”What Do You Use to Learn Languages?” Is the Wrong Question. And the Right Question is…

Before I begin, I would say that it is in a more tongue-and-cheek manner that I refer to “What do you use to learn languages” as a WRONG question. But too many people see processes as something that can only have (or can only need) a handful of ingredients.

I look at my most successful language-learning missions and, as it turns out, the most successful that I have had overwhelmingly had one thing in common, whereas my least successful language-learning missions also had the exact OPPOSITE of that one thing in common.

Before going further (gee, I really know how to make cliffhangers, now, don’t I?), I should also say that the “what do you use to learn language?” question is something I achieve with GREAT FREQUENCY. From my students. From my distant family members. From people who met me five seconds ago.

I also hear variations of it, such as “what’s the best way to learn a language?” or “what apps do I need?” or “what do you do to learn languages?”

But here’s what I always say:

I don’t ask myself “what DO I use to learn languages”, but rather “what DON’T I use to learn languages!”

The fact is, when I look at the most successful languages I have, I’ve used EVERYTHING.

 

Cartoon shows.

Music.

Studying.

Grammar review.

Forums (Fora?)

Let’s Play Videos.

Radio

And dozens upon DOZENS of other factors.

 

To give some examples from my own life that have been successful, Finnish (the one that won against all odds) I used ABSOLUTELY all of these elements I listed above. Others on that list would include: Danish, Bislama, Yiddish, Swedish, Tok Pisin and Norwegian. (Note I did not use Let’s Play videos for Bislama, Yiddish and Tok Pisin given that, as of the time of writing, none of those exist in any of those languages)

Ones that I failed to deploy AS MANY resources for? They fell down by the wayside. The languages I learned that got harmed the most because of this included: Fiji Hindi, Lao, Irish, Welsh and Tajik.

Then there are others in which I usually tried to use an excess of cultural immersion (Greenlandic and Burmese) or an excess of book studying (Hebrew and Spanish) and as a result some of them have been imbalanced with varying results (I can still speak Hebrew well and Spanish manageably most of the time, despite my self-admitted begrudging apathy towards global languages).

I go on to tell people that I see language learning like a strategy game. The more pieces and resources available to you that you USE, the more likely you are to WIN. Sure, it may take a lot of time to win and some “levels” are going to be easier than others (Bislama’s grammar is easier than Finnish’s by any stretch despite the fact that both of them use vowel harmony [Bislama only does it with some of its verbs, though]).

I can tell if people struggle with a language (even myself) and it’s almost ALWAYS because their “diet” has been (1) imbalanced (e.g. too much studying, not enough immersion or the opposite) or (2) inconsistent (e.g. I didn’t rehearse Irish for a month before the 2017 Polyglot Conference and it SHOWED, sadly, having been the “biggest loser” of my collection during that particular conference).

In antiquity, health was believed to come about through a perfect balance. My father (who holds an MD) believes very little about ancient medicine but this balance idea is helpful regarding mental discipline.

If you are struggling with a language that you’ve been working at a long time (certainly a year or more), that means that there is either an imbalance OR untapped resources you still have yet to apply to your own journey.

Keep in mind that I’m guilty of having these imbalances and untapped resources myself.

So here’s an idea;

  • What language(s) do you feel weakest in?
  • What sort of routine have you been using to learn or maintain it?
  • What is LACKING in that routine and what can you do to restore balance to it?

Happy fixing-upping!

come back when you can put up a fight

How Do You Self-Evaluate Your Language Learning?

How do you know what level you’re at in a language you’re learning or that you speak?

Yes, you could take tests, but what if the language you’re speaking is from a developing country or has no standard written form? What then?

For one, in the United States I evaluate myself readily and I call myself fluent if I can do the following things:

  • Speak about my life with ease without awkward pauses for fifteen minutes or longer
  • Understand a good mixture of songs, radio broadcasts, TV shows and YouTube without issue
  • Can sight-read articles with relative ease
  • Have a convincing accent to MOST people. (Some Israelis think I sound like a “Sabra” but not all)
  • Have cultural resonance in some capacity.

Interestingly the most important component is the 5th one. Allow me to explain what it is: my heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish (Hungarian + Russian Empire) and Swedish / American blend (the American side having largely Irish / German / English / Scottish). I have connections to languages like Hebrew, Swedish and Yiddish because of my heritage.

But something inside me is also amused by Vanuatu and, despite the fact that I have no ancestry from there and have had no family members that travelled there, I see Ni-Vanuatu culture as something that calls to me, for some odd reason. Because of that, I listen to Bislama-language radio very often as well as Ni-Vanuatu music (which often features guest stars from Vanuatu’s cultural siblings, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands).

Anyhow, another thing I do is I also attend language events. This is in order to evaluate my progress as consistently good as well as detect any issues that my vocabulary may have. Granted this tends to serve the most popular languages like Spanish the most often but every now and then I get chances to use languages like Yiddish, Norwegian, Hungarian and Burmese. If I leave thinking that I may need to work on something related to grammar, general flow or word choice, then I’ll have to work on it.

Another thing I do is, on weekends or on days in which I have completely free, I will set aside four to six hours to rehearse each language, usually through hearing (because what you hear translates to your speaking style in any language. Keep in mind that active listening is NOT an absolute substitute for actually speaking. If you’re learning a rarer language and have no access to native speakers, you NEED to use your MOUTH! Even by yourself or with recording software!)

Right now I’m noticing that I’m focusing more on my fluent languages than newer ones for a number of reasons. Part of me is considering putting huge swathes of my beginner languages on the cutting block right now, actually.

If I understand absolutely everything (as is the case, for example, with languages like Bislama and Danish) then I will mark them down as “very good”. If I have some kinks in understanding them (as is the case with languages like something like Burmese or Polish) then I’ll focus more on them when I’m using Anki in the subway system during my commute (or when choosing which music I have to listen to when walking or in a crowded subway car). If I understand very little (which I realize for a language like Kiribati where I’m almost at the intermediate plateau with) then I will mark it down with an emphatic “NEEDS WORK”. I’ll write up a memo as to where my weaknesses are and determine a solution catered to it specifically.

Keep in mind that this is a continuous process. I’m fluent in Bislama but that doesn’t mean that I can neglect it for years on end and expect to be dropped in rural Vanuatu and expect to be speaking Bislama perfectly. I used to be good at Russian but I neglected it during my time in Poland and after several years I could barely answer any basic questions. I’m still not that good at it anymore.

I’m willing to move languages both up and down on my fluency ladder. What is C2 on my website is being able to understand virtually EVERYTHING and speak without floundering when I’m at my best.

Keep in mind that if I’m in a debilitating situation (jetlagged, starved) then it’s not going to be a reflection of my truest capabilities. That’s another thing to keep in mind because sometimes I dwell on “messing up” at events like Mundo Lingo, or I get vexed when I hear ignorant comments about my languages or my language choice (as, sadly, happens often there. I’m seriously starting to re-evaluate if people who speak multiple languages really ARE more open-minded. No doubt language hobbyists are, however).

Anyhow, the most important thing to realize is that every language you learn throughout your life is a process.  There is always something new to discover and you have to savor every step of the journey, even if you falter.

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DETERMINATION.

Important Lessons I Learned from a 3-week Journey through Sierra Leone Krio

Three weeks ago I set out on a journey to learn a language that was important for my family history: Krio, the English Creole of Sierra Leone. For those unaware, my parents worked there before I was born, and I often heard stories about “Salone” (pronounced “saal-loan”, two syllables) throughout my life.

Often my parents were fairly reluctant to open up about the full extent of what they experienced in Sierra Leone (they left shortly before the Civil War made famous by Blood Diamond, which my parents as well as many people from Salone were vexed by concerning the fairy tale / white savior elements, but on some level reluctantly satisfied that it did bring awareness about the Civil War to places like Hollywood).

I should start out by saying that I actually had two missions, one to improve Greenlandic (which was sadly not a success!) and another to learn Krio to whatever degree I could, giving myself 30 minutes a day.

If I didn’t allot myself to the 30 minutes a day, I actually said I would permanently delete this blog. So that really kept me to the commitment!

However, for Greenlandic (in which I was in no such “rush”, although I may be closer to the release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”), I made no such deal. Then I got handed a translation job last week that sucked out almost all of my time for a week and threw my study schedule for Greenlandic out the window completely.

However I cut it, my Greenlandic mission crashed.

But my Krio mission, perhaps because of my commitment, was a success! I had promised myself ever since 2014 that I would become conversational in it, and while I have a long way to go (I wouldn’t call myself fluent yet…), I would call myself proficient in spoken Krio!

Welcome to the club, Krio! You’re my first African language. Glad to have you with us on the show today. And on all other days.

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The lessons I picked up from having my Greenlandic goals thrown to the wayside are straightforward: I had a routine, but I burned out easily. Perhaps I should have been more fluid rather than with the rigid goals that I set (in which I would read a certain amount of something every single day, and then that lasted a week and a half and then I “wasn’t feeling up to it”).

That said, I think I discovered that my big weakness with written Greenlandic lies in the suffixes. More on the fascinating Greenlandic Language here (and I’ll likely write another piece about it on June 21st, the National Day of Greenland, and yes, it was picked because it is the longest day of the year!)

So, lessons I picked up during the Krio Journey:

  • Have a Fluid Routine, Especially if You are Otherwise Busy or Consider Yourself “Lazy”

I should have done this with Greenlandic. I should have said, “30 minutes of engaging with Greenlandic with new material, however you please, every day, no exceptions”.

The fact that I did that with Krio meant that I was capable of adjusting my routine towards whatever I wanted to do that day. Needed music? I could do that. Needed a grammar review? Yup. Wanted to read? All right then.

Surprisingly, this actually made my routine fairly well-balanced and it worked in raising not only the various levels of my understanding and speaking (I didn’t do much writing with Krio because of the inconsistency across writing systems I encountered), but also prevented me from burning out!

Even having the heaviest translation job of my life didn’t throw me off my routine!

 

  • Use YouTube Personalities as Your Virtual Friends and Mentors

 

Chances are, if anything on YouTube is in Krio (although I didn’t do a lot of documentary watching), I watched it. In some cases, I watched some videos as many as ten times on different days!

This actually bonded me to the creators and I saw fit to imitate them, their accents and the Salone personalities (because if you don’t have a connection to an associated culture of the language you will NEVER be fluent! At least this is my opinion).

A lot of people aren’t aware of this, but you actually come to imitate the various people in the media you consume. Yes, even in works of fiction! Given the unbelievably high standards I have set for myself, I have to choose my media very carefully, because often, especially in the smartphone world, you may end up spending more time with them than your real-life friends!

The great news for you as a language learner is that you can self-select virtual peers using TV Shows / YouTube Channels / other video content featuring characters and/or creators that speak your target language.

The same way that your peers will influence you professionally and in terms of their hobbies, your virtual peers will do the same. In this case, I got myself a Krio-speaking friend group in two-dimensions and it was fantastic! (Not also to mention other learners of Krio online through various platforms! Salone enthusiasts of the world unite!)

 

  • If you’ve studied a lot of varying languages, you’ll notice similarities peek in, and in the weirdest places.

Krio uses the word “we” as an all-purpose relative pronoun. That means, “Who, that, which”, as in “the person who (whom?) you are trying to reach is not available. Please call again later”.

Oh gee, I wonder what other languages I’ve studied that use an all-purpose relative pronoun?

Swedish (along with its Scandinavian siblings) uses the word “som” in the EXACT SAME MANNER that “we” is used in Krio, although “som” has usages that “we” in Krio does not have. I’d write more but I think that in 2017 people get bored really easily so if you’re really curious, write about it in the comment and I’ll explain it in more detail…

Bislama (the Ni-Vanuatu Pidgin English with French and local loanwords) in particular had uncanny similarities to Krio. “Nomo”, meaning “only” or “just” in Krio, is used in the same way that Bislama uses “nomoa” (and yes, Solomon Islands Pijin does the exact same thing). Bislama also used the word “se” to indicate an indirect statement, which means the “that” in “I think that you are going to want to learn Krio after reading this blog post”. Yes, both are related to the English word “say”.

Krio also did away with most of the accusative and possessive cases’ remnants in English. Imagine “us” and “our” being replaced with “we” (or “wi” in the case of Krio) and you’ll get an idea of something you may need to get used to with Krio. Tajik also uses nominative pronouns to indicate ownership similarly, although the execution is different.

“I heard once you pick up about four languages, the rest become easy”. Yes, but as long as you’re not staying limited to one family.

If you pick up French, Spanish and Italian one after the other, you’re going to likely struggle if you want to learn any East Asian language.

But given that the first languages I studied were French, Biblical Hebrew, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Talmudic Aramaic and Russian, there’s obviously more variety in that (and I studied all before I reached the age of 16).

Yiddish, Norwegian and Swedish, the first languages I reached true fluency in, were handed the keys based on my prior knowledge of a wide birth of languages (none of which I was conversationally fluent in five years ago), something that only just continues to endow me with an endless array of unfair advantages that it genuinely scares me!

 

  • Studying a Developing-World Language is going to be Different from Studying a Developed-World Language

 

Developing-world languages tend to be different from developed-world languages in the following way:

 

  • Significantly less internet content

 

  • Significantly fewer localization options

 

  • More focus on spoken forms rather than written forms (for comparison’s sake: when I was learning Solomon Islands Pijin and my first step was the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, I distinctly remember the phrase, “Relax, business letters are written in English!” [shortly afterwards they explained how to write a letter to your friend in Pijin].

 

  • Prospective language learners, especially from the west, often toss them aside as “insignificant” and prefer their colonial languages (such as English, French or Portuguese). Yes, you could get by with Standard English in Sierra Leone or the Solomon Islands. But you won’t understand the culture beyond a surface level without knowing the true language that unites these countries (I cringe already when I think of people telling me “I will never learn a creole language. Ever”. I could write a whole article about it and I probably will one day). Fun fact: China is actually going to be investing in teaching native African languages so as to build trust with the developing world. The U.S. needs to step up its game in this regard. The Peace Corps books are great, but they’re not enough by themselves.

 

  • Like many endangered languages, a lot of developing-world languages reflect the advanced vocabulary of their former colonizers and code-switching is common (yes, Irish-speakers from the Gaeltachtaí will use English in a shockingly similar back-and-forth manner when speaking Irish sometimes, not unlike what I’ve heard Krio speakers using between Krio and English!)

 

Learning Creole Languages, and Krio in particular, made me more aware of the true face of colonialism and empire as well as made me a better human being. I feel that knowing Krio language and culture, even in the short journey I’ve had thus far, taught me more about Sierra Leone and West Africa in general than any amount of photos or stories from my family members ever could (although no doubt I am grateful for them). I also had no clue that the Afro-Carribean Cultures and Salone Krio cultures were actually siblings, not also to mention the many different types of African-American cultures that exist throughout the US.

Now I know where to go from here: not only continuing my journey with exposure through Krio-language content throughout my life, but share with other people how I came to discover a land of fascinating, brave and articulate people without even having set foot on it!

Here’s an idea: look at a map of the world and think about where you would like to go and what cultures you’d like to experience. Pick a language you’d like to learn based on your thoughts, which I hope are running wildly and colorfully. You won’t regret it!

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How to Prepare a Particular Language for a Language Exchange Event: A Step-By-Step Guide

I would like to thank my friends at MundoLingo. Several recommended that I write a post about this, and here it is! Hope it helps! – Jared

Question 1: Can you understand a lot of the language passively?

Find a video or audio in your target language related to something you like to do, or general entertainment in that language of any sort.

If you can get the general point of almost anything that is said, or can understand a good 70% or more of what is said or written, proceed with the “Rehearse a Language I know Passively Step”.

Otherwise, go to question 2

Question 2: Have I mastered all of the following in my target language?

  1. The phrases from Omniglot.com?
  2. The present, future, and past forms? (Obviously some languages lack explicit tenses like this, but if you can say “I am”, “I will be” and “I was”, and do it with some regular and/or common verbs, you are in good shape!)
  3. Can you give a mini-stump-speech about who you are and what you do?

If you said no to any of these, I would recommend the following:

 

  • Write out all phrases you don’t know by hand.

 

  • Recite them out loud (to the best of your ability)

 

  • For each phrase you don’t know, develop a memory device for each. For example, I’m learning Welsh right now, and take the phrase “Bore da” = good morning. Mornings are boring, duh! So you get the idea. It gets harder (although it is possible) with languages with longer words. And just thinking about what I did for Greenlandic makes me cringe already!

 

If you don’t get it all done in time, that’s okay. The key is to be closer than where you were before.

If you said yes to all of these, then proceed to “Rehearse a Language that I know the basics of, but I can’t use actively quite yet …”

 

Rehearse a Language I Know Passively

 

Think about:

  • Where do I want to use this language?
  • How do I want to use this language?
  • What do I want to talk about?
  • What do I genuinely enjoy doing?

Remember you HAVE to engage with a spoken form of this language somehow, either with you speaking out loud (if reading) or, if you feel that maybe your accent can use improvement, a piece of media involving native/fluent speakers of your target language. (I use “fluent” in the case of languages that are used by a majority of non-natives, such as Indonesian or Cornish).

  • Keep a translator thing open at all times.
  • If you encounter a word that you do not recognize, put it into the translator thing. If you don’t know how to spell the word, take a guess. If you can’t guess, just say it out loud just in case you encounter it again. If you do guess in Google Translate, you may get autocorrected, so that’s helpful.
  • If possible, make a story about the word you learned.
  • Even if you don’t, you are likely to encounter that word in similar works by that same creator (author, YouTuber, TV show director, etc).
  • If you hear a phrase used that you RECOGNIZE but that you don’t think you use often, say it out loud. If you recognized it, chances are it is likely to be useful and have you sound like a local.
  • Continue until you either run out of time or feel that you’ve made a genuine improvement and get a “warm feeling” inside.

Then go to “conclusion”

 

Rehearse a Language that I Know the Basics of, but I Can’t Use Actively Quite yet

 

There are a lot of ways to learn words, here are some I would recommend.

  • Feel like reading? Paste a document about a topic in your target language that you would like to read.
  • Make each sentence its own paragraph
  • Highlight all words you don’t know what mean.
  • Look them up, put them in the glosses after each sentence.
  • Then read the entire article out loud, sentence by sentence. Don’t forget to read the glosses out loud as well, and develop stories for them, if you can.
  • But don’t feel too pressure to make stories for all of them if you think it is too time-intensive. For two reasons: (a) they may be related to words or roots in simpler words in your target language you already know and (b) there is the gift of context already.

 

You can also do this with song lyrics or dialogues.

Would you rather watch TV?

  • Make sure to “shadow”, so pause every now and then and repeat what the characters are saying. Even if you get it very wrong. Even if you KNOW you are getting it very wrong.
  • IF the show you are watching exists in a dubbed or an original version that is in your native language or in another language you know well, feel free to go through both shot-by-shot. Pay attention to the words! (This is one thing that really helped me with Finnish, which has a very large dubbing market for animated cartoons, usually for children but no less entertaining for older folks).
  • Would you like to watch something in subtitles? Pause after each bit and say the words out loud. Pay attention to what the word-by-word translation would be.
  • Again, context will help you remember that.

 

Go to “conclusion”

 

Conclusion

 

The biggest language learning struggle of 2016 was this: I could study all I wanted, but no matter how much I did it, I wouldn’t get anywhere unless (1) I genuinely was at ease with myself (2) I was willing to forgive myself for mistakes (which include accidentally mispronouncing something as a swearword to a minor phoneme off that doesn’t change any meaning) and (3) appreciating how far I’ve come.

While on the way to your language exchange event, keep yourself with positive thinking. There may be those who only want to talk to you in English if you attempt to speak their language (especially if you are a polyglot novice), but keep in mind that one day, if you truly wish it and with enough progress, you will speak enough of the language so that they will switch from English to their language with you.

And then all of the bad memories you may have had of your failures and slip-ups and embarrassments will be something to laugh at.

That day will come. Sooner than you think, actually…

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