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

Re-Evaluating My Language Learning Priorities (and Dropping Languages): February 2018 Edition

I’ve noticed that whenever the seasons are on the verge of changing I seem to think about what sort of languages I am enjoying (or not) and I make changes accordingly.

Some languages like Dutch and Northern Sami I used to have impressive command of but now they seem to have dwindled to nothing. Others I really enjoyed learning but it occurred to me that, for whatever reason (some of which couldn’t be articulated), I didn’t really feel as though I “had the spark anymore”. Faroese, Estonian and Russian were all obsessions of mine that fell by the wayside as a result (although I still speak a bit of all languages in this paragraph and, if the need arises, I could revive them).

So I’ve decided to clear my list of all of the following. The most noteworthy clearances are Breton and French just…don’t do it for me anymore. And French I mostly learned for peer-pressure reasons anyhow. It would be one thing if I were actively planning to go to the Ivory Coast or French Polynesia instead of Fiji in the summer (and if I were even headed to Vanuatu I would make it a priority). But right now, I’m just not feeling it. Same with Breton, and I’m glad for the times we’ve had together, but for some odd reason I feel as though I need a break. (Cornish I’m still undecided about, given that St. Piran’s Day is coming up on March 5. Cornish is probably the one language that I’ve been on-again off-again the most).

I also really need to start focusing on quality, especially as I continue to enter the global spotlight with both my polyglotism AND my video games being released later this year. I’m already getting more messages than I can humanly deal with… a day that I DREAMED of seeing as a high school student.

Anyhow, on my languages page I reduced it to 31, and all of my fluent languages (B2 or higher) got to stay except for Breton which I hadn’t been practicing too much as of late anyhow. Also while Spanish and German get to stay, they are, along with English, the ones that I have the least amount of emotional attachment to (sorry).

Anyhow, let’s go through my list from A0 (a few words) to B1 (intermediate plateau) and I’ll go through the reasons I decided to keep those ones in particular.

A0

First off, Guarani is my opportunity to glimpse an indigenous culture of South America (Paraguay) that may be under siege. I devoted a lot of time on my YouTube Channel last year and I actually met a fluent speaker in Fall 2017 who absolutely refused to use it with me for some reason (I’m not going to lie, I felt snubbed and borderline offended. In an age of mass language death, you should be sharing with anyone willing to partake of your culture.)

Despite that, I shouldn’t let one bad interaction with a speaker get me down and I’m gonna be up again because it occurs to me that I need to know more about indigenous South American than I already do (it’s probably the one continent that I know the least about, actually, even if you include Antarctica).

Given that I’m headed to Fiji later on this year, Fiji Hindi is also a priority despite the fact that I’ve struggled with this one more than any other Indo-European language that isn’t Celtic. Resources are scarce and ways to rehearse it are difficult, but I’ll attempt an “attack plan” once I feel as though I’m a solid B2 in Fijian, which may be sooner than I think (a “Why Fijian is Easy” post is coming soon!)

Given the relations between the native Fijians / iTaukei and the Fiji Indians have been difficult at times, it behooves me to learn about them both, especially given that I’ll get to see close up hand. I’ve heard that Fiji Indians are prominent in the tourist industry and my chances to interact with them will be many.

Next up on the A0 list is Uyghur. I’ve gotten so much fantastic feedback from attempting this language on YouTube, not also to mention the deep pride that many Uyghurs have for their culture, that I’m going to continue it. It would be, in a sense, one of my first Chinese Languages (and I still haven’t forgotten about Mandarin quite yet but I’ll reveal everything in good time. With both my one surviving grandparent coming from a Hungarian family and my Oceania venture, I feel time-crunched from multiple sides. It seems that Uyghur is not going to be too much of a serious investment in the near future, but I’ll see what I can do with it and I have no plans to drop it completely).

Last among the A0 list is Tuvaluan. While Tongan has been dropped for the time being (too close to Fijian for me to actively work on both at the same time, as is Tuvaluan), Tuvaluan is something I want to at least be able to use in SOME capacity before heading to Fiji (if I even end up going there at all) by virtue of the fact that Fiji’s only endangered language is Tuvaluan (y’know, the expatriate community). Also given that Tuvalu is in a similar situation to Kiribati with the whole climate change thing, it’s something I believe is a moral duty. If only there were readily available good textbooks for it, otherwise I’ll have to write my own from dictionaries, grammar books and Bible translations, not also to mention help from the Tuvaluan sub-Reddit (I believe the Kiribati sub-Reddit is by invitation only. I applied to join. No answer. Hey, mods at Kiribati, can you approve me? Kam raba! [Thank you guys!])

A1

Probably the language for which I have been lauded by native speakers the most, Palauan gets to stay and will be a constant feature of my programming. You guys have fantastic music and have given me very concrete and useful advice and not a DROP of discouragement! Also that Palau Pledge and that movie with the giant is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve read / seen all year!

Probably not at A1 anymore because of months of not practicing, but I’ll have African languages in part represented by Mossi (Krio’s still on my list, don’t worry). My first tonal language from outside Asia, I think I really need to learn more about Burkina Faso, given how Christian and Muslim traditions (not also to mention elements of traditional African religions) really blend together. There’s a lot on my plate right now so no actively working on Mossi now, but at least you get to stay on my radar as opposed to the many languages that I decided to drop.

Probably my favorite Caribbean Creole is that of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I discovered Vincentian Creole through Bible recordings and one of these days I’ll make sure to spend more time with you. You’re probably the one Caribbean nation most Americans know the least about. Can’t wait to start spending more time together!

Lastly among the A1 category (I dropped Arabic but I’ll probably be putting it back later this year when my Fijian and Fiji Hindi is secure), Tajik. Everything about you is fascinating and also very distinct from the Western Culture I experience every day in the United States. You and Uyghur will be my Central Asian projects for the not-too-distant future.

A2

Burmese music is something I have in huge doses and that I’m fascinated with. Also the Burmese-American community here in New York City, not also to mention plenty of professional opportunities with politics and translation work should I choose to get good enough. Alongside Tok Pisin, Burmese really gave me a glimpse into a country that was severely wrecked by imperialist meddling (you could pretty much say this for…well, almost everywhere on the planet, which is why I believe learning languages from these areas of the globe is a morally correct decision for all of us who want to learn some).

Irish is a language of my ancestors and one I’ve dreamed of learning well for a decade. I used to be better but I slumped terribly in progress leading up to the Polyglot Conference in 2017. I still don’t consider myself that good despite the fact that I remember having some manageable conversations in it. Probably my most poorly managed language learning project.

Gilbertese of course gets to stay. As does Fijian.

 

B1

Greenlandic is the language I’ve struggled with the most and STILL the hardest I’ve attempted. But given that I’m working on a video game set there I’m going to continue this fantastic relationship I’ve had with my favorite language (even though it is now tied with Gilbertese for my favorite).

Despite the fact that I SERIOUSLY need good music that I like in it, Lao is staying around too. I’ve seen heartbreaking homemade films in Lao that I will never forget for as long as I live, and this is the first language I’ve learned from a genuinely communist state. A truly meaningful experience…besides, I really like the sound of the language despite the fact that the tones still “get me”.

Lastly, Hungarian and Polish get to stay around. Hungarian is an ancestral language of mine and my deepest regret in my polyglot life is having not chosen to study it earlier. But luckily I still have time…as long as I focus. Among European Languages, Hungarian has THE most supportive native speakers (although I’ve met one or two who gave me a hard time on the surface but then gave me vaguely reluctant support…sort of?) Polish is the second-most commonly used language on my Facebook feed. Being able to speed-reed it is something I should really learn sooner than later.

 

So my current list reads like this:

 

A0 – Guarani, Fiji Hindi, Uyghur, Tuvaluan,

A1:  Palauan, Mossi, Vincentian Creole, Tajik

A2 –  Burmese, Irish, Gilbertese, Fijian

B1 –  Greenlandic, Lao, Hungarian, Polish

B2 – Hebrew, Finnish, Krio, Jamaican Patois, Icelandic

C1 –  Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Spanish (EU), German, Trini

C2 – Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin, Tok Pisin

Native: English, Ancient Hebrew

 

I haven’t been having the best month and so I may have under-practiced some of these but I think a good dosage of focused Saturdays should get me in shape, especially with my priorities straightened out.

February is almost on its way out, and with it my Greenlandic 30-Day challenge (cut to 28 days, or so it seems) in addition to Fijian. Next month is more Fijian and another language on this page that I haven’t decided yet!

May you only know fulfilled goals!

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My Valentine to Oceania: History’s FIRST-EVER Polyglot Video to Feature Only Pacific Island Languages!

Earlier today I uploaded this video (I was supposed to upload it on Valentine’s Day but logistics involving my classes and other obligations got in the way). Feel free to turn on the English subtitles using the “CC” button.

In this video I speak five languages from Oceania with NO other languages (not even English) included: Palauan, Tok Pisin, Fijian, Gilbertese / Kiribati and Bislama (with a conclusion in Tongan and Tuvaluan. I haven’t actively studied Tuvaluan for a while but if I’m headed to Fiji later on this year it is something I would like to know more about).

This is the first Oceania-exclusive polyglot video in human history.  

I filmed it using my Samsung device, while standing and without wearing my glasses. One reason I didn’t come off as more cheerful was the fact that my hand was seriously strained in having to hold the camera up the whole time.

I would like to take this time to thank my viewers and readers as well as, in particular, the many residents of Pacific Island countries that have given me feedback and encouragement. (Palau and Kiribati in particular gave me TONS of viewers who provided me constructive criticism and even publicized my material widely!)

Obviously my main focus is going to be on Fijian for the short-term future but the decision to learn languages from Oceania is one of the best decisions of my life.

Fun fact: I actually gave a presentation on Fiji for a Hebrew class I had at JTS (the Jewish Theological Seminary) back in 2014. I related details about Yaqona (kava), chiefly families, the country’s geography and history, and tips for visiting. It was doing research for this presentation that I discovered Tok Pisin, the first language from Oceania that I learned AND the first that I learned to a C2 level. 

Here’s to many more years together, O Languages of the Southern Islands! I appreciate your presence in my life and the fact that I now see the whole universe differently because of you.

The 2017 Polyglot Conference: Self-Assessment and Roadmap

The most legendary month of my life is about to close, one that brought me to Iceland and Greenland and, by extension, into meetings with some of the most legendary human beings who have impacted my life to date.

I got to meet Nanook, the legendary band from Greenland, as well as the lineup of my favorite Greenlandic TV show from years back, see my favorite Icelandic rapper in a 30-minute concert and, of course, visit and re-visit some of my greatest heroes that have shown be beyond a reasonable doubt that learning to speak a second or third or even twentieth language at any age is ALWAYS a possibility!

I got to use thirty languages over the course of few days and think about where I have been, where I am and where I am going.

Granted, some of these languages are ones that I speak fluently and use in my career. Others are those that I have literally not practiced for months. In the meantime, I’ll have to think about where I under-estimated myself, where I over-estimated myself and what great victories I scored as well as any possible defeats.

The Saturday of the conference had me feeling unbelievably elated at the end. So elated, in fact, that I slept very poorly that night. What’s more, I had to present the following day, making it LITERALLY the worst night of this year to get a bad night’s sleep.

But surprisingly I not only managed my conference presentation on Video Games and Language Learning very well, I was told that the organizers heard “nothing but positive feedback” about it including repeated hopes that I would make encore presentations at other conferences.

My secret to being a good presenter is simple: note whatever your boring teachers throughout your life did, and do the opposite of what they do. Easy!

Anyhow, I’ll write about which languages I think I did very well with, which ones I did okay with and which ones I really need improvement with.

Let’s start with that last one.

For one, I significantly overestimated my ability in Irish and it felt that when I spoke it I had flashbacks to when I was twelve years old and my teacher scrawled “DID NOT STUDY” on my quizzes. (This was in part because I was thrown into a Hebrew Day School where my knowledge of Biblical Hebrew was significant impaired because I was a latecomer!)

I forgot essential words at times and while I did put some sentences together, it occurs to me that I need work.

The same thing very much happened with Lao (although the only time I used it was in a Lao-Thai conversation, something that I have had no experience in doing).

My Welsh which I had neglected for months, obviously, did not even get a sticker on my name tag, but I added it to my list because with some “rewatering”  it will warrant an A1 level again.

I also flubbed Cornish a little bit as well

Three languages which I need to really work on. So what am I going to do?

For one this weekend I will devote entirely to studying these languages, to the exclusion of others.

Now for my “I did pretty well!”

Despite some grammatical flubs at times Finnish was truly something to be proud of and I’m very impressed by the level of L2 Finnish speakers that I’ve seen at the conference.

Hebrew was also very similar as well, although sometimes I worry that I’m a little bit TOO casual and not scholarly enough. This style REALLY impresses some Israelis and manages to vex some others. But it bears repeating that using the language with people who speak it is always a good idea! Regardless of how much you may convince yourself otherwise!

Greenlandic, despite the fact that I remember being just “manageable” in Greenland the week prior, also was a meager success, whatever people wanted to ask of me what meant I was capable of providing. Granted, mostly these were simple phrases but it occurs to me that I knew a lot more of the language than actually came out when I was in the country. Again, my own nervousness holding myself back.

Icelandic and French both involved some significant gaps in my conversational abilities, given the language-learning tornado (and Jewish-holiday tornado) I was in in the weeks leading up to the conference.

Lastly, the one chance I got to use Krio went off better than I expected!

Now the greatest victories of the bunch, not surprisingly, go to my truly fluent languages, the Scandinavian Trio and Yiddish. Being in Greenland the week beforehand sure did help with Danish, but the practice I’ve got while teaching really, REALLY shined through. I also managed to speak significantly better Spanish and German than I literally ever remembered doing, EVER.

Every other language on my list was “not enough chances to use it” (for my fluent languages like Bislama) or otherwise “okay, I guess, but you still need some noteworthy improvement” (pretty much every other language I haven’t named).

The fact that I significantly slouched in my conversational abilities on Sunday is testament to the fact that mental and physical conditions matter in conversational abilities in any language, and languages you don’t use as often are even MORE likely to be impacted. My fluent languages (like Danish and Hebrew) stayed the same, but my less-than-fluent languages (like Hungarian or Polish) got worse.

 

Where do I go from here?

It seems ever more likely that 2018 is going to spell no more new languages for me for the time being. Right now, even though I’d really like something like Turkmen or Tuvaluan or Lithuanian, I have my plate full and now it’s time for me to invest in what I have in significantly more depth. I know it’s possible. I’m good now. Some would even call me very good. But I want to be divinely unstoppable.

Obviously I understand that the “activation energy” required for going to a higher level is more the higher you get (this ties into the idea of “diminishing returns”. Getting my Breton to C2 is going to take a LOT more effort than getting Lao to B1. Looking at the ungodly amount of time I put into my best languages, it’s no surprise.

Right now I just have ideas for a plan, but “improve tons of languages” is not really a recipe. I need a recipe and I’m probably going to need more than just a day to come up with a plan.

We’ll see how my little mini-mission on Saturday and Sunday goes!

NOTE: This is primarily a self-reflection about MY OWN progress rather than anything about the conference itself. That’s likely to come later on, probably when I’m back in the US and have had time to reflect on it!

I wish every day were a Polyglot Conference, actually!

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From my first Polyglot conference two years ago!