An Enlightening Conversation with Richard Howeson, Founder of Britain’s Biggest Language Learning Company

In October 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Richard Howeson, the founder of uTalk. Since I discovered it over the summer (and became a subscriber less than a month later), uTalk has been a godsend for every area of my language life.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 17

For one, it has enhanced my pronunciation greatly, as well as teaching phrases that are useful in conversation and focusing on getting you to SPEAK above all else. The various professionalized skills are also extremely useful, such as ones related to the Olympics, Golf and even rescue missions (!)

Before I present the conversation to you (well…what I edited down to something easy to read), I should also add that Richard, in addition to having brought uTalk into existence and won royal awards several times (as to be discussed below), also keeps himself both physically agile with an impressive variety of sports and mentally agile with uTalk. I’ve heard that he is someone who enjoys cycling, bike polo, sailing and windsurfing.

The languages I am learning with uTalk right now are primarily Greenlandic (on Monday and Thursday) as well as Hungarian (on Tuesday and Friday) and Vietnamese (on Sunday and Wednesday). That said, I’ve also hopped around with various other languages in uTalk, most notably in Southeast Asia (Lao, Khmer and Burmese) and in Oceania (Samoan, but also reviewing Fijian and Tok Pisin to see how the app approaches those topics). Then, of course, there is Tumbuka, which I have a year-long-challenge to complete every skill starting in September. (I should also add that the Basque and Galician courses look MIGHTY tempting for me, but I seem to be spreading myself too thin as is. Luckily my work keeps me focused with a good amount of languages that I HAVE to keep fluent!)

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Already I’ve noticed a before / after effect when it came to uTalk in places like Mundo Lingo. The recording games not only improve my accent and make me a LOT less self-conscious but also serve to fasten all phrases into my memory. If you have ten minutes to use an app to prepare you with a conversation with a native speaker as an ABSOLUTE beginner, uTalk is your best choice. If you need to rehearse your tones, uTalk is your best choice as well. Also unlike many other apps there is a certain focus on subtle dialectical differences (as is present with how the male and female voices have subtle differences in both the Fijian and in the Burmese courses). Each voice actor is positively unforgettable. (And if I had to pick favorites of what I’ve savored so far, I would pick the Greenlandic male voice, the Burmese female voice, the Fijian male voice and the Tumbuka female voice, with my probably overall favorite being the Samoan male voice.[I have an ultra-weakness to Samoan voices in general]).

Anyhow, let’s show you some very interesting conversational pieces. Be prepared: there are recipes for having your memory be almost perfect in the exchanges below. Your life will never be the same!

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Conversation Between Richard Howeson and Jared Gimbel

 October 23, 2018

 

Jared Gimbel: All right, so I think this should be working very, very well! I hope things are going fantastic with you. I was literally doing uTalk a matter of seconds ago. I can even tell you what language and what skill! And I am very pleased to be here with you! Okay, so, yeah, I had my morning regimen of uTalk with the Greenlandic illness skill in the recording game, so in any case…a pleasure to meet the legend and long last! I really have to say that there have been so many gaps in my language learning that uTalk has covered up extremely effectively. I recommend it to all of my students, bar none, ever since I have discovered it. And I’d really like to thank you and the rest of your team for really having made this a reality for so many dreamers!

Richard Howeson: Jared that’s fantastic to hear that.  So yeah. It’s amazing. I’ve been hearing that you’ve quite a few languages under your belt!

J: Keyn ayn hore, as you say in Yiddish. Without the power of the evil eye, in a sense. It can be quite fun in bars sometimes, as we shall say. In any case, he did tell me that you were investigating some new projects concerning using language learning as a means to really help with health and memory going into old age. Is that correct and do you want to provide any information or insight on what you’ve experienced?

R: First off all, we’ve heard from people how it has helped them. We’ve been working also with a charity that helps people with dementia. Basically helping by providing them language learning materials and carries them to do it. I think that there is a huge amount of research that says that if you keep your brain active then, it’s just like your body. If you do a lot of exercises, it can work beautifully. But if you sit there, it stops working. And you brain is very, very similar.

J: Yes.

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R: So the key thing is to keep it active. And learning a language seems to be one thing that really, really does help. And that is the interesting thing, because you are fluent in several languages, which I am not. I want to get by in languages if I have to, and I come from a background where I find that my skill is that I’ve…I know what it is like for people who find it really difficult to learn languages.

J: Hmmm…

R: Because I am initially…concerned as one of those. I struggled in school.

J: I did too, actually!

R: Oh good! (Laughs) Glad to hear that! I’m a convert. I was talking to a guy who taught me at school, he is quite old now but…and he said that of all the people he taught, and he had a very long list, it is quite a lot of students, and he said that if there was someone at the top who was the least likely person to have anything to do with languages, it would have been me.

J: Indeed.

R: But here we are. I have actually learned a lot about languages, I have learned a lot OF language, but fluency is a different story. That comes from, and think you’d probably say this too, a lot of your fluency comes by living in places.

J: That is correct as well, but on the other hand, I think in some respects it has something to do with friendship and circles as well. Also hobbyists, especially online. And I think that especially concerning Yiddish and Tok Pisin, I think that really being surrounded by other people who are very curious, in these cases about Yiddishland (that is to say, the literature and the songs) or Papua New Guinea and the rainbow, the bird of paradise as it were, there is a reason it is their national symbol, that really makes up the most linguistically diverse country on earth…that fact is that I really encourage a lot of my friends to realize that you can pretty much gain any skill if you actually surround yourself with an environment which is conducive to that or friends who also have it as well. And in New York City, it is very easy to be surrounded by hyperpolyglots or literally by anything else! And so as a result, I’ve encountered several people who said, “oh yes, I have encountered five-language conversations between multiple people on an almost weekly basis!” And so I actually know very much, given the various negative programming that really exists in language learning, the fact that in many countries some people believe that it is not possible for certain varieties of people or impossible beyond a certain age…I really know how it feels to actually feel hopeless and then to gain hope again. And so one thing that I do with my students is that I turn the hope back on. And that is something that I believe is extremely essential and I believe that uTalk is very much doing that. I did prepare a number of questions. And so I think the first question is how did you get involved with making uTalk and what makes uTalk stand out? How does your personal story echo in the uTalk story? You did provide some details as to your somewhat “back from the brink” story, but I’m curious to hear… how does your personal story interweave with your award-winning creation?

R: Yeah. If I go back to when I first started, as I told you before, languages were difficult in school. I was having anything to do with languages. But it started with a charged conversation with a then co-director at another company, where he was discussing how annoying it was that the French spoke French when we had meetings with them in France, and we thought that it was rude of them, and then we realized, actually WE were really rude with not learning THEIR language. And then we thought, “well, that’s our teacher’s fault. We weren’t really taught very well” And then we thought “that’s the really lazy learners”. And then we thought “actually, we are in the right area in technology to make something that could really work!” And the fact that language learning IS difficult without the right resources, there’s no doubt about it…

J: Yes.

R: And when I say it is difficult…the right resource is the easiest resource…the resource is to go live there. But if you haven’t got something like the ability to do that, then what else do you do? I should say that “books don’t work very well because they don’t make any noise”

J: Yes.

R: And the language comes from…

J: Fantastically put!

R: This is the bit that has got to do the job at most times. So we came up with the plan for making a language-learning product. We looked at everybody else’s methods, we did a lot of research on it. And one of the things that became clear is that all of them disagreed with each other on the right ways to learn a language. That means that it was up to us to come up with something else. And certainly over the years, there is no one product I would say that can teach anybody a language.

J: Agreed.

R: And if you’re trying to do that, you’re in very deep doubt. That’s where we came to. uTalk came from…we had a product that wanted to make people to be able to get by, to start off with, and we were doing lots of in fact to learn how to make a business disk. And I was on a trip to Hungary to see a new client, we already made some language learning products by then. I was waiting to be met there at the airport, and our plane got in early. There was no one in the airport, it was pre mobile-phones and all that sort of thing. I wanted to go to the loo. And there were two doors there and they had ladies and gents written on them.

J: “Női” and “férfi”?

R: I didn’t know which was which. And I waited for twenty minutes before someone went and. And to my worries I couldn’t quite work out the sex of the person who had gone in. So it was a bit strange. So then I realized if I were on a business trip, I wanted a business disk with “invoice” and “fax”. I wanted something that would get me by in any country. So the idea came that what we need to do is teach people the language they need to get started. And the second thing we realized is that actually, there are, you know, when you go to school you tend to learn one language, but what you should be learning is the skill to learn any language.

J: Very true.

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R: The reality is, you could end up anywhere in the world. So that was the idea that we came up with, to make a disk without too much in it, not to frighten people away, but to get going.

J: Indeed.

R: That disk ended up with fifty words, then we came up with 1500, and we slimmed it down to about 250 and we decided to do it in all the languages of the European Union. So we’ve got to do Russian as well, you’ve got to Japanese, you’ve got to do Chinese. So we ended up with 20-30 languages, and we made this disk, and this is sort of how it started. This was with a small corpus, not as much as uTalk, but that gave us the … with that disk, we ended up adding on these languages. People loved it, it went really, really well. And as a result of it, we were asked to apply for a Queen’s Award for Innovation. And after that, we had to fill in quite a complicated form, and this will answer your second question, actually “what makes uTalk stand out?” And one of the things on the form it said, “who’s your competition?” and you’re not allowed to put “none”…and I put “none”! And we were very honored by Her Majesty, the Queen of England to get an award for a grant towards innovation, because basically what we were doing, nobody else had done before! And this thing, I think you’ve learned Danish before, along with Greenlandic?

J: (In a Danish voice) Ja!

R: Well, at that time, there was no such thing as a Danish-Greek dictionary.

J: Yup!

R: It didn’t exist. So if you wanted to learn Danish from Greek, you had to go buy English or another language. And so we were actually the first people to do this crossover of languages! Because as you know, you can learn every language from your own language. We are now up to 20,000 combinations.

J: (Gasps) Very well done.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 25

R: So what sets us aside is that fact, it’s that… we love languages. We can’t resist if someone asks for one. Hence, Pidgin or that Yiddish will be coming along in a new uTalk course! I should say one other thing. TalkNow, it was brilliant, but people came back and said “we want more!” So we spent ten years making TalkNow, adding languages all the time, we got up to 150 languages, we put it out as an app on the IOS App store and it was going great guns. And then the complaint we got, this was the first time we really got good feedback for something on the app store, people were saying, “we need more! We love it, but we want more languages!” So we went back to the drawing board, spent a year and a half going through what the corpus should be. And as you’ve seen…you quite like uTalk! What we wanted to do is that people would have the vocabulary. Because that … in order to speak a language, you need more, than anything else, to have the words.

J: Yes

R: If you HAVE to get the grammar wrong, that is not the end of the world. I have looked at four year old bilingual children. They speak beautifully. And all of their grammar is perfect. And they’ve never had a grammar lesson.

J: Also I think some kids manage to say some things like “I goed to the store” as well. Even in that respect, they would no doubt be considered fluent. But in any case, I think it was Steve Kaufmann that really said “fluency, not perfection”. That said, I think very essential verbs should obviously be perfected as a matter of course. But the fact is that if you’re really expecting to know every single idiom all of the time…Lord knows, Australians, British people, people from all the British Commonwealth countries, and certainly India have showed me my native language in ways that I didn’t think it was possible to misunderstand.

R: Good! That’s the thing! It works! Someone once asked me “what do you do?” and I said “we help people make friends all over the world.”

J: That’s fantastically put!

R: Yeah! We sold 30 million CD-ROMS, but we’re gonna go way above that!

J: Indeed. Very well.

R: From friends like yourself as well!

J: Indeed. And I’m always really glad to put you into contact with any speakers of rare languages that I may know in New York. Or elsewhere, for that matter!

R: On uTalk, we haven’t got Yiddish yet. So we’ve been catching up!

J: Good!

R: So TalkNow is up at 160 I think, and uTalk is now 142, but there are some in uTalk that aren’t in TalkNow, and so we’ve got about 20 we want to catch up with. Yiddish is in TalkNow but it is not in uTalk.

J: I think the same with Tibetan as well if I recall correctly?

R: Tibetan…Tibetan is seconds away! It is ready for someone to press the button. There is always some last-minute reason! But Tibetan is out any second! Although we do…we are worried that we have had nasty comments from China before about it.

J: Indeed. But on the other hand, throughout the world over, I think most people are willing to be bridge-builders. This is really one thing I’ve really seen all throughout the world between…I’ve seen very deep friendships between cultures that are “supposed to be enemies” and surprisingly I think most people really want to make friends, want to live happy lives, and are actually quite glad to actually explore things. And certainly, there might be the occasional nasty comment, but I think most people in China and in the rest of the world are explorers and kind people at heart. And this is true anywhere. Okay, so another question! How have you found the language learning process change for you throughout the various stages of your lives? How about learning processes in general, such as learning how to play sports, learning new skills or I think…I saw one of your pictures that was in India. It looked like the Hungarian flag at first but then I saw the Devanagari script on the sign!

R: Was I on a bicycle?

J: Yes, it was a bicycle. Yes.

R: One of the things in terms of people able to learn a language. Your brain is a muscle like the other parts of your body. You’ve got to allow it to be relaxed in order to learn. The other thing that is really, really important in learning a language is that…I did some research, I read about how the brain learns before I started the company. What you need is dopamine coming up through the middle of your brain.

J: Aha!

R: And If you want to suppress dopamine, then take any of the anti-depressant type, valium and things like that, that will stop you from learning anything, and that surpresses dopamine. On the other hand, all the scientists were looking and asked “how can you make people have more dopamine?” And the answer is a very, very simple one, and there’s not much any drug company or scientist can do about it. It is to make you laugh. When you laugh, you produce tons of it. It is how human beings functions really well. You remember the good times! Your synapses are growing when you laugh!

J: That’s fantastic! I think I should be recommending all of my students to check out joke pages in their target languages. And come to think of it, I think that that’s probably…the reading exercises through which I’ve had the most vocabulary retention. And the fact that stupid jokes exist in every single culture. My personal favorites are the Yiddish Hershel Ostropoler stories, he is a trickster-character in many respects who really outwits very rich people who are used to getting their way all of the time, despite the fact that he himself has nothing. And, of course, within Scandinavia, we have the Swedes telling stupid jokes about the Norwegians, and in the other direction as well. And that I also found extremely amusing in many respects. Because they take them from one another and use the jokes in both directions!

R: Oh yeah! Like the Irish! We do it with the Irish!

J: Oh, like with the English, Scots, and Irish jokes?

R: Yeah, that! Anyway, the ejective of how we design a product is to make it fun.

J: Yes. And you’ve done that.

R: And you probably know, it is about scoring points. Scoring the points means you learn the language. It is not saying “you’ve got to learn this NOW!”, that just doesn’t work.

J: Yup.

R: So the whole thing is based on fun. Right from the beginning, you learn that. And you’ve probably noticed, some people complain about it, but the most challenging game is the hard memory game?

J: YES!

R: Do you utilize that or not?

J: I really have to confess to doing this but…on the Desktop version, I use the snipping tool to capture the…

R: My daughter does that as well! But that doesn’t matter! What will happen is that you’ve feel pleased with yourself when you got them all right! And THAT is actually what makes you remember it!

J: Indeed. And then what happens sometimes on the train, sometimes the train is significantly loud and I lose valuable seconds on account of that because I don’t hear something. But that’s MTA’s problem, not uTalk’s!

R: It is worth saying that the background to that is when we first did that game. We did it in Russian and we didn’t know any Russian…as beginners. What we found was that it was very difficult. We were going to scrap it. And then we thought “just try it, we’ll record it in English quickly, play it in English just to see! It is obviously impossible, this game!” And we find that in English it was very easy. We decided to keep the game. It is perfect! Here’s what it does…the target is to think in the language you’re learning. If you can think in the language you’re learning, you can get full marks! That is what it does!

J: You’re very right about that, actually!

R: That’s what you want! You don’t want to be half-learning words, you want them as if they come off the tip of the tongue, as though they are in your own language! That’s the goal! And that’s why uTalk works so well. There are a lot of language learning products where you half-learn things, and half-learn a lot! Then you can get a dictionary and say “I’ll read the dictionary” and then you won’t remember anything.

J: Yes.

R: And if you do any of our exercises, you’ll learn a number of words. If you go through the games and score top marks, including in the recording and recall sessions, then you’ll know that you won’t forget them!

J: Indeed. It is interesting because I find that even within a handful of days, my accent goes VERY VERY HIGH and already I think I have vocabulary that is actually at the forefront that I associate with the picture. And with the perfect voices that I really think are really suitable for every single one of the exercises!

R: All the actors come to London. It is special. The whole idea is that the company has a lot of fun.

J: A lot of the voice acting is snarky at times. I found that with the Fijian course and with the Lao one as well. And sometimes it can show residue of an almost fake anger to the degree that it can actually be humorous.

R: That’s exactly what it is meant to be!

J: Fantastic points! Another thing. One of the biggest battles I’ve seen from my students is challenging limiting beliefs. How does that struggle morph with age and how does it become easier or harder?

R: Right. That’s an interesting one. When you talk to people, and they’ll try to do a language learning product and they buy one and say “it didn’t work”, what you’ll find is “I’ve never used it” (for the most part). The most important thing is getting them to use it. I challenge ANYONE using ANY of our games not to learn the words. They should try and get full marks. At any age! You’re absolutely right! To a certain extent it can be self-imposed as well. There is loads of research that shows that children up to the age of five accumulate language at an incredibly fast rate. They remember words SO AMAZINGLY! And at the age of five, what happens? It suddenly stops and goes off a cliff. The reasons, I think, is what happens at the age of five…they go to school. Suddenly, language becomes regimented. It no longer becomes fun. And the key thing is to keep it being fun. What happens when we get older is that sadly people tend to treat things more seriously. If you do that, it isn’t going to work. And I look at you! You love learning! All you need to do is change your attitude! At uTalk, we say “do this, have fun” and away you go! That’s the key! The next thing is to say “when do you do it?” This is another one of the things that uTalk is strong on, I think. People say “I haven’t got time”. But if you look at your day, for old people, that’s one reason they actually do very well. Because they have time after they retire! No rush! Nothing more to do! They can spend time learning a language! But when you’re young, and this is particular to your age group after you’ve left school in your 20’s and 30’s, and then you ask them what they’re doing, “I spent an hour in a commute in one direction, in the other direction, nine hours in a plane going to New York…” With this app, you can get on with it anywhere!

J: Yes

R: Five minutes, ten minutes a half hour, an hour and…it works! A key feature of uTalk is that it carries on working even if you don’t have the Internet! It will sync up again later! It doesn’t mind! If you like doing it on your computer at home, or …

J: In the Subway, where the lack of Internet counts for a lot!

R: No Internet down there!

J: I remember during my last trip I was in Milwaukee leading High Holiday services at my grandmother’s synagogue. I am currently in my Brooklyn apartment. I think I got three skills of Greenlandic done in just simply one hour alone. And also I think the speaking game can be done in well under a minute. Either that or my memory is crazy good.

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R: The speaking game has a little purpose to it by the way! Most people are terrified of speaking! What they find is that they can score all of the points without speaking or it one of those with voice recognition which…doesn’t recognize your voice or gets upset with background noise and you can’t use it anywhere. So we came up with the recall games we have. But we wanted to do is get people comfortable with recording your own voice. So 50 really easy point to get there. The easiest points you’ve got! We want to get people to do it! They are pleased with themselves afterwards and they think, “I CAN speak the language! It works! I am happy with it!”. When they come to the recall game, they know they can do it.

J: Also for tonal languages, it is a godsend. I noticed that Lao doesn’t actually have the tones in the transliteration and I think one possible reason for that is that in Vientiane and in Luang Prabang they actually have different tone sets? Slight differences! I haven’t looked at the Thai one. Or the Burmese. Or Mandarin. Or Vietnamese for that matter. (No longer true as of the time of transcription. I have done the Burmese and Vietnamese courses since). Gee. I’m way too obsessed, am I not? But I have seen in the Mandarin snapshots that they did include the tones. Through sheer imitation, I got over my fear of getting tones wrong, especially since I think that some perfectionists may be a little bit afraid to say a single tone wrong. Especially how …I think a friend of mine said that, in Thai, there is a tone difference between “I like to ride horses” and “I like dog shit”.

R: This is something that happened to me at school. Probably what put me off language.

J: Tell me.

R: The first thing I was taught was the danger of getting it wrong.

J: Oh! I tell my students to embrace their mistakes. This is one thing I have to deprogram my students from.

R: If you make mistakes, this will make people laugh, which is great. When someone says something wrong in a language, we have an automatic sense which corrects it. Half of the time we don’t hear it.

J: GOOD POINTS!

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson on easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 2

R: Don’t worry, no one is going to mind. Obviously a sense of humor helps. I was made to feel frightened of getting my accent wrong in French or saying the wrong thing. Just have a go! British people staying in the US for a few weeks take on an American accent.

J: Even when I was in Fiji I noticed that there was English spoken in the business sphere and Fijian between a lot of the locals. Most of the signs in Fiji are in English throughout the country, but the conversations on the street are in Fijian, with the exception of Indo-Fijians or the students of the University of the South Pacific from which all of the countries of Oceania are represented. As soon as you enter the university, you see a promenade of all of the flags of the Pacific. Very interestingly I noticed that over the course of my time in Fiji my s got very, very thick. Because, as is also demonstrated greatly by your voice actors, the Fijian s is pronounced thickly. Hence “sssssssega” (Fijian g = ng in English) is “not”. I actually….uTalk was helpful as well because I learned to imitate the voice actors. It was like having a private tutor, in a sense.

R: That is what it should be. By the way, one of my friends works an airplane as well. We have a number of interesting projects. We got asked by Emirates if we wanted to do something for language learning. What we’ve added to their in-flight entertainment is uTalk. They can learn about 15-20 words, the most important ones, but by watching videos. Now we are up to fifteen languages and you can learn them from five.

J: Wow.

R: Including from Mandarin and Arabic.

J: I love the representation of Colloquial Arabic varieties and local languages of India. I think that in that respect, you’re without competition!

R: We’re up to five Arabics, I think. We are working with some of the short-call carriers that don’t put anything on the back of the seat. On EasyJet, we’re putting language learning as a part of the wireless system.

J: I saw your photo ops.

uTalk Chairman Dick Howeson boards easyJet to trial Learn as you Fly project 1

R: You can log onto the inflight system and learn any language from any language. We have the range. We are the go-to app for any airline system. No one else can match us! We want to get people to realize what you can do in one flight, and it is a lovely resource…because we all know what happens. You have the intention to learn a language and then you think “I wish I got around to it!” And now you can! Then another motivation can be “I wish I did learn the language” on the return journey. And uTalk is useful for that, too!

J: It seems as though you covered literally all of the main points. One final thought before I have to prepare for an English class: what essential ideas or techniques should the world know about language learning in general? Or words of encouragement?

R: Believe in yourself. Anyone can do it. And don’t believe anyone who told you you can’t. Because you can. Get uTalk. Do the easy game. That’s all. Do the easy game. And then do the next one up, the hard game. And you’ll release how much you’ve learned in a FEW MINUTES. It is not difficult. Start off easy. And don’t worry about grammar or reading or writing! This is about being able to speak to people and making friends! My final comment: even one word in their language can make a HUGE Difference!

J: I remember one time when I was making signs for a protest in the US and there was an American woman who showed up and she lived in Cambodia. She was fluent in Cambodian and I just say “sour sdey” (= hello) and her mouth dropped out of sheer excitement!

R: It feels so special to be able to do that! And tell people not to worry about being fluent!  Just have fun and do it! Presenting people with being fluent is like putting everything on the table at once! Just have one small taste! And then a bit more! Then away it goes! And learn what you want to learn! That’s featured in the app…you choose what you’re interested in!

J: I found that in the Fijian golf Course (no pun intended…sorry, I just had to). The five…the only reason I know the names of the clubs is because of the Wii sports games and I’m not ashamed to admit it. They used the exact same word to refer to all five of the clubs (=nai tavi ni golf)!  Like driver or…

R: They just called it a club, didn’t they?

J: Yes. I think so. On the other hand, I come from a very sports-illiterate family. I sometimes got invited by some of my friends to see the world cup matches and sing the Danish national anthem in the Denmark-Croatia final game and then I watched them get slaughtered in the penalty kicks. Both of my friends were rooting for Croatia, but whatever. And very interestingly, yes, other finer aspects of Judaism I can’t really discuss in any other languages other than Hebrew. Even in English, I have to default to Hebrew to discuss that. In many respects, one thing to note is that “di gantze velt iz a velt mit veltelekh”. The whole world is a world with little worlds, it is true about the world and also with individual languages in general. have been letting other people know how fantastic uTalk is and it has made a huge difference with Greenlandic which I say is the hardest language I’ve ever learned. I fell in love with it back in 2013. I was in Greenland last year and I struggled to put sentences together, but even when I did that I got free drinks galore.

Mother of the Sea and Me

I do not say this lightly: this is one of the most enlightening conversations I have had this year, if not in fact in my entire life, on this topic!

 Greece

You can begin learning one (or more) of over 140 languages RIGHT NOW at www.utalk.com. Dowload the uTalk app at utalk.com/app

 

5 Things I Liked about Living in Israel as an American (and 5 Other Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

70 years of Israel! Happy birthday!

There are so many choices for what I could write about for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). No doubt a lot of people would use this day as an opportunity to fortify their own political opinions.

As someone who has lived in five different countries and have been to nearly twenty others, I tend to see countries as “cultural canisters” more than political entities (especially given that I don’t do much work related to government or politics).

I’m not going to write about anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict this time. Today is a day to celebrate all that is Israel and I am very unequivocal about my hope for peace in the future (if not the present) and I don’t need today to prove that.

Today I’m going to open up about my experiences in the Holy Land as a human being, and someone who is very much intrigued, if not obsessed, with the differences between nations and cultures.

Here are some things that I liked and…didn’t like so much…about living in Israel. (I’ve been there three times, 2009, 2012 and 2015, the first time for half a year).

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Didn’t Like So Much: The Country Sometimes Feels like Jewish Teenager Disneyland

 

I can imagine pretty much every Israeli is nodding their head at this point. There is value in getting young people to experience places, especially ones with deep political stories and historical significance and no one can deny that.

With that said, while I have encountered groups of teenagers everywhere in my travels, especially in Western Europe, in Israel I feel that sometimes some of the tour operators may focus too much on “having a good time” perhaps at the expense of truly understanding what Israeli culture and the Israeli mind is all about.

Thankfully with the Paideia Institute I had not only responsible tour guides who asked and answered questions and shared their stories but also responsible tourists as peers—ones who made observations, listened, asked questions and realize that they are there to build bridges and create mutual understanding rather than party, hook up, have fun, etc.

Obviously not ALL of the tourist operators are like this at all, and I’ve had deep conversations with many tourists about their struggles, insights and hopes. But I found myself having to constantly apologize on behalf of my “American compatriots” based on the behavior I saw from other people who held the same passport as mine.

Perhaps this will change with time.

 

Liked: A Lot of Israelis are Very Curious About the World and Have Global Experiences

 

Mention the name of a country you’ve been to to most Israelis and chances are they’ve visited there or know someone who is a permanent resident there. Hebrew is a language I’ve heard spoken in every country I’ve visited so far except for Greenland (English and Polish are the only two I’ve heard spoken in all of them).

Thanks to the fact that “galuti” (exilic) isn’t really considered an insult anymore, many Israelis relish their heritage of being “out of many, one people” (like Jamaica, another place with an interesting Jewish backstory!). Tel-Aviv can feel so globalized to a degree that would put Manhattan to shame.

Also with many Israelis I’ve seen that many of them speak other languages very well not also to mention know tidbits of very surprising ones (e.g. Vietnamese, Finnish, Indonesian, etc.)

Mention your recent trip to and Israel and you’ll have a conversation topic for the next thirty minutes guaranteed. And in a good way.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some Olim Idolized the Idea of Israel to a Fault

To me, Israel was a country with deep Jewish heritage and holy sites and many layers of history. The various groups of Olim all made their mark on the country in addition to the Arab Citizens of Israel as well (not also to mention guest workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Romania, etc. and possibly anyone else I forgot)

It’s a fantastic place to experience, I love it very much and I love talking about it. And then there are some that see it as a glorified fortress to prevent the Jewish people from experiencing a second Holocaust and, sometimes…little beyond that. And sadly I’ve spoken to some staff members at Yad Vashem who see this as the primary function of the state.

As such, their devotion to it can seem a bit on the nationalistic side in which outsiders of any varieties are not only distrusted but also potential double-crossers, especially if they’re not Jewish. And sometimes not being Jewish in Israel, even as a tourist, can be a bit of a liability. (This is what some of my friends have told me. By contrast, my Judaism never really has been a liability in any of the places I’ve visited nor has being visibly foreign in places like Myanmar been a liability either.)

There are elements of some Israeli sub-cultures that can serve to blind people from dialogue, reason and mutual understanding and the fear of a second Holocaust, not also to mention the omnipresence of the Shoah in popular culture there, serves as an engine for it. But I can imagine that when peace comes to the region there won’t be a need for this anymore.

 

Liked: A Healthy Diet Can Usually Be the Path of Least Resistance

Yes, you can get more candy than you can know what to do with in Machaneh Yehuda, but also the omnipresence of vegan foods (Israel does have the highest percentage of vegans in the WORLD!) and chickpea specialties being good local favorites will help you tremendously towards whatever weight loss program you’ve been itching to try.

The falafel is Jerusalem is legendary and once you’ve had it, none other in the world will come close. Never, ever, ever.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: A Mutually-Enforced Barrier Between Israelis and Most Foreign-Born Residents, even Jews, even Olim, and Especially Americans and other Anglophones

 

Perhaps in part because of the “Disneyland for American Teenagers” trope I’ve discussed earlier, I’ve encountered many Israelis (including Yordim = Israelis living outside of “The Land) who somehow see Americans as almost a completely different species upon which they purport themselves the local experts. (To be fair, Israelis probably know American pop culture better than any nationality I’ve encountered, honorable mentions go to Germany and Iceland [both places with histories of American military presence, no big surprise]).

In Hebrew University many of my attempts to socialize were usually stuck among the Anglophones, even when I could manage Hebrew conversations just fine. And even then once or twice I got the line “we should continue in English because I’ve studied your language for more than you’ve studied mine” (I have literally got this treatment NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD!)

Thankfully the majority of Israelis have been encouraging of my Hebrew studies both within and without the Holy Land….as it has been for all of my languages.

 

Liked: Deep Conversations about Meaningful Topics, as opposed to small talk, are Common

 

Ah, yes. In the United States, sometimes conversations will go “so…what do you do…?” Three minutes of platitudes followed by “oh, it was nice meeting you”.

In Israel this NEVER HAPPENS. Whether it go into a direction about religion, politics, cultural differences, American sitcoms (which I know nothing about) or my personal favorite: teach me how to swear in (Yiddish / Swedish / Burmese etc.)

I’ve remember SO, SO many soundbites from Israeli conversations that I’ve literally cited conversations I’ve had with Israelis more than I have from any other nationality!

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Outward “Culture of Insensitivity” Can Be Off-Putting.

 

Yes, Americans care about their “feelings” and “smiling all the time” very often (at least this is what people who have “hyphenated American” identities have also told me and I’d have to agree as a TCK myself). That said, there is a certain outward machismo that not only took me time to get used to but was genuinely STRESSFUL during my first few weeks in Israel.

Usage of loud voices is an acquired taste not also to mention a culture in which confrontation is somewhat reveled in (in contrast to Sweden or Spain in which confrontation can cause people to freeze up in confusion).

Even some American students who have been studying in Israel for YEARS never fully adjust to this reality. It isn’t for everyone, and even some people who see Israel as the most beautiful place on earth where everything is perfect for Jews may encounter the fact that they may never fully grow used to this element of the culture.

 

Liked: The Educational Culture is Something to Marvel At.

 

Oh, yes. Israeli professors treat you like an equal, they respond on point and value every single one of your ideas. If they disagree with you, they do so respectfully. They’ll keep their politics a guarded secret (one friend told me that disclosing your politics as an Israeli professor means that you’ll get permanently banned from the profession, another friend laughed at the idea that any such policy could be meaningfully enforced).

In the United States, I’m sorry to say, a lot of professors sometimes have fragile egos in which they don’t want to consider their students viewpoints and often want to force their viewpoints on others. NEVER, EVER among Israeli professors have I encountered this, not even among Ulpan teachers.

The rest of the world needs to learn something from this idea of “learning as equals”.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: You May Sometimes Be Barely Able to Finish a Sentence in Conversing with Israelis.

 

When I was in Poland, I had tour groups from Britain / Chile / Norway / Iceland / the US / Canada (keep in mind that this was before my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 / 2013 and so in 2011 I was really capable of only giving tours in English and Yiddish and not much else. Okay, I could use some Hebrew, Spanish, Russian and Polish but sometimes I’d have to use English in between. )

British teenager groups -> tended to listen to what I said. A bit like me putting on a show for them with puppets.

Israeli family group -> if the British teenager group was like the puppet show, the Israeli family group was like if I would be tackled in the middle of the show, all of the puppets taken from me and then they start making their own show in which I have the occasional comment.

It’s really charming to reminisce on but again, like so many things Israeli, this is an acquired taste, one that many people, even Olim, never fully acquire.

 

Liked: Every Day in Israel Feels Like an Adventure.

 

Between the weather and the fact that few people treat you like strangers, and that people want to talk to you and get to know you, and ask you your opinions about honest topics even if they met you a few minutes ago, Israel feels like an RPG overworld in the best way.

There’s always something new to explore, a conversation to be had, a weather to marvel at, and a place and a people you never truly forget and that will always be in your hearts.

 

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Happy birthday, Israel!

What Yiddish, Tok Pisin, Irish, and Not a Few Other Languages Have in Common

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In two days, this blog will celebrate its first birthday, and I recognize that for a handful of reasons I have not been updating this enterprise particularly well, although my own language adventures have been energized even more vigorously.

Throughout those adventures, I have noticed that there is a significant break between the languages that UNESCO notes as “Endangered” and those that it does not (and those listed as “Vulnerable” are on the borderline).

For those of you wishing to see the Atlas: http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/index.php

It is not about the number of speakers. Yiddish has more native speakers than Icelandic does, if you take into account all Yiddish dialects (UNESCO’s atlas as well as its Red Book notes individual dialects—suffice it to say that the boundary between dialects and languages deserves another post). Faroese has more native speakers than Irish or Breton does, yet Faroese is only “Vunerable” whereas Irish is “definitely endangered” and Breton “severely endangered”.

And before you ask, what the languages have in common in the title is NOT that they are endangered: Tok Pisin actually is not (for those curious, it has over 1 million native speakers , 4 million fluent speakers at least, as well as government support).

I detect two factors between all endangered languages:

  • The fact that every single one of them has had their usage suppressed by a government. One significant horror story is that of Breton, which in 100 years went from the sole language of Brittany to being spoken by 10% of the population of the region natively…the quickest decline of a usage of any language that did not involve genocide.

The Celtic Languages in the United Kingdom, largely the poster children for Endangered languages in the Anglophone world (next to Yiddish), have similarly had their usage restricted or punished. Even now, there are some British politicians that deem the study and speaking of Celtic Languages as something tribalistic or even pagan.

To go outside Europe (but not far away from it), the story of Yiddish in Israel is well-known, deemed the language of the ghetto in the early days of the state to receiving state support in contemporary times. Israel was far from the only state suppressing the usage of Yiddish—the communist nations sought to integrate their populations into a single standard, and sometimes this vision involved “no minority languages” (although obviously this was notoriously inconsistently followed).

  • Now I get to answer the question at the beginning of the article: a lot of endangered languages (of which Tok Pisin is not, although it has this feature anyway) feature usage of components from various nations that have had an occupying presence or the like. In Irish, there is even a word for Irish that is influenced heavily by English: “Béarlachas” (the word for English is “Béarla”).

Yiddish-speakers in a place like Boro Park will notice that there is also an excess of English words that is found in many Ultra-Orthodox communities, words like “blueberries” and “challenges” are taken direction without any changes in this jargon, although you would be hard-pressed to find the equivalent in anything as assigned reading in your Yiddish-class (such as from the Forvertz).

In Tok Pisin as well, there is a split component. English is a composite language (between Norman, Saxon, Norse, Celtic and Colonial influences) as is Yiddish (between Germanic, Slavic, Latinate, other local languages and the Holy Tongue), and Tok Pisin is as well. Like Irish and Yiddish, there are words used to indicate a version of the language with overt European influence. Except for in the case of Tok Pisin, using too many European loanwords can be construed as unbelievably offensive. Not surprisingly, this variety of the language is called “Tok Masta”, which exists primarily in written text and, when it was spoken, was used primarily by condescending colonists in days of yore.

Not all languages that have this feature are endangered, but every endangered language that I have looked at does have a “purist” version as well as a version (or set thereof) that pays a significant amount of homage to the former rulers. The among of Norwegian words in a Northern Sami dictionary, for example, comes as a surprise to those not expecting the two to be related in any way. But when you consider history, it is not a surprise.

I am not someone to believe that languages influence too deeply the way we think about things (more on that in another post, perhaps). However, I am one to believe that learning languages is an excellent way to learn history and the relations between cultures. I was telling my mother, one day, a history of Celtic languages, and she paused my conversation and said, “are you saying that the history of every language is affected by who invaded where?”

It isn’t difficult to disagree or to say why. But yes.

Your Questions about Cornish: Answered!

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No, this flag is not a set of four black buttons. This is St. Piran’s Flag, which is the national symbol of Cornwall and also of the Cornish language.

Ever since my last blog post as well as earlier I got a number of questions about the Cornish language from a variety of people, and here is where they will be answered!

  1. Cornish? Where do they speak that? Like…Cornwall?

 

Right you are! And before you go ahead and ask “isn’t Cornwall a part of England, and can’t you just use English when you go there? And isn’t Cornwall so tiny that it isn’t worth the effort?”

In response to that first bit, you go ahead and try telling Cornish people that see what happens. I wrote about the unique history of Cornwall here. The existence of Cornwall predates the existence of England, and the Cornish Language has been described by some as having “ancient roots”. Make of that whatever you want.

Cornish is a language that you have to conscientiously search for its speakers, and most of them obviously reside in Cornwall, and a few in other areas of the United Kingdom, especially London. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there are curious souls like myself who have been intrigued by the story of Cornwall and its revived language and seek to embark on a journey to learn it.

And believe it or not, it still is used in some public ceremonies! Not also to mention that there are signs in Cornish in Cornwall and workshops held in Cornwall, London, and even some areas of the United States.

As to tiny, Cornwall is actually larger than Luxembourg, and is a popular vacation destination that has been name-dropped in lots of literary spheres—from Shakespeare to the recent Broadway production of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Only two days ago in Barnes and Noble at Union Square did I see an entire travel book devoted to just Devon and Cornwall (Devon borders Cornwall to the East).

Land’s End? Cornish. Penzance? (Pirates, anyone?) Cornish. Truro (mentioned briefly in the first episode of Black Mirror?) Cornish. And also a place known in English as the “Scilly Islands”.  This is an abbreviated list.

  1. Don’t like only five people speak it?

A more common variation of this question is “don’t like only two hundred people speak it?”

If you count native speakers, then yes, the numbers are somewhere in the hundreds. But after being dead for quite a while (although there are few that debate the idea of Cornish having died at all), it is better than nothing.

And…AND! This doesn’t include the non-native speakers! And there are thousands of them that are not only actively producing a literary and musical culture, but actively solicited for it!

If you want a language that will give you employment opportunities that few even know exist, consider learning a language with few speakers. One person at a polyglot gathering told me that “the fewer speakers there are of a language, the more that language is deemed important by its speakers”.

Perhaps this was a jab at language revivals or attempts to save endangered languages (not the first time!), but the fact remains: if you speak a rare language, even as a non-native, expect employers to hunt you down! (I, of all people, should know.)

  1. What’s the point of learning Cornish if so few people speak it?

 

Allow me to introduce you to the book that started this whole bonanza, Henry Jenner’s Handbook of the Cornish Language. This book came out in 1904, and the preface reads as follows:

 

“This book is principally intended for those persons of Cornish nationality who wish to acquire some knowledge of their ancient tongue, and to read, write, and perhaps even to speak it.  Its aim is to represent in an intelligible form the Cornish of the later period, and since it is addressed to the general Cornish public rather than to the skilled philologist, much has been left unsaid that might have been of interest to the latter, old-fashioned phonological and grammatical terms have been used, a uniform system of spelling has been adopted, little notice has been taken of casual variations, and the arguments upon which the choice of forms has been based have not often been given.

The spelling has been adapted for the occasion.  All writers of Cornish used to spell according to their own taste and fancy, and would sometimes represent the same word in different ways even in the same page, though certain general principles were observed in each period.  There was a special uncertainty about the vowels, which will be easily appreciated by those who are familiar with Cornish English.  Modern writers of all languages prefer consistent spelling, and to modern learners, whose object is linguistic rather than philological, a fairly regular system of orthography is almost p. xa necessity.  The present system is not the phonetic ideal of “one sound to each symbol, and one symbol for each sound,” but it aims at being fairly consistent with itself, not too difficult to understand, not too much encumbered with diacritical signs, and not too startlingly different from the spellings of earlier times, especially from that of Lhuyd, whose system was constructed from living Cornish speakers.  The writer has arrived at his conclusions by a comparison of the various existing spellings with one another, with the traditional fragments collected and recorded by himself in 1875, with the modern pronunciation of Cornish names, with the changes which English has undergone in the mouths of the less educated of Cornishmen, and to some extent with Breton.  The author suggests that this form of spelling should be generally adopted by Cornish students of their old speech.  The system cannot in the nature of things be strictly accurate, but it is near enough for practical purposes.  Possibly there is much room for controversy, especially as to such details as the distribution of long and short vowels, the representation of the Middle Cornish uueeu sometimes by î, sometimes by ê, and sometimes by eu or ew, or of the Middle Cornish y by ie, or y, or occasionally by an obscure ăŏ, or ŭ, and it is quite likely that others might arrive at different conclusions from the same evidence, though those conclusions might not be any the nearer to the sounds which the Cornishmen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries really did make.  As for grammatical forms, it will be seen that the writer is of opinion that the difference between Middle and Modern Cornish was more apparent than real, and that except in the very latest period of all, when the language survived only in the mouths of the least educated persons, the so-called “corruptions” were to a great extent due to differences of spelling, to a want of appreciation of almost inaudible final consonants, and to an intensification of phonetic tendencies existing in germ at a much earlier period.  Thus it is that inflections which in the late Cornish often seem to have been almost, if not quite, inaudible, have been written in full, for that is the author’s notion, founded on what Middle Cornishmen actually did write, of what Modern Cornishmen were trying to express.  For most things he has precedents, though he has allowed himself a certain amount of conjecture at times, and in most cases of difficulty he has trusted, as he would advise his readers to do, to Breton rather than to Welsh, for the living Breton of to-day is the nearest thing to Cornish that exists.

Why should Cornishmen learn Cornish?  There is no money in it, it serves no practical purpose, and the literature is scanty and of no great originality or value.  The question is a fair one, the answer is simple.  Because they are Cornishmen.  At the present day Cornwall, but for a few survivals of Duchy jurisdictions, is legally and practically a county of England, with a County Council, a County Police, and a Lord-Lieutenant all complete, as if it were no better than a mere Essex or Herts.  But every Cornishman knows well enough, proud as he may be of belonging to the British Empire, that he is no more an Englishman than a Caithness man is, that he has as much right to a separate local patriotism to his little Motherland, which rightly understood is no bar, but rather an advantage to the greater British patriotism,  as has a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, or even a Colonial; and that he is as much a Celt and as little of an “Anglo-Saxon” as any Gael, Cymro, Manxman, or Breton.  Language is less than ever a final test of race.  Most Cornishmen habitually speak English, and few, very few, could hold five minutes’ conversation in the old Celtic speech.  Yet the memory of it lingers on, and no one can talk about the country itself, and mention the places in it, without using a wealth of true Cornish words.  But a similar thing may be said of a very large proportion of Welshmen, Highlanders, Irishmen, Manxmen, and Bretons.”

 

Well, as far as I know, I am not Cornish, but there might be some traceable ancestry. After all, I do have some British roots…and then there are those who want to understand the Celtic Languages as whole to a higher degree, especially since Welsh and Breton are related to Cornish very closely (although they are not mutually intelligible).

An attraction to a language is not something to be logically explained. End of discussion.

I’m going to write yet another blog post at some point about the vocabulary, grammar, and the sounds of Cornish, but I wanted to use this in order to get some questions answered.

 

And here’s one article from the BBC that contains the following gem, to sum things up:

 

“Contemporary written Cornish is also continuing to develop in quantity and quality. There have been a number of literary publications which have developed the essay, the short story and poetry in Cornish. More recently novels have been produced, along with an increasing amount of children’s publications. In terms of output and publications per head of language users this may constitute a record even higher than Icelandic. Texts from medieval times, especially drama, have also been revived in modern performances, allowing plays enjoyed centuries ago to find new contemporary audiences.”

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/multilingual/cornish.shtml

 

I have 11 days to become fluent in Cornish. Can I do it?

Cornish: Corny People? Cornland?

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Up until half a year ago, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Cornish Language, although after that point I found out that it was one of several languages in Europe (Livonian and Manx Gaelic also come to mind) that had passed to the point of extinction and had been revived).

No doubt my adventures on Crowdin, that have come to a temporary halt as a result of examinations and final papers, had spurred me into curiosity, which tends to attack me and bring me in odd directions in the most unpredictable of ways.

Chances are that you might not know what Cornish is, either, so allow me to explain.

About 1,000 years ago, if you were to look at a map of Britain (the Island that has England, Scotland and Wales on it, minus the minor Islands claimed by these countries), you’ll notice that Wales is not conquered by the English, and there is a comparatively small area below (a little peninsula that stretches out in the southwest of England) that wasn’t under English control either.

That is Cornwall, bordering Devon to the east, and it is one of the six Celtic Nations (the others being the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany [in France, below Cornwall]).

Cornwall (Kernow, as it is referred to in Cornish), had its own language that was in the same Celtic sub-family as Welsh and Breton (the language of Brittany).

One time before almost anyone alive on this planet now was even born, the last native Cornish speaker died, although in more modern times, the language was revived from texts (some have drawn a comparison to Modern Hebrew, which has had a lot of mythology surrounding it already).

And now the question comes, “how many people speak it?”

Perfectly, as in native? A few hundred, although there are many thousands more with a proficient command of a language, hell-bent on being warriors for the Cornish Language, like so many other movements for endangered languages.

I am reminded of this point of a Welsh proverb that says that a nation without a language is like a language without a soul, exactly the sort of mentality required for a linguistic revival of any sort.

So, here it comes. Cornish is my next language project, likely to replace Estonian on my list.

And here is another thing: there is a very specific reason that I am undertaking this Cornish Language project, and I cannot reveal it to you yet. But rest assured that it will be quite exciting indeed, if it materializes!

I’ll write more on the specifics of the Cornish Language in another post.

In the meanwhile, here is how some of my other projects are going:

  • I have mastered Greenlandic grammar. Two gargantuan tasks stand from fluency: (1) a mastery of every single suffix (the only comprehensive lists that exist are in Danish, and are resting in my DropBox account) and (2) a mastery of all essential vocabulary.

 

  • I’m still tied up with Icelandic and Faroese grammar and I’m self-conscious about both. Lord Forbid I actually have to look at tables and recite things out loud! Suffice it to say that I have a “carrot” for learning Icelandic that I will have to reveal at a later date, so I’ll use that as ample motivation…vocabulary with both is close enough to the other Germanic Languages that I’m not too intimidated by it.

 

  • On the other hand, Finnish and Northern Sami…well, if I don’t regularly maintain these then I’m going to forget both of them. There is a very real danger of this happening if I am poorly disciplined.

 

  • Portuguese has gotten a lot worse, Spanish a lot better, and Dutch a LOT I put it all up to living in New York City.

 

  • Swedish is in danger of slipping.

 

  • I really should be writing a paper that involves reading texts in German Gothic script. The good thing? That I’m almost done with it…

 

  • At least I don’t have to worry about my Hebrew exam anymore. Reflections on that course later, now that it is complete.

 

In the meantime, take the time to close the computer and get excited about something!

Le Français: My (Not Exactly) First Impressions

It’s not quite a secret, but French is actually my second language. My father had a desire to visit/work in French West Africa, and as a result bought himself some tapes for kids. My sister and I were quite young children then, and we picked it up, even going so far as to attend weekly French lessons at some point.
But then, because of disuse, both she and I forgot all of it…well, almost all. Thanks largely to the not-always civil exchange between France and Britain, not also to mention the Norman invasion, the French language is the biggest source for English import words, more than any other language on earth.
In honor of Bastille Day yesterday, I betrayed the expectation set in my own blogpost and I went ahead with the French Duolingo course anyway (I often do things like this in honor of certain calendar dates). I haven’t gotten very far, nor do I even consider myself even close to having my first conversation, but I thought that now would be a good time to write down what my “first impressions” are…even if they aren’t first impressions at all…
Thanks to having learned so many languages to varying degrees, I know that the first element to encounter is always frustration and hopelessness. I remember when I was going to Hebrew University for the first time, I was in Newark airport by myself, confused about what to do, wondering if my luggage would actually find its way to Tel-Aviv, and then, I was nagged by the following thought…
“You know, Jared, you could always just quit. You could just decide that you’re not going anymore and just stay here in the cozy U.S. of A…”
Well, good thing that I didn’t.
I know this feeling all too well. I remember seeing in a Lonely Planet advertisement that the hardest part of any journey is deciding that you’re going to go. This is true for many things and language learning is definitely one of them.
Did I go off topic? Yes, I think I did.
I found the pronunciation particularly difficult, but thanks largely to one of my previous linguistic adventures, I didn’t find myself as intimidated.
Throughout the lessons as well as trying to grapple with TV shows for children and seeing how many words I could make out, I had constant flashbacks to my first steps in learning Danish.
Mention Danish to a native speaker of Swedish or Norwegian and you may get treated to a certain homily about how written Danish is very familiar to him or her, but when it is spoken it sounds “as strange as Chinese”.
Both with Danish and with French, I had a lot more familiarity with the written language before I even started studying it to any degree. In Sweden, Swedish, Finnish and Danish are the most common languages (in that order) on product labels. Because I was exposed to it just by sight-reading, I had a “leg-up” with Danish and I expect my French journey to provide a similar advantage.
I learned Danish after having studied both Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees, and similarly, I have had my Portuguese and Spanish adventures (not also to mention some vague knowledge of Italian) that have been vaguely helpful in understanding what little French I encountered yesterday. One way in which the situations are not comparable, however, is the fact that the Scandinavian trifecta’s members are a lot closer to each other than the biggest of the Romance Languages could ever hope to be.
Within my first few weeks of Elementary Polish back in June 2011, I remember being frustrated so much by saying certain words out loud that I almost threw my laptop across the room. I imagine that French may frustrate me in a similar manner somewhere along the journey (and all of my languages have, although some more than others…and the journey is continuing with all of them…my native language included), but I keep on having to tell myself that I’ve encountered far worse obstacles.
The fact that it is one of the world’s most commonly studied languages will make it easier for me in every regard. For one, every single one of the basic phrases had an air of familiarity about it, thanks largely to Anglophone popular culture. Finnish, on the other hand, provided only about five import words in the whole English language, the best known of which is “sauna”.
Part of me also feels a little bit guilty for starting it this late again. After adventures in stranger languages, I something tell myself, “Jared, what took you so long?”
I’m just on the first few steps. I’m developing a good sense of the phonemes (which are always the most important part and, in some cases, could always use improvement throughout the learning process, no matter how advanced you are).
The most important thing that I should tell myself is that I shouldn’t expect magical results instantly, especially when I’m not putting in as much effort as I could. But after Lord-knows-how-many-times of doing the same, I know that already.
I remember one time when I was learning Greenlandic in a cafeteria and putting together a sentence for someone, I was told, “it’s interesting…to you, Greenlandic is just another language…”
I have adopted the same mentality in this case. French is just another language.
As is Faroese, which I will write about…some other time!