a word anywhere between five to sixteen times in order to remember it permanently. A huge advantage is that you can get exposed to one root and its derivatives very quickly in this regard.

 

Even with a language like English, you can do the same with a verb like “to take” which is idiomatically rich when combined with prefixes (to overtake), suffixes (to take over) or direct objects (to take a break).

 

Out of all of the languages I have learned, the same principle holds and can be taken advantage of.

 

  • Do the Words and Expressions You Want to Learn Tell Any Stories?

 

Let’s take the Lao phrase  ຂໍ ໂທດ (khɔ̌ɔ thòot). It would mean “I’m sorry” but it literally means “request punishment”.

 

Various languages don’t have a very “to have”, instead they would say something like “there is upon me” (Finnish) “there is by me” (Russian), “there is to me” (Hebrew, although Hungarian also does something similar sometimes) or “there is my X” (where X is a noun – Fijian, Kiribati / Gilbertese and Hungarian do this)

 

Arcane sentence structure can actually be an ADVANTAGE in some respects. Greenlandic’s mega-long words can be a great conversation starter AND something for you to remember.

 

Words, phrases and idioms tell stories in your native language too, but chances are you probably won’t be aware of them and if you do eventually, it may be after a decade or two of speaking it, if not more.

 

  • Associate Various Words with Entertainment or Things that Have Happened in Your Life

Scene: a synagogue event.

I got “Colloquial Hungarian” earlier that day. I met a Hungarian girl and the only thing I know is a basic greeting. I ask how to say “pleased to meet you” and she says “örülök hogy megismertelek”. You can imagine how much I struggled with this simple sentence on day one, much to her laughter and those looking on.

The fact is, I never forgot the phrase since. Because I associated it with that incident.

You can also do the same with individual words and phrases that you may have heard through songs, song titles, particularly emphatic scenes in movies, books or anything else you consume for entertainment in your target language.

The over-dramatic style of anime actually helped me learn a significant amount of Finnish phrases as a result of “attaching” them to various mental pictures. Lao cinema also did something similar. Pay attention ever-so-slightly to the texture of the voice and any other details—these will serve as “memory anchors”. It’s a bit like saving a GIF to your brain, almost.

  • Hidden Loan Words from Colonial Languages.

The Fijian word for a sketch / painting is “droini”. Do you see the English cognate?

It’s the word “drawing” –Fijianized.

Do be aware, though: some English loan words can mutate beyond their English equivalents in terms of meaning. Japanese is probably infamous for this (in which a lot of English loan words developed lives and meanings of their own, much like Hebrew loan words in Yiddish sometimes found themselves detached from their original meanings in Hebrew).

Another example: Sanskrit and Pali words in languages of Southeast Asia in which Theravada Buddhism is practiced. Back to Lao. The word ປະເທດ (pa-thèet) may be foreign to you as the word “country”, but you’ve probably heard the word “Pradesh” before in various areas of India, even if you know nothing about India too deeply (yes, it is the same word modified for Lao pronunciation). The second syllable in particular may be familiar to you as the “-desh” from “Bangladesh”.

Which brings me into another point…

  • Do You Recognize any Words through Proper Nouns?

 

Tuvalu is a country in the South Pacific. It means “there are eight”. The Fijian word for to stand permanently or to be built is “tu” and the word for eight is “walu”. Fijian and Tuvaluan are not the same language but they are family members. You can recognize various other words by determining what place names mean or even names of people you know (whether well-known historical characters or your personal friends).

 

Another example: Vanuatu. Vanua in Fijian is a country or a place. Tu is the SAME root that we have in “Tuvalu” (yes, the “tu” in “Tuvalu” and “Vanuatu” mean THE EXACT SAME THING!) Vanuatu roughly means “here is our country” (or “country here”)

 

Again, this is something you can do for many languages. I remember doing in in Germany as well.

 

Lastly…

 

  • Embrace the Differences in the Grammar

I was amused by the fact that the Tuvaluan word for “to understand” is “malamalama”. I posted it in a small polyglot group. A friend of mine who studies mostly languages from Western Europe and the Middle East asked me to conjugate it.

Tuvaluan doesn’t have verb conjugation. It instead puts particles before a verb to indicate tense. “Au e malamalama” -> I understand -> I present-marker understand.

Surprisingly this system (not entirely foreign to me because of having studied other languages in that family) was not foreign to me. But I learned to like it. A lot.

Feel free to tell interested friends about what makes your different language very different in terms of grammar. Some may even be intrigued about the fact that many languages don’t have an equivalent of “to have”.

There are some things that are a bit difficult to embrace, such as Greenland’s verb conjugation that has transitive forms for each pair (in normal English, this would me an I X you form, an I X him / her / it form, an I X all of you form, an I X them form, a you X me form, a you X him / her / it form … FOR EVERY PAIR).

That said, your love of your new language will find a way.

I’m sure of it!

ga

How to Anchor Your Languages to Your “Mentors” So as to Avoid Mixing Them Up

A friend of mine, an English / German / Spanish / Japanese / possibly other languages I forgot / possibly I taught him a few words of Hebrew once asked me to write this post. Thank you, Mitch, with great wishes for your continued success!

Do YOU have a topic you’d like me to write on? Let me know!

I’m recovering from an illness so I hope that this will be good nonetheless.

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Many people have told me that they sometimes intend to say one thing in one language and end up saying something in another, or otherwise the general mix-up that many polyglots, even veterans, know all too well.

Believe me, even native speakers sometimes suffer from this. This is why code-switching is a thing, as well as the fact that many people from India / Oceania / Israel / Northern Europe / American Hispanics mix in English with their native languages. Even in the Arab world this is common with French words instead (in various Arabic varieties spoken in former French colonies, such as with Lebanese Arabic).

That said, there are some people who feel as though they have an “unhealthy dosage” of it, to the degree in which they want to speak Hebrew or Japanese and then Spanish comes out instead, not also to mention those who study similar languages may also suffer from this as well.

Here comes the solution:

Among “dialect continuum” areas (in which the boundaries between languages are unclear and there is a large amount of variance between a language as spoken in a particular country or geographical area), as well as areas of the Internet dedicated to the culture of these areas, you’ll notice something: some people flaunt their national flags with what could almost be described as aggression.

There’s a reason that Norwegian flags are commonly featured on clothing (especially coats and winterwear), and that’s to distinguish their wearers from Swedish or Danish people (the former of whose language closely resembles spoken Norwegian and the latter of which closely resembles the written variety).

In Crown Heights, which I believe is the largest Afro-Caribbean expatriate community in the world, I see Jamaican, Trinidadian, Grenadian and Barbadian flags (among others) VERY commonly. The reason why? So that people don’t mistake them for one from belonging to one of the other nations (despite the fact that many of them share many aspects of culture).

Listening to music from Melanesia, I’ve noticed that a lot of music from Vanuatu tends to show the Ni-Vanuatu Flag in the thumbnail and Solomon Islands music does the same. Bislama and Pijin (their national creoles) resemble each other very closely.

What’s the point I’m trying to make here?

The same way that these people anchor their native identity with imagery and mementos, YOU need to be doing that with the languages you speak as well.

The first time, which is the easiest one, is find “mentors” for each of your languages. No, I’m not saying “go find a private tutor for each one”, but rather a certain native speaker or a set of native speakers whose voice you tend to imitate most. These could be friends, radio hosts, YouTubers, or even voices from an online app.

Here are some of the “mentors” I’ve had:

  • The Irish Language Transparent Language Voice
  • My Welsh-Speaking Friend named Ivan
  • The Vincentian Creole Bible-Redux Narrator (from a set of mp3’s I got from a Bible site that one time. Yes, a lot of them mention Jesus; no, I am not Christian nor do I have any intention of being un-Jewish).
  • A number of Swedish-Language Let’s Play-ers who deserve an entire post written about them (coming soon! And no, PewDiePie is not one of them. I’m glad that he’s brought awareness about the Swedish language and culture to many fields of popular discussion but he crossed the line too many times last year. Also, he uses a lot more English than Swedish in his videos.)
  • Too many of my Yiddish-speaking friends to count, but if I had to pick one it would be Baruch, probably the one I spend the most time with (we attend a lot of the same events).

For your native language, you sort of don’t have any choice for your mentors—they were your parents or guardians. But for languages you learn in adulthood you’ll need to find “adoptive parents” for them.

Obviously if you have a LOT of friends who speak the language (as is the case with languages like Yiddish and Polish for me), your “mentor” will be sort of a blend of all of them although mostly the influence of one or two will overshadow all of them.

I couldn’t imagine Baruch speaking Vincentian Creole English (although maybe one day he’ll learn it, I have no idea). Similarly, I can’ t really imagine the “Vincy” narrator speaking Yiddish or even standard English for that matter (although the latter I would imagine he certainly would know).

Another thing that you very much can do is have different vowel and consonant textures for your languages. Once you get a mentor for any language and start imitating him or her, this will come naturally. Think about the automated voices in your language course—how do they pronounce “a” or “l” differently from the way you do in your native language? Investigate these feelings in detail and mimic them accordingly.

People who are often praised for their accent often do exactly this, and note the differences as to what they hear between speakers of various languages. Once you get good at it, you’ll even be able to keep extremely close languages separate. While I encounter with dogged consistency people who mix up Spanish and Portuguese way too often (precisely because they haven’t gone through this), I can keep straight German and Yiddish, the Scandinavian Languages, and very similar Creole languages—granted there are rare occasions in which I mix them up, but overall I’m in a good place because my “mental discipline” is very honed.

We all have separate identities. Jared the teacher is very flamboyant but he has to tone it down when he’s Jared the student. Similarly, you’ll have to do the same with your languages—allot each one a different set of feelings and a role, as well as, most importantly, ways of talking.

Happy learning!

My Finnish Language Journey: Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland!

finnish ain't hard

Yesterday and today buildings throughout the world were illuminated with blue lights in honor of the birthday of a country that has developed a stellar reputation well outside its borders in recent decades.

My journey with Finnish has been an interesting one, because it’s one that I learned how to speak well while leaving me in complete mystery in exactly HOW I pulled it off.

I’ve used all of the following:

  • Reading dialogues out loud
  • Reading grammar notes out loud from textbooks
  • Watching Disney film snippets and Pokémon in Finnish (dubbed versions)
  • Clozemaster
  • Transparent Language
  • Writing exercises
  • Later on (once I acquired B2 level) teaching the language to other people.
  • Language Exchange Groups (I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Finnish with real people in comparison to Swedish, Danish and Norwegian [especially the first two])
  • Songs (including passively, with lyrics and actively with karaoke)
  • Radio
  • Let’s Play Videos with Finnish commentary
  • Writing to people who speak the language.
  • Video games

 

Too often I get asked the question “what do you use to learn so many languages?”

The question should not be “what do you use to learn” them but “what DON’T you use to learn them?” I became successful with Finnish (despite the fact that I still feel as though I have a long way to go with it) because I threw EVERYTHING at it.

And that’s what a successful attempt to learn a language LOOKS LIKE! You don’t’ just expect to use “Duolingo” and get fluent (it’s in all likelihood not going to happen). You need to use AS MANY tools as possible to make a language a part of your life. The most successful of my language missions have had that, while those that were / are lacking are those in which I still have yet to use EVERY available means of using the language.

Looking back on the journey, here’s what I wish I told myself in 2012 when the Finnish Language and I seemed like we had a future together (which we DID!)

 

  • Throw Out Limiting Beliefs Immediately

 

Too many people are stuck with ideas that they’ll never be good, or that they won’t even be manageable. Others are stuck with ideas that they’ll just get answered in English all of the time. Yet others enter the world of Finnish and other target languages with a negative mindset, thinking that it is something they intend to lose as soon as they enter it.

I entered at first saying “I’ll see what I can get. I can always learn something and I can always learn more later”. But all the while I never DREAMED that I would be capable of mastering the grammar of the language, both colloquially as well as formally, the way that I did. And I should have thought even more than “I’ll manage”, I should have thought “I’m going to be GREAT!!!”

And this leads into another point…

 

  • Finnish (or any other grammatically rich language) is a giant feast. Savor each ingredient separately and don’t expect to gulf down EVERYTHING at once.

 

Many of the cases are straight-up prepositions (as is the case with the other Finno-Ugric Languages), but some other elements are more idiomatic. One that trips up my students regularly is the –ksi ending, which indicates that you are talking about a noun, and more specifically “given that it is that noun” or “into that noun” (e.g. transformation).

 

englanniksi sanoja – English(ksi) words(partitive)

 

English words, or, more accurately “given-that-they-are-English” “words-some-of-them”.

Okay now you have ONE concept, now see if you can manage personal endings for nouns (Kaveri [friend] + ni [my] -> “Kaverini” – “friend(s) of mine”) or the fantastic conjugating “no” (en -> I … not, not I. et – you (sing.) … not, not you, ei -> he/she/it …. Not, not he/she/it, etc.) usage of nuanced suffixes, verb conjugation, AND variant forms of verb conjugation and other grammatical features in colloquial speech! (These might not be in your textbook!)

Oh, and manage all of these concepts at once spoken by a native speaker at quick speed. Sure, the fact that Finnish words are always accented on the first syllable is going to help you, to some degree, as is the fact that some Finns speak very slowly in comparison to Romance Language speakers, but the grammatical buffet of Finnish is going to OVERWHELM YOU.

Unless, you take it in, bit by bit, and count every single one of the small victories.

This is true with other languages, but this is even MORE true with languages in which you might struggle with forming a simple sentence for weeks!

 

 

  • Use Flashcards and Other Similar Apps WITH Immersion for Progress

 

Memrise helped me reach my goals with Finnish but I couldn’t have done it with only them. I also had to use YouTube Finnish in order to bring words that I “vaguely” memorized in the app into a genuine context where they made sense.

Often when I was watching any amount of fun things in Finnish I would remember a word that I had seen in Memrise matching the context EXACTLY.

Unless a language is VERY closely related to one you know, or one that you’ve had experience being exposed to but have gaps in it (as is the case with Polish for me, for example), the flash cards by yourself are not going to be ideal.

But pair with other methods, everything builds off each other.

 

  • Being disappointed with your language progress means that you’re either studying too much or using the language without studying too much.

For all of my languages regardless of level, I noticed that there are some languages that I’ve STUDIED too  much to the exclusion of using them for fun (Irish) and others that I’ve USED too much without studying too much of them anymore (Greenlandic). To correct this imbalance, apply one or the other, depending on what you HAVEN’T been doing.

For much of my Finnish studies, I managed that balance PERFECTLY, more than with any other language I’ve studied. And I’m glad I did.

  • Small words mean a lot in making you sound like a fluent speaker.

 

Thanks to me having watched a lot of Pokémon in the Finnish dub (more than I care to admit) as well as a lot of gaming channels in Finnish, I’ve really learned how to use simple one-word expressions that make me sound believable when I put them in my speech (some of these qualify as “filler words” but not always).

 

Think about it: how often have you heard non-native English speakers say “very good” as opposed to “cool beans!” or “that’s great to hear!” (the latter of which are very American indeed, I think).

 

I got a lot of simple expressions like these thanks to me using Finnish in these “controlled environments”. They didn’t make me fluent, but they made me confident and believable with great regularity.

 

  • No language is too hard.

 

I don’t necessarily say “no language is too unlearnable” because I’ve tried to find some languages to learn in which I can almost seldom find ANY materials for them.

But even though a language like Greenlandic (and Burmese, later on) got me to almost doubt this, you need to keep in mind that, especially with more politically powerful languages, your L2 is learnable, even to near-native fluency. You just need to find methods that work, and utilize EVERYTHING you have in order to make it work.

The apps themselves are great, but they won’t make you fluent alone. Same for the books, videos and TV shows. Bring them altogether, and you’ll become someone who impressed almost EVERY native speaker you’ll meet.

 

That day can be yours! Go ahead and take it!

 

Let’s conclude with this, now, shall we?

 

I Want to Learn Indigenous Languages! How Do I Start?

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

I’m writing this article from Brooklyn, not far away from the Peace Corps HQ, a company that pioneered the study of indigenous languages throughout the Americas (although I don’t think they’ve published any materials for indigenous languages of the US specifically.)

You can see their extremely impressive and useful list of language-learning materials here (and this is probably more useful than most bookstore Language-Learning sections I’ve seen can hope to be): https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

This may surprise you, but in many areas of the Americas indigenous languages are not only markers of cultural identity but also thriving more than you would expect.

Transparent Language Online actually has an indigenous language of LOUISIANA (Koasati) available in its offerings! As well as indigenous languages of Canada such as Ojibwe and Cree, and Lakota (and probably many others I forgot) from the United States (and I have it on good authority that there are more of them on the way.)

I love the fact that I live in a time in which the many painful legacies of colonialism have been confronted, and in particular Christopher Columbus’s moral shortcomings (putting it as lightly as I can).

Indigenous communities from throughout the American continents, all the way from the Inuit in the far north (I’m going to GREENLAND NEXT WEEK!) all the way down to the Mapuche in Southern Chile, now have tools to make their languages more powerful with an online presence. I think one thing that may be holding such prospects back is a self-defeating idea of “why would ANYONE use or need this?” But I think if more such publications were made possible, more people (even people who are complete outsiders to these indigenous communities) would find avenues to learn these languages, thereby creating a very positive “vicious circle”.

Okay, that was enough musing to open the article with, now let’s get to HOW to find resources for indigenous languages!

 

  • Omniglot

 

The A-Z Index of Languages on Omniglot is like window shopping. Languages will be provided with histories, scripts, samples, links for further study (usually) and lists of useful phrases (on some occasions)

Poke around this website in order to find what sort of indigenous languages (or any other) YOU would like to see in your life, and how to proceed.

A word of caution, however: there have been some times that I have literally been unable to learn languages due to a dearth of materials (Chuukese from the Federated States of Micronesia being the most potent example in recent memory). You may or may not encounter such a dearth, but you may also expect to be pleasantly surprised!

 

  • Transparent Language Online

 

With various libraries offering this service for free, you are welcome to explore many indigenous languages of the Americas with their fantastically useful sets of flashcards.

 

You can find a list of offering languages here:

https://home.transparent.com/transparent-language-online-available-languages?_ga=2.108520199.400276675.1507569656-1845425504.1451068801

 

On the desktop version, not only will you have all languages available but you’ll also be able to choose from MANY different modes of study for your cards, like matching, blank-filling, or even rattling all of the audio in the target language for your entire collection! (I tried this and I got bored after a few seconds).

 

The mobile version is more simplified with only flashcards being available (although it is nonetheless extremely useful on train rides, for example)

 

If there is one weakness, it is the fact that grammar explanations are usually lacking unless they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY (e.g. with Icelandic)

 

  • Your Bookstore / Your Library

 

I discovered the Quechua Lonely Planet Guide in the Columbia University Bookstore one fine day and I was enchanted by the very idea of speaking the language of the Incas (although there are many different regional variations thereof depending on where in the Andes you are).

 

I also found a book on Australian English and it actually had a guide section in the back about basic phrases in various Australian Aboriginal Languages! (Not enough to make one fluent or even reach A1, not by a long shot, but still interesting. If memory serves correctly, I don’t think the book is in print any more, but print-on-demand may provide you a save if you’re still seeking it…)

 

And, of course, Greenlandic, which I also discovered in a Lonely Planet Guide…one thing led to another and my dream to learn a language with ultra-mega-long words led to me designing a video game set in contemporary Greenland. Fancy that!

 

Still haven’t gotten around to speaking Quechua, although I’m going to shamelessly plug myself when I mention…

 

  • YouTube!

 

I originally discovered Guarani, an indigenous language of Paraguay and the surrounding countries, thanks to Duolingo (a resource not on this list because it offers just one indigenous language of the Americas with currently no plans to add other ones that I’m aware of).

I found online tutorials (in Spanish) on how to learn Basic Guarani. Somewhat unsatisfied with their level, I decided to…take it up a notch!

 

Found a Public Domain book on how to learn Guarani online and began filming the process bit-by-bit. Hey, you could do this with your other languages to and help raise awareness or just get feedback from fluent speakers or experienced learners!

As to where I got that book…

 

  • The LiveLingua Project

 

https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

COME HERE KIDZ FREE BOOKZ!!!!1!!! (And by “free” I mean “legally free” not “pirated”!)

 

  • Religious Materials (for Christians)

 

Even if you’re not Christian yourself, you can use materials produced by missionaries in order to aid your journey. The Bible (sometimes both the Old and New Testaments) has been translated into more languages than any other in human history, keep in mind that the New Testament does tend to be translated more often by a small margin.

Also, the most dubbed-film in human history is The Jesus Film, and while it does remind me a lot of something I would watch in high school classes when the syllabi ran dry (I don’t really mean that as a genuine compliment, although my teachers there were great!), it can also be a very useful language-learning resource given how visually-oriented the plot and dialogue are.

The most translated website is that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well. Yes, more commonly translated than…

 

  • Wikipedia

 

Sadly in some indigenous languages (like Cree and Greenlandic) there is a lot of the “colonial” language used in the interface (that would be English and Danish respectively), but in many others the words are more complete, such as the Guarani Wikipedia (https://gn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ape), the Quechua Wikipedia (https://qu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qhapaq_p%27anqa) and “Huiquipedia (the Nahuatl Wikipedia) (https://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl)

 

You can also find out how to contribute in some capacity even if you’re a beginner in the language! (There are a lot of times that I’ve seen articles that are literally three words long, and then this gem from the Bislama Wikipedia: https://bi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven [as of the time of writing, it just shows the number seven in a picture with the caption “Seven, namba 7”)

 

You’ll pick up a significant amount of useful vocabulary to discuss languages and cultures with these wikipedias if you look at the articles detailing these languages or countries respectively.

 

This is a list that is just going to keep growing

 

With accelerated growth of technology will come more opportunities for indigenous communities to proliferate the usage of their language as well as, perhaps, a more keen sense that “time is running out” if they perceive their traditions as threatened.

 

New resources are coming into the world every year and it seems that more and more people are open to the idea of learning indigenous languages, which I think we, as polyglots in general, should do.

 

We need to use our strong, cohesive identity and passion to heal the world. And where else to start by telling these small cultures that we care about them and want them to keep creating in their languages, many of which have been lost to us forever?

 

May this Indigenous People’s Day be a source of determination to you!

greenland asanninneq

 

I Want to Learn Icelandic. Where Do I Start? What Do I Do?

Presenting, yet again, the language that I’ve seen people quit the most…but one reason that a lot of Icelandic learners struggle is because they don’t know of (1) avenues to practice and (2) avenues to actually use Icelandic on the Internet.

I remember back when I was fluent in only a handful of languages (English and Yiddish were fluent, and Hebrew, Norwegian and Swedish were getting there, not to mention the various pieces of Russian, Spanish and Ancient Languages I had learned in college and my Polish from my time living in Krakow) that I wanted to try my hand at Icelandic and the only thing I ever managed to retain from that time was a few sentences:

 

Hvað er að frétta? – Sup? (Note to learners: Hv is actually pronounced with the H closer to a “K” sound in English”, so this would be “kvath er ath fryetta?” Keep in mind that ð, normally pronounced like a soft “th” sound, will fall out in quickly spoken speech)

And

Allt í lagi – Everything’s in order, OK, all good, and a dozen other meanings besides. You want to get in the habit of not pronouncing that g. That tends to fall out in quick speech too.

 

And, of course, basic greetings, like “bless!” (bye!) and “bless bless!” (bye to you too!)

Then I gave up and didn’t return until 2014, when I was in JTS. I remember it was at a Hanukkah event that I proudly told my friends that I had my first exchange in Icelandic. What a good day that. I have a vague memory of people throwing dreidels across the table, and speaking in German to my then-RA.

But one thing I’ve noticed since that time: the possibilities to practice Icelandic have just mushroomed, even if you have no access to native or fluent speakers of Icelandic where you are. This trend shows no sign of stopping, and that’s excellent for you!

So I’ll open up my toolbox and I’ll give you some websites and resources I heartily recommend.

  1. Anki

 

Anki, a flash-card program based on spaced repetition, is something I find helpful, and literally the best Anki deck I’ve ever encountered is this one:

https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/257529691

Native audio, very good pronunciation pointers, as well as a selection of sentences that actually not only highlight grammar points in a way you’ll enjoy them but also are very useful! Make sure to listen to the audio with each sentence.

I would recommend this if you’re having a lot of passive understanding of the grammar but don’t really have a good grasp of your irregular verbs or cases when you speak.

 

  1. The Transparent Language Blog

Right when I began learning Icelandic for the first time in 2012 / 2013 (and in February 2013 I actually taught a mini-Icelandic class…IN HEBREW), this blog was just coming into existence. A lot of very important cultural pointers are provided (and this is essential, given that Iceland is a place where details about the local culture are shared frequently at home and abroad).

You’ll feel like you’re genuinely coming to know the culture and the Icelandic way of thinking better with each post.

What’s more, here’s a huge collection of listening materials for Icelandic learners of all ages. Have a listen!

http://blogs.transparent.com/icelandic/2017/06/26/listening-exercises-abound/

If you have a Transparent Language account via your library (for free) or a personal account thereof (in which you pay for one language), you can also use it to have a significantly large collection of Icelandic flashcards. With the library account, you can get many other languages besides! What’s more, the Desktop version of the app is really good at gamifying the learning process and you’ll have so many ways to study it!

  1. Icelandic Disney Princess

 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf-_ldtTW1kqSF9FRwSEDIw

 

One thing that will make you a hit at any karaoke bar and get everyone talking to you is if you sing a Disney Song in Icelandic.

Even if the words on the screen show the English words, just have your phone with the Icelandic text and sing along! Almost all Karaoke organizers I’ve met have enabled this and I’ve gotten standing ovations out of this practice in Icelandic and in many other languages!

Yes, Disney’s animated canon is FULLY LOCALIZED in Icelandic with all of the songs RHYMED.

Icelandic Disney Princess creates videos of the songs with Icelandic lyrics AND English translations on the screen. You’ll really learn about how the language works in a poetic fashion this way, as well as the whole “learn while having fun” thing.

As to finding the full-length films, that’s another thing but it’s REALLY hard to do unless you live in Iceland (or maybe places like Gimli, Manitoba…where Icelandic-speaking populations reside).

 

  1. Colloquial Icelandic

 

Fun fact: this book was actually written by a native speaker of…Dutch? But, in my opinion, it’s really well put together, has very handy (although intimidating) grammar in the back, and as per all of the Routledge Colloquial series the audio is available for free online whether or not you own the book!

(My understanding is that they did this because they couldn’t keep up with YouTube language tutorials. But hey, for some languages like Breton and Tibetan it’s probably the best audio guide out there!)

 

  1. Rökkurró

 

Here’s an archived version of their website with all of their lyrics (together with their English translations) to date:

https://web.archive.org/web/20160710213851/http://rokkurro.com:80/

Rökkurró’s music is a profoundly soulful experience and also conveys many an emotion present in a wandering throughout the Icelandic countryside. Probably among the most poetic lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life, these texts are not something you forget easily.

Despite that (or perhaps because of it), these texts are fairly accessible and even for the beginning student there is a lot to be “juiced” out of these lyrics in terms of sentence structure and common verbs.

And (with a mischievous smile) see if you can guess what this song is about, just by listening to the melody:

 

  1. Clozemaster

 

The one language learning tool that I was addicted to the most, unlike I went to Myanmar and then my 150+ day streak in Icelandic turned into a goose egg.

Clozemaster.com has 9,000+ Icelandic sentences that you can sort for frequency and this will not only help you learn grammatical structures (SUPER important in Icelandic!) but also train you to read with ease.

I know how tempting it is to just simply see an Icelandic text, see long words and easily run away from it. You have to build up to having it not be scary and Clozemaster is here for you.

 

  1. Ásgeir Trausti

 

One time I was teaching a Hebrew/Swedish double feature in a chain restaurant (out of convenience because that’s where my student wanted me to meet).

I had heard Ásgeir Trausti’s music in Icelandic many times before, but little did I know that English translations of his songs became very popular in the English-speaking world.

Upon an English lyrical version of this song on the restaurant radio, I was so shocked that I almost dropped all my books on the floor:

 

 

“This is originally an Icelandic song!” I said in an incredulous high-pitched voice, “I had no idea I would hear an Icelandic song in an American chain store!”

And then apparently, upon doing some research, the song in question is “King and Cross”, which is one you’ve heard before, no doubt.

 

  1. RUV

 

“Ríkisútvarpið”, may look scary to you at first, but as an English speaker you actually recognize all three components.

This is why Icelandic is easier for you as an English speaker than you think.

It means “national broadcasting corporation” but if I translate it as “Reich out warp”, you can see exactly how that transfers into the long Latinate words you would recognize (although “broadcast” is not Latin in origin).

Lotsa stuff to watch. Give it a watch.

 

  1. The Fantastic World of Icelandic Gangsta Rap

 

WARNING: Not for beginners. At all.

This is more like “Icelandic learners with a vaguely masochistic side”.

Aside from using a lot of English loanwords, the Rap scene in Icelandic is littered with references that you would just barely understand as an outsider.

To that end, some lyrics are posted on genius.com with annotations (in Icelandic) explaining many of the finer aspects that may not come to you when rappers are speed-reciting their texts). And you may have to translate a lot of the texts yourself, but hey, that’ll be fun, right?

However, I did try to find something significantly tame for learners and here’s one song I’d definitely like to share (and probably the most straightforward for intermediate or even beginning learners), an ode to Reykjavik, the city that is ours and that never sleeps:

 

And I look forward to seeing Reykjavik again in October!

2015-08-20 14.50.06