What Criteria Do I Consider When Choosing a New Language?

First off, let’s start by listing the variety of things I do NOT consider. And you can probably already guess what the first one is:

(1) Number of native speakers. Doesn’t mean anything, isn’t necessary in building an emotional connection to the culture. All languages have their worth and it shouldn’t be measured depending on how many people on this planet speak it. Sure, it might be easier for you to find people to practice with, but in the age of the Internet, does finding people to practice with, even in person, really matter?

(2) Lists of Articles on Publications Like Business Insider Telling Me That It’s a Good Idea. I don’t outsource my decisions to giant publications and I don’t think you should, either.

(3) Any charts that point to a language or a series of languages being “the most lucrative” or “the best to learn”. Especially in the United States where most people don’t learn ANY language (interestingly among Jews this really isn’t the case given how many of us have some passive knowledge of Hebrew at the VERY least), ANY language is a boon and it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Palauan. Come to think of it, given that 60% of high school students study Spanish, maybe just MAYBE Palauan and Spanish might be fairly equally waited. Again, do which one you like the most.

(4) What other languages people are learning. The world doesn’t need more followers. Nu uh. The world follows the lead of the leaders. And leaders do what is different and unexpected. (Again, don’t take this as discouragement from wanting to study a language like French, just don’t consider the crowd as the sole deciding factor or even ONE of the deciding factors.)

So here’s what I consider:

(1) Am I Healing the World by Choosing to Engage In This Culture? One thing that I’ve used to decide several of my languages in the past year (such as Gilbertese or Lao) is the fact that I realize that I can use my language to bring about healing.

With Kiribati, looming climate change and rising sea levels is something that defines the cutlure at the moment, and by choosing to learn Gilbertese I have committed to keeping their culture alive AND letting other people know about the realities of these threatened areas.

With Lao, I got to glimpse a country (that I haven’t visited yet) with extreme poverty that also has the distinction of being the most bombed country in all of human history. (More bombs were dropped on Laos by Nixon and Kissinger than all of the bombs by all sides in WWII everywhere COMBINED).

With a language like German, Polish or Hungarian, all associated by some more close-minded Jews as “languages of people who have anti-Semitism in their blood” (saying that hatred is embedded in someone’s culture is extremely offensive, in my opinion), I actually realized how many Jews (past, present and future) strongly identified with these cultures, and how much they’ve influenced the Judaism I’ve known for my whole life.

Thankfully German-Jewish relations have drastically improved during my lifetime, and I’m doing work to help Jewish relations in both directions with the other two (and many others!)

(2) Do I Have Music or Other Media that I Deeply Like in This Language? I fell in love with Greenlandic music and it became a motivating factor in wanting to studying it more. With music in other languages like Tok Pisin and Burmese, I found a lot of songs that I really liked and it caused me to have not only motivation to learn the language but also positive feelings when learning it.

Some languages, like Tajik and Lao, I haven’t found REALLY good music that I like. Yet. But with Icelandic I also remember having that struggle for months, and eventually I found Icelandic music that I really, REALLY liked. Or, if you know anything about this, you could give me recommendations, maybe!

(3) Will Engaging with This Language Make Me More Knowledgeable about a Culture I Don’t Know a Lot About?

Some languages, like Finnish or Palauan, I learned as exploratory journeys into “places” that I didn’t know very much about at all. I’ve never regretted learning a language for this reason.

(4) Is this language spoken in my immediate neighborhood? Hence the reason I learned Jamaican Patois ‘n friends. In Crown Heights it genuinely feels like a pan-Caribbean neighborhood, and especially given our zeitgeist of cultures distrusting each other, I felt as though “being a good citizen” involved me learning Patois. So glad I did!

(5) Did my ancestors speak this language? Hungarian and Swedish were both on the agenda precisely because I had great-grandparents who spoke both as their mother tongue (on opposite sides of my family)

(6) Do I need it for business, travel or romance? I think this is fairly clear. Sometimes (like my travels to Italy in 2014 and in Jordan in 2015) I felt as though I was half-hearted in my attempts to learn the local language and my trip felt genuinely lacking in comparison to when I did know more of it (such as, most notably, my recent trips to Greenland and Iceland). This is the reason I’m learning Fijian right now (and Fiji Hindi is also on the agenda in a month or two, and preparations for it were underway for a while).

(7) Have I dreamed of finding out what this country or culture was like since childhood?

Some places, like Greenland, Laos, Burkina Faso or Ireland, are places that I’ve wondered about since early childhood sometimes for silly, sentimental reasons. Somehow within my unconscious I feel as though places like these would be “good fits” for me. And I’m almost always right.

Between these seven reasons, a combination of all of them dictates which languages I choose to have in my life and which ones I devote time to. Feel free to share some of YOUR motivating factors below!

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Why YouTube Demonetizing Small Creators is a VERY Bad Idea (and Morally Wrong)

This post is not about language learning, but given that this topic does affect me and many others in the community, this needs to be said.

Last month YouTube announced that any channel that did not acquire BOTH 1,000 subscribers or more and 4,000 hours of watch time in the past year will be demonetized and ineligible to receive ad revenue.

Even if I weren’t affected by this, I believe that this choice is not only harmful but also yes, you read the title correctly, morally wrong.

Before having to have you read several lines of text to find out exactly what is so “morally wrong” about it, I’ll spell it out right now with the following reasons:

 

  • One of YouTube’s reasons for having done this was the fact that most of the channels getting demonetized made fewer than $100 a month. Again, this is a case of ignoring the reality in other areas of the world.

In a poorer community (such as in a developing country), even something like a handful of cents could be the difference between being able to support oneself and having to surrender oneself to life in the army to make ends meet. (Places with features of military rule in place, not also to mention the United States, whose plutocrats increasingly want to make it to become more like a developing country, create poverty so as to drive people “into the system” in desperation. I’ve seen this in many places).

What may be an insignificant amount of money to those who work at YouTube or Google would actually be life-changing in a place like Southeast Asia where currencies can be very weak and prices low by Western standards.

You may not believe me, but even in Myanmar that had what I described as “tear-inducing poverty” (imagine a Buddhist temple in Bagan filled with homeless people with makeshift sleeping bags), a lot of people have smartphones and actively use them. A lot of these people are active on YouTube and some of them are my subscribers who have helped me learn Burmese. They were eligible for the Partner Program with 10,000 views on their channel or more under the old rules, but YouTube’s heartless decision has cut off yet another potential source of income, which may be small by their standards but not by others. Keep in mind that a very big water bottle can be acquired in a place like rural Myanmar for the equivalent of 25-50 cents, if not LESS.

I don’t need a professor to tell me that American corporations don’t really care about the rest of the world or the cultures or people in it unless it is useful for raking in more profit. YouTube has just proved what I already know.

And another moral problem is…

 

  • The 4,000 hour limit not only de-incentivizes animators but also people from small linguistic communities.

Under the 10,000 views quota, channels from smaller countries in the developing world, some of which are very homemade indeed but still charming, could have met the requirements. But if your channel is primarily in Nauruan and you need 240,000 minutes of view time to get monetized, that may be nigh INSURMOUNTABLE given how few people in the world have any knowledge of that language at all.

It seems that even many channels in Scandinavian Languages may sometimes have trouble meeting the 240,000 minutes of view time quota (even though I know many of them that are “safe” under the new rules).

Choice of language or choice of genre shouldn’t be favored in this process or, at least, be taken into account. There’s no way you can judge that Nauruan YouTuber and one who primarily uses English (like myself) to the same standard of viewership or subscribers. It isn’t fair (but capitalism never really wasn’t about fairness anyway).

The new rules may drive people to make channels in global languages for the sake of meeting that time. Again, this is a decision that is morally harmful because it de-incentivizes usage of smaller languages that ALREADY are facing mass extinction.

 

  • I suspect that YouTube’s decision has virtually nothing to do with helping smaller creators or even “weeding out bad actors” at all. I suspect that it is just a pretense for furthering a system in which profits keep on coming in to those at the top, which is the end goal of unfettered capitalism.

Logan Paul, who some believe was responsible for this to begin with, has virtually created a diplomatic incident, if not a series of them, with the “suicide forest” video (not also to mention other incidents of animal cruelty and cultural insensitivity).

Temporary demonetization and being removed from Google Preferred isn’t a suitable enough punishment.

If YouTube were really serious about weeding out bad actors, he should have been permanently knocked off the platform with no hope of returning. But given that his presence on the website is too profitable for them, it won’t happen.

But in this internet world, like in many other areas of the globe, the rules don’t really apply to the powerful, very rich or famous. That’s the message that YouTube has effectively delivered. It’s the one that has been delivered time and time again, especially in the United States. Namely, only the biggest and the best and most powerful matter, and fuck the rest of the world.

 

YouTube, I doubt you’ll come to read this, but please consider the consequences of your actions and the inequality you may be furthering. You say you care about small creators but your actions speak otherwise. Not also to mention the fact that other possible competition may be capitalizing on your decision to do this, causing a mass exodus that may, in fact, give you a new competitor you never thought coming. (One rule I’ve learned as a business dealer myself is to never make openings for your opponents and that’s PRECISELY what you’ve done with these new rules.)  You may be big, but even in today’s world there is no company too big to not be challenged.

You’ve created a great service for me and have brought many glimpses of the world to me. You have a choice now. You can either continue to serve all of us, or the very few at the top for the sake of profit. But you cannot and WILL NOT do both. With this decision you’ve clearly chosen the latter, which is not only a blot on your conscience in making your space more like Cable Television (which has dealt away with the presence of ordinary people for the sake of profit), but a decision that may also be bad, if not fatal, from a business perspective.

 

I know I’m on the right side of history. But can you say that? And better yet, can your actions demonstrate that? I’ll be waiting.

 

ei kay

 

DISCLAIMER: I would be writing this article anyway even if I weren’t affected by the new rules. Even if I had 100,000,000 subscribers I would still write it. There are some issues brought up in this article that no one else has ever addressed and I thought it would be important for me to write about here. Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

Is it a Waste of Time for Americans to Learn Foreign Languages in 2018?

Way too often have I encountered this idea that, for native English speakers, especially from North America, time spent with languages could best be done doing “other things that are more important”.

(But given that a lot of American youth I’ve really lived with, with noteworthy exceptions, did spend a lot of time on English-language TV and YouTube more than pretty much anything else outside of the workplace, I’m extremely skeptical when it people making such claims, certainly in this country. Fun fact about me and video games: whenever I play them, I have educational podcasts or language-learning materials playing in the background!)

Indeed, I think if a lot of people from English-speaking countries would be fully aware of the realities and histories of other places in the world, they would be in a state of permanent shock.

With each new language I study the more I realize (1) how awful human beings truly can be and (2) how imperialism and colonialism are almost COMPLETELY responsible for virtually every single conflict present in the world. What’s more, this imperialism and colonialism is consistently rooted in shallow greed.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language on the surface without getting to the core elements of the culture(s) attached to that language, but to TRULY be good at any given language you need to understand many elements of local history and cultural mindsets.

For international languages, picking one country to anchor that cultural knowledge will usually suffice (it will also make your accent better so that it doesn’t sound like a mixture and your knowledge of colloquialisms can be deeper and more believable).

With that cultural knowledge comes a willingness to discover the human experience beyond your immediate surroundings.

Now let’s get back to the original question: is learning languages, for Americans, a waste of time in 2018?

Let’s get this over with:

No.

Here’s why not.

The first reason is that, given how FEW Anglophones truly want or even try to learn languages in detail, you will consistently be given fantastic treatment from native speakers.

Granted, some languages are more susceptible for getting you special treatment than others (In the United States, speaking high-school or even college Spanish isn’t going to have the same effect on your Venezuelan bartender as speaking even basic Hungarian with your new acquaintance who speaks it as a first language. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Now Spanish in a place like Southeast Asia is an entirely different manner!)

But regardless if you want to learn Spanish or Hungarian or Fijian or Mandarin or anything else, there’s one thing you’re doing that is ESSENTIAL in maintaining the United States’ general health right now:

You’re bringing down barriers built by a system that wants to keep people permanently confused and embattled.

Donald Trump peddled fearful rhetoric about Mexicans and Chinese during his campaign and more recently rhetoric of a similar nature towards Haitians and residents of Sub-Saharan Africa.

His rhetoric was appealing to a large portion of the electorate because of a system that we as American language learners have the power to fix!

When I speak languages or even relate some of my cultural knowledge or even, heaven forbid, ask questions, I get people to open up.

My Taiwanese-American friend who is also Jewish told me that in his entirely life (he’s 30 at the moment) he never heard anyone ask meaningful questions about his identity until he met me. An acquaintance from West Bengal told me that I was “amazing”, “knowledgeable” an “brilliant” because I…knew that Assamese was a language (“You’re probably one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!!!”)

People from small countries the world over are told by liberals and conservatives alike that their culture aren’t important and that they and the languages associated with them don’t mean much to the world (or that they’re not “economically useful”).

When I speak languages like Finnish or Icelandic with these people, it has an almost therapeutic effect, as if to say “your place and your identity have value to me”.

More people giving up their culture in favor of becoming more Americanized only benefits the same system that has created income inequality more great than human history has ever seen.

Even if there might have been someone who wanted to use English with me instead, even the fact that I TRIED to use their language may have caused them to rethink the idea that becoming more like a powerful culture is the road to success or happiness.

Now imagine that every American learned languages of many sorts. Let’s say every American learned at least a little bit of a series of languages the way that Professor Alexander Arguelles recommended (e.g. a language close to your own, a language far away from your own, a personal language of your heritage, a personal language relevant to the history of your passport country or countries and/or your area, etc. For me, those could be Swedish, Greenlandic, Yiddish and Irish)

Not everyone has a time commitment to become readily fluent in five languages or so, but perhaps a few phrases in five languages would be something easily manageable by anyone. Even ONE PHRASE in five different languages. (I know I get impressed by, let’s say, Polish people rehearsing the five Finnish phrases they know on me)

In that world, Americans see the world as a collection of cultures and a collection of peoples.

In contrast to this there stand the idea that the world is, first and foremost, about money and monetizeable skills, that the world is to be exploited and that the winners of that wealth are to be celebrated, that places on the planet that don’t provide money are as good as dead. (“Who the hell cares about Nauru?” says someone who isn’t aware of the fact that that attitude may have lead to an entire country being reduced to poverty and ruin and then used as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees from powerful countries.)

An activist friend told me that thanks to Manifest Destiny and other factors set in place earlier in American history, the country has had “shallow values” for centuries, namely the philosophy of “more, more, more!” and of entitlement (much like the idea that all of the land from California to the Atlantic coast is OURS and deserves to be OURS).

There are other elements of American culture that I believe to be noble. The open-mindedness I see among young Americans is unparalleled by the youth in other places. The curiosity of these same young people is also unmatched. Americans living in cities are globalized story-collectors that are the envy of the world and rightly so.

Well, you may say, you’ve made a case that learning languages even to a simple degree and learning about cultures is certainly NOT a waste of time for Americans and may actually end up SAVING THE WORLD, but what about learning a language to fluency?

And here comes something:

The better you learn a language as an outsider, the more readily you gain someone’s trust.

Even if they do speak English fluently, they use that language to communicate with outsiders. They CAN’T go on outsider mode with you, in using their L1 they have NO CHOICE but to address you in the same dimension that their cultural insiders are in. Granted, there are some light exceptions to this (e.g. some languages may have modes in which locals speak to foreigners or foreign-looking individuals, I believe Japanese and many East Asian Languages are guilty of this, not also to mention Fijian and Samoan having different modes of speaking depending on whether or not you’re an outsider). But even if someone is engaging with me, in any degree, in their native tongue, this means that I am the guest with special treatment.

It’s like getting premium access to an entire culture. And with it come invitations, free drinks, people asking you questions and wanting to do business with you, and even romance.

On top of that, you may encourage another person to become a polyglot (or even a hyperpolyglot) as well. If not that, then maybe someone like Ari in Beijing who devoted himself to near-native fluency in one language, one that (because near-native fluency as an L2 is so unbelievably rare) provided with him celebrity treatment in Chinese subcultures EVERYWHERE.

But most importantly, our system of destruction in the name of profit depends on making us teams of humans fighting against each other, distracting us with infighting while they commit unspeakable acts of destroying the planet.

The infighting starts to disappear, to however small a degree, when you decide to learn the language or languages of your dreams.

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.

Why I Learn Kiribati / Gilbertese, and Why I Think Other People Should, Too

Day 5 of 2018 and it seems that my goals are coming into place. Already my Hungarian and Gilbertese have been making fantastic progress, in both grammar and vocabulary.

Today’s task for Mango Language’s 31 Days of Language (for which I chose Gilbertese, despite the fact that it isn’t yet available on Mango Languages) is to relate what place your language is spoken in and what it is known for:

Kiribati is the only country that has no overseas territories that is located in all four hemispheres (in the Pacific Ocean) and is the first country to “see” the near year on any given year.

Kiribati

What’s more, it is also known (by virtually ANYONE who knows about the islands at all) that they are at EXTREME risk concerning climate change and rising sea levels, with the under 30 generation projected to be the last generation to live on the islands before relocation (if current trends continue).

The videos that I’ve seen of rural Kiribati are very, VERY much unlike Brooklyn, often more closely resembling structures (and sometimes clothing) of bygone eras (or what most Americans would consider to be bygone eras. Sadly, in some Native American reservations there are even worse conditions).

No wonder I am the ONLY person I’ve not only met in person but met online who has even tried to learn the language. The one thing that people associate with Kiribati is something most people don’t want to think about. And in the West, there’s that guilt present knowing that decisions favoring petroleum (more relevant to North America, of course) have led to the wholescale destruction of HUMAN habitats and, unless we do something, it may lead to the destruction of entire countries. Indeed, in some respects, that destruction is already here.

No language has broken my heart as harshly as Gilbertese has. Despite the fact that there are music channels that show that there is a vibrant human culture that even people who have never heard of Kiribati can relate to, I have to live with the reality that the people here feel as though their country has spit them out (or is on the verge of doing so). Reading Lamentations on the evening of Tisha B’av, I told my rabbi on the night afterwards that a lot of the thought processes present in the Book of Lamentations were ALSO present among the many I-Kiribati being interviewed about their “dying country”.

Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, there are stories of resilience and hope, not to mention many personalities that make me realize how strong the human spirit really is (I am reminded at this juncture that, on the other side of the planet, Nanook, one of Greenland’s most famous musical acts [who I had the privilege to MEET last year!] began one of their best-selling albums with singing the words “I recognize that Greenlandic people possess great strength”).

For me, learning Kiribati was a moral imperative and was for a long time. It’s a pity that only in mid-2017 I began to take is seriously and it is now tied for my favorite language (along with Greenlandic).

There are a number of reasons for this:

For one, late-stage capitalism has successful distanced ourselves from our deepest human urges. We humans are cooperators by nature, more so than competitors. We care for ourselves, our lands and our planet. Capitalism unfettered serves to undermine every single one of these aspects.

But in places like Kiribati, Greenland, and many other places in (what is mostly) the developing world, the old spirit is very much still alive. Even among American Jews I find that people who are not very religious are turning to some form of religious study because it contains many aspects of wisdom that our nomadic ancestors had but our grocery-store, smartphone-addicted globalized selves do not.

By living in this country, I realize that I have, whether I like it or not, participated in a system that has crushed and destroyed many other places throughout the world for the shallow name of profit. Kiribati, while still alive thankfully and also not at war, is one of these affected places. To most Americans, I-Kiribati might describe themselves as being “from a tropical island”. But to me, I have learned more about their culture than most HUMANS ever will.

Maybe if I could relate the sort of things I see about Kiribati online, which will only continue to grow with my Kiribati getting stronger, then I could also help my friends with realizing the issues of climate disruption more deeply than they had, even if they have no desire to learn any other languages (and that’s okay).

Scientific articles show a technical side to climate change but in reading about Kiribati I learn about it in a whole other way, one that may sadly continue to be relevant for us: how it impacts humans who have had their world thrown into turmoil because of rising sea levels.

But despite all of this, I think, just like everywhere else, I-Kiribati want other people to view their country as “a normal country” (a desire I’ve heard, for example, among Israelis and citizens of the former Yugoslav republics). Kiribati is sinking but there’s more to the Kiribati story than sinking. Having both been on the American and Japanese colonial frontier, it has impacted the popular culture of both more than you realize (the Maneaba, the traditional meeting house in a Kiribati village, may look familiar to you):

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This picture is from trussel.com, without which I wouldn’t be able to learn this language.

Nowadays I’ve only met a handful of people who know where (or what) Kiribati is, but unless we as a species do something very quickly, everyone may know what this country is…when it is on the verge of no longer existing. If that is the case, you may think back to these posts and realize that I have, sadly, been validated with my choice.

With my choice of languages I can make statements. I can use them in order to bring bits of the world to my companions, my blog and everyone around me. This is one area of the world that people need to know a lot about. Most definitely now.

 

All About the Burmese Language

My first Independence-Day Related post of 2018! (Well, discounting the shout-out to Slovakia I gave on New Year’s Day). Today is Burmese Independence Day and I thought it would be a good occasion to write about the language.

A year ago at around this time my parents were floating the idea of visiting Myanmar (Burma) after isolationist policies were relaxed. Interestingly they weren’t the only ones thinking this way—Sammy Samuels of “Myanmar Shalom”, a Jewish-Burmese Tourist Agency (YES, there are Burmese Jews, both in the country proper and abroad, and I’ve met BOTH!) described it as a “gold rush” when we met for the first time in May.

In a mall in Yangon that looked fancier beyond most malls in America, there were photographs of the country’s many minorities with captions about their lifestyles in Burmese and in English. My father told me that the underlying implication was that the wave of investors from China, the West and Myanmar’s immediate neighbors such as India and Thailand would threaten many aspects of local culture that remained unchanged during the years of military dictatorship.

Myanmar’s internal politics are labyrinthine and the ethnic diversity found in the country is similar to the situation that was present in the Americas before European colonization happened. (Fun Fact: Europe is the least linguistically diverse continent!)

It’s been more than half a year since I took off from Yangon and since then I’ve kept up my studies of Burmese on-and-off. It has proved to be one of the most difficult languages I have encountered by virtue of the fact that it is…different. (And Lao, for many reasons, I found significantly easier both to learn and to understand).

Here are some videos that I made about Burmese and my journey learning it last month. Sadly due to some circumstances I wasn’t able to complete the Eurolinguiste 30-Day Challenge but I’m glad I did what I did:

In any case, I turned to Polyglot Polls for potential topics to write about, and I got some topics that I’m not too qualified to write about, such as:

  • Burmese street slang
  • Tai-Kadai loan words in Burmese
  • Mon-Khmer loan words in Burmese

 

IF YOU KNOW about any of these topics in any capacity, PLEASE let me know about them in the comments.

One thing I really have noticed was the fact that, much like with languages like Yiddish, Uyghur and Tajik, Burmese takes a lot of words from a religious language, in the case, Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism’s scriptures.

Burmese native words are one syllable each, and so expressions that have more than one syllable are usually of foreign origin. It goes without saying that words like “telephone” and “Internet” are detectable English loan words, as well as many names for countries and nationalities.

But one of the first things I had to learn in Burmese (as SOON as my visa got approved), was how to ask for only vegetarian food and the word that is used is သက်သတ်လွတ် (θɛʔ.θæʔ.luʔ). There were also some other things that pointed to foreign influence that was Indo-European but clearly not European, like the fact that the word for “name” is နာမည် (næɴmɛ), which is very similar to the English word “name” (it’s a Pali word.

Interestingly I notice that the patterns for liturgical-language loan words throughout the world are quite similar (and my observations tell me that they tend to skew towards nouns and higher registers of language).

But, here are some things you need to know about Burmese, whether you may be starting to learn it or want to learn a little bit or just want to read a list of facts:

  • No grammatical gender.

 

  • You put words at the end of a sentence in order to indicate what tense it is:

 

Tense Markers DONE

These will also be DIFFERENT depending on how formal (or not) the text (or spoken word) is. On inscriptions you’ll usually see formal variants. In phrasebooks, you’ll see informal.

 

 

  • Men and women will speak differently. My first day in Mandalay I went to a bank with my father and the servicewomen opened the door and told me “mingalaba SHIN” (the “shin” at the end is a “polite particle” used by women. For those unaware: it really doesn’t have a meaning, a bit like adding “sir” or “ma’am” at the end of sentences in English. I, as a man, would say “mingalaba khimya” (using a different polite particle). Also! Polite versions of “I” will be gendered as well. ကျွန်တော် (ʨənɔ) for men and ကျွန်မ (ʨəmá) for women.

 

 

  • You will also use classifier words as well. To say “I want coffee + 4” you would say “I want four cups of coffee”. To say “I want paper + 3” you would say “I want three sheets of paper”.

 

Here are some classifier words:

Category Words DONE

  • You can usually omit the subject of the sentence if it is implied. I remember one time I was talking to a Burmese taxi driver about Burmese music and I mentioned Chan Chan (described a musician who made her career off women’s broken hearts, in a sense). He said “very beautiful”, leaving it unclear as to whether it was the music OR the singer that he was talking about. Expect this commonly.

 

  • The tones are probably the trickiest out of any tonal language that I’ve encountered (with Mandarin probably having the easiest system, in my opinion). I’ll link to various sites that can help you better.

 

One website I would recommend is this below: provides a LOT of cultural information and provides steady information where a lot of other sites are lacking. Great for learning the Burmese script as well as tones and the finer points of language:

https://www.asiapearltravels.com/language/intro_burmese.php

Another resource I would recommend for getting a very basic level is Kenneth Wong’s playlist. He has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard in my life:

Concerning books, Lonely Planet is also a good bet (when I first became enthused by Burmese in 2014, WAAAAY before I know that I would end up in the country and I honestly didn’t ever think I would end up there, they didn’t have the standalone Burmese phrasebook but now they do. I have the Southeast Asia one).

Also Reise Know How is pretty much always fantastic if you read German. In case of the Burmese one, the proceeds will go to funding children’s schools in rural Myanmar.

 

And as for USING it:

Burmese is very lively on the internet and when I was in the country I could see why. Even among some of the temples in Bagan which are crowded with homeless people, there were people using smartphones there.

What’s more, the Burmese-American communities are also noteworthy to point out (and the U.S. isn’t the only place that has these expatriate communities). They also have many ethnic minorities of Myanmar represented as well within these communities.

Burmese music is also fantastic especially when you consider the fact that, in some cases, it somewhat resembles Tom Lehrer’s confession as Lobachevsky (“Every chapter I stole from somewhere else”). Tons of Western, Chinese and Russian pop songs are covered in barely legal manners and translated into Burmese. A lot of the lyrics are also readily available embedded as subtitles in the video (so you’ll need the Burmese script for that!).

Some songs I’ve heard rendered into Burmese include “My Heart Will Go On”, ABBA, VIA Gra (Band from Ukraine popular in the Russian-speaking world), “A Million Voices” (that almost won Eurovision 2015), and many songs that I vaguely remember hearing in produce isles in the United States. (Confession: I know pathetically little about American popular music and, to be honest, I like it that way).

Anyhow, I’m happy to answer your questions or receive your expertise.

Above all, know that Asian Languages are not scary as you may make them out to be!

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