How to Recover From an Embarrassing Defeat (In Language Learning)

Especially if you’re not a veteran language learner yourself, it may not be apparent to you, but the path to poylglottery (well, mine, because it is the one that I see best and, what’s more, in a “behind the scenes” manner) is littered with great pain alongside great mirth (but isn’t this true about acquiring any skill?

Let me tell you about some extremely embarrassing incidents that have taken place throughout the years:

  • Froze up in front of an Icelandic native speaker (last November)
  • Froze up in front of a novice Irish speaker, hadn’t practiced for weeks (earlier this month)
  • Had difficulty having an Ecuadorian visitor understand my Spanish (March of this year)
  • Struggled in giving a presentation in novice German so badly that one of my lecturers was visibly frustrated (February 2014)
  • Told off by some speakers of Hasidic Yiddish (twice this Spring / summer)
  • Crashed during a German conversation (earlier this month)
  • Pretty much every time I’ve been answered in English while ordering food in places like Israel and Sweden (in Israel it was more frequent, I’ve noticed that Swedish-speakers from immigrant background NEVER used English with me after I got the basics “down”) (2012 – 2013, and 2009 in the case of Hebrew only)
  • Having a Burmese taxi driver telling me that I needed to work on my tones (May of this year)
  • Having that same Burmese taxi driver telling me that I should learn languages from “people” rather than from “books” (he has a point, actually! But I didn’t have access to too many Burmese speakers in New York. Hoping this will change in the future!)
  • Having trouble understanding Burmese numbers at times (also May of this year)
  • Drawing blanks when trying to speak novice Vietnamese (July of this year)
  • Speaking super-slow Hungarian with iffy grammar with both native speakers and learners of all stripes (pretty much this whole summer)

A good deal of my languages from across levels are involved in this list, but interestingly some of my strongest languages (Danish, the one language that I have CONSISTENTLY been complimented the most by native speakers, as well as Norwegian and all English Creoles) are absent from this list. And those of you who know me well know that, very sadly, I keep a tally of pretty much every negative thing that has ever happened to me (hey, I’m working on improving it!)

It goes without saying that I’ve noticed patterns in my “defeats”:

  • Rusty practice (Irish and Icelandic have been subjected to this the most…)
  • Novice status (Burmese!)
  • Lack of deep cultural resonance (my mild antipathy towards global languages like Spanish or German is well-documented in this blog, I say that I “don’t love them any more than I have to”, and I’m under the impression that they’re not my strongest languages, nor will they ever be, barring circumstances like getting into a relationship with a native speaker)
  • Sometimes not feeling well (interestingly one time I showed up to Language Exchange NYC, met a Danish native speaker and managed an entire conversation with a native speaker without slipping up. I was on five hours of sleep and kept telling my friends that I “shouldn’t have gone” and that I “should have stayed in bed”)

The one important thing to do in situations like these is detach yourself from the situation. I don’t care if you’ve been interviewed by global news outlets or are revered as a global star of language learning, realize that you’re allowed to be defeated at times and that, at your core, you are someone who is (1) either on the way up or (2) very much on the top with well-deserved work.

Recognize the many times you’ve managed with languages that are not your native language(s), or without using your native language or English. Remember the many victories and compliments from native speakers, not also to mention the bridges that your languages have built, including those you’ve learned to fluency and those that you haven’t made fluent quite yet (I got free drinks out of Hebrew, I also got it out of French back when I was quite bad at it, and also with Burmese with three weeks of practice [at the Shwedagon Pagoda, no less! Relax, by “drinks” I mean “water bottles”! I wasn’t drinking beer at the Shwedagon Pagoda! I promise!])

If you’re still feeling pain so deep that you can’t bring those victories to mind, allow yourself to experience pain and just…wait. (thankfully I haven’t undergone anything like what Ziad Fazah underwent on Viva Lunes, nor has any friend I know—namely, being asked to speak a handful of languages and being unable to muster basic phrases in almost any of them. Oh, and I’m super-careful to ensure that what happened to him won’t happen to me in the slightest).

Come to the realization that it is through these defeats that you will find progress. Mr. Burmese Taxi Driver Who Said that Jared Needs to Improve His Tones served as a motivator for me to get better with the language, even though it doesn’t seem that I’m returning to Myanmar at any time in the near future (plenty of Burmese diaspora folks around many places, though!). Each of the embarrassing incidents above motivated me to get better. EVERY. ONE.

In the event that you weren’t feeling well that day, keep in mind that it doesn’t reflect on your true abilities. And in the event that you DID manage to speak a language very well when you were ill, give yourself applause. You deserve it!

Keep in mind two things:

  • Don’t compare your L2’s (or L3’s or any other languages beyond that) to a higher standard than your native languages. So, SO many English monoglots expect me to understand EVERYTHING that’s said in (Spanish / Hebrew / Yiddish / Swedish) all of the time. I don’t understand everything in ENGLISH a good deal of the time, so why would I expect it in any other language?
  • Don’t compare your L2’s to foreigners having learned English. English is like half-a-native-language to many people almost everywhere. In some places like the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or areas of the Pacific or Africa where English is an official language (and any other places besides these), it’s even more than half-a-native language. They’ve been encouraged to learn English their whole lives, you’ve probably received loads of discouragement, even from learning global languages like Spanish, and possibly even more for languages like Danish, and even MORE for endangered or minority languages.

Realize that every journey comes with slip-ups, regardless of HOW good you are with a language. Heck, I’ve even messed up English spectacularly on several occasions (and some HATERZ might like to think that it is because I’m a polyglot, but that’s not true because I’ve heard monoglot English speakers mess up their native language in similar ways).

Remember to give your “failure” some time, and then it will be something to laugh at. But it will become something to laugh at on one condition: if you rise above it and use it as a motivator to become even better at the language(s) involved!

I’m with you, encouraging you every step of the way! Don’t pay attention to discouragers or haterz! Get up and get going again! You’ll reach your goals before you know it!


Wesleyan University: A Reflection

Ten years ago today, I enrolled as a freshman at a place of local legend in Middletown, Connecticut.

Here I am today, a long time after that fateful day, and one degree and many, MANY transformations later, I am going to think about how the place and the people there (both the faculty and the students) affected me on the long term.

In short, looking at the journey I’ve undertaken thus far, what part of it was made possible by the red and black?

For those of you who probably stumbled on this page wondering exactly who I am (and who have no intention on clicking the “about” button at the top of the page), allow me to explain: I’m Jared Gimbel, I graduated in 2011 with a High Honors degree in the College of Letters Program and Classical Studies (with a Jewish Studies Certificate side-order).

Right now I do a lot of work with language learning and teaching, primarily with Jewish and Nordic languages (keep in mind that there was no department of Nordic Languages [e.g. Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic] when I was there at Wesleyan and I doubt that there will be in the near future, but I can dream…). I translate from many languages into English, primarily Danish and Yiddish, I have had conversations in 30+ languages over the course of my life and I haven’t even hit my 30’s yet as of the time of writing.

As to the “how many languages” question, I usually have to keep the number artificially deflated lest I encounter skeptics. But in a setting with people from many nationalities, the skepticism never lasts for long…

Most importantly, I’m working on a video game which is like a Pokémon  / Earthbound / Undertale / Final Fantasy set in a cute-cartoon version of contemporary Greenland. Set for release next year “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” promises to be a real treat and I and my team promise to deliver!

Okay, enough about me, more about college:

What did Wesleyan make possible for me?


  • The Kaleidoscope of Truth


Thanks in part to my religious education doubled with high school “teaching to the test”, I had been instilled with the idea of absolute truth, especially in the humanities.

Later on it occurred to me that, much like the kaleidoscope on my father’s coffee table, truth was something that could be adjusted. Much like I spin the kaleidoscope and I get a different image, I can spin the perspective and get a different truth.

The understanding that there is uncertainty in all things is liberating, and it also serves to eliminate limiting beliefs.

What’s more, it also helped me undo the shackles of my religious education that tried to tell me that there is a truth in all things and that it is absolute and genuine (and interestingly, I think the idea of makhlokiot [arguments and contentions] are an essential element of Judaism, something that rabbis I encountered later on in my life, including those at Wesleyan, made sure to deliver to me!)

Any system could be unmade and reconstructed from the bottom up. It taught me how to be a revolutionary, and this blog and my many ideas about language learning would have not been possible without it.


  • The Value of Exploration


So many people at Wesleyan University, especially the students, were endlessly curious about other cultures, other topics, other fields and were truly willing to try new things.

Granted, thanks to me being more socially conservative then than I am now (I almost never partied in college at all…) I wasn’t an explorer in every sense.

People were willing to look at all details, to make quaint observations, to bring up their life experiences and assist other people on the journey upwards.

At JTS, I didn’t find this exploration present to the same degree. Nor did I find it in Heidelberg as often. The same was true for Hebrew University. It is true that exploration was an essential part of the educational experience in all of these places, but Wesleyan’s curious student body outdid all of them.

I think most people in the world would like to be like that, except for the fact that they have limiting beliefs and low self-esteem that is preventing their true flourishing.

You deserve to flourish. No “I can’t”, no “I won’t”.  I’ll help you.


  • The Idea that the Road Less Travelled is Actually the Better Career Choice


A lot of insecurity pervaded people at Wesleyan, given how many jokes were told about liberal arts majors and how a lot of us were probably headed to unemployment directly after graduating.

But interestingly, what the education really did (for me, at least) was that it enabled me to become dynamic. It enabled me to see opportunities, not only related to employment and financial gain, but everything else, on a consistent basis.

A lot of people from other universities probably found themselves sucked into more predictable paths. I didn’t. I’m very glad that I didn’t, even though a lot of pain and self-doubt sprinkled the way to my current path.

People on predictable paths don’t tend to shake things up, plainly put. And you, regardless of where you went to school (or even if you didn’t) still have the possibility to live your dream life, just by thinking differently!


  • To Embrace a Quirky Personality While Maintaining a Social Contract


A lot of people are truly afraid of expressing who they really are. A lot of people at Wesleyan were not afraid of expressing who they really were.

A lot of personality showing is discouraged the world over, especially on the “way up”.

I could have gone somewhere else and become more conformist. I could have said fewer jokes or tried to reference pop culture more often or watch and consume the same media as many other people.

Instead, I decided to emphasize who made me different, knowing that I was the main character of the novel that is my life. I wanted that character to be memorable, funny and an experience-collector. Wesleyan enabled me to come to the realization that it was not only what I wanted, but that I wasn’t alone in wanting it.

The effect of the peer group at Wesleyan University was very, very powerful. And I am grateful for it every day.


  • Realizing that Taking in Wisdom from Multiple Fields is infinitely better than narrow focus



This is a big one, and one that served as a “gift that kept on giving” later on down the line. In my classes, I learned to apply various forms of wisdom from one discipline to another. In my professional life, I can notice patterns in successful projects and apply them in a completely different manner in projects of a completely different nature.

More simply put, even something like successful video game design can teach me about how to be a good teacher (e.g. knowing how the mind works and using that to create a more engaging class).

I took on a lot of projects throughout the years, including:


  • Concert Pianist
  • Educational YouTube Channel
  • Let’s Play YouTube Channel
  • Synagogue Cantor
  • Karaoke Master
  • Celeglot (Celebrity + Polyglot)
  • Language Teacher
  • History Teacher
  • Preschool teacher (when I was in Poland…don’t ask!)
  • Translator
  • Video Game Designer
  • Tabletop Game Designer
  • Comic Book Author (Really!)
  • Novelist
  • Blogger
  • Person who draws cute baby seals for a living (Okay, maybe I was joking…or was I?)

You can guess that I got a lot of experiences from all of these. What’s more, I gained wisdom from each and that wisdom strengthened all of my collective projects.d


Concluding Thoughts


Higher Education serves a sinister purpose at times. It crushed my confidence significantly. It serves to  convince us that we have no choice but to be smaller than who or what we really are. What’s more, some educational systems have poisonous ideas in place to further competition, and the fact that the Dean’s List came to Wesleyan University during my last year was an extraordinarily bad idea.

It serves to create conformity, to really convince you that you’re not good enough and that obedience and learning to think like your teachers is the most important thing.

I’m not going to lie, Wesleyan did have these ills present from Prussian-style education systems as well. A lot of those ills did significant harm to me and continue to do so, but that’s a post for another time.

But hey, grades (whether they’re good or not) and whatever social standing you had in college (whether that was good or not) matter very little to you when you’re a 20+ language hyperpolyglot with the admiration of your friends, community and beyond, so there’s that.

That said, I realize that degrees are very valuable for career-building and connection-making, and Wesleyan did a very good job and minimizing a lot of the necessary evils of our conformist educational system.

What’s more, I wouldn’t have become a truly exploratory soul without the people I met there and the environment fostered there.

And despite everything, I’d like to ask for forgiveness and say thank you.

Wes U

10,000 Hits! You’ve Earned: A New YouTube Series!

Back when I started this blog in 2014, I was living in Heidelberg surrounded by foreigners that spoke far better German than I did. What’s more, a lot of locals had very good knowledge of English (although there were also those that had absolutely no English conversational skills whatsoever) as well as a smattering of other languages including Western European tongues and knowledge of languages of all countries that border Germany.

come back when you can put up a fight

And this is I several years later.

At first, I thought it would be a disaster. But I thought that maybe, just maybe, I would have something to offer, and that it would be better to just … TRY … and that maybe I would go down in flames, but it would be better if I were to just write something about my experiences learning languages and see what would happen.

  1. After a one-year hiatus that was due to my Lyme Disease and general “not feeling like it”, I decided to bring this blog back as part of a New Year’s Resolution. That was one of the best decisions of my life, bar none.

I’m keeping “World with Little Worlds” around, but I also have to realize that if I want to share more of my stories, then I’ll need something more.

After all, I’m one of very few polyglots that really focuses on endangered and rarer languages, even though most of my strongest languages (with the exception of Yiddish and English Creoles) don’t fit that bill. Suffice it to say that, unlike many other online polyglots, my strongest languages do not include the most powerful ones on the globe (German and Spanish I’m very good at, but I’m better at Swedish and Yiddish because, plainly put, I like them more and I like putting more time into them. I also have a sentimental connection towards Swedish, Hungarian and Yiddish in particular, given that these were languages heard within my family before I was born).

Here’s something you might not fully comprehend unless you’ve ventured down this path before:

Putting Videos of Yourself Online Speaking Languages Requires Extraordinary Bravery.

There will be people calling you fake.

No matter how good you are or what you do, people will accuse you of using machine translation, consulting with native speakers, reading from the screen or, if all else fails, insult you for your choice of languages or dislike your video because you didn’t learn a language from their country or, in some cases, their continent.

And here’s another shocking fact:

Most of the people saying bad things about your video are actually NOT people who speak only one language!

Odd but true. The majority of polyglot-skepticism I’ve encounter have overwhelmingly been from people who speak two to three languages very well and are, in some cases, bilingual from birth. More often than not a lot of these people comes from places that have had history (or a present) of linguistic persecution of minorities (I will not name these countries, you know what they are).

Suffice it to say that, despite the hatred I have been getting (as well as the praise and thank-you-notes), I have decided that I’m going to continue with more videos.

And to that end, I’ve decided to undertake a number of YouTube projects in honor of 10,000 hits.

Let me tell you about some of them:


Language Learning Documentation 


Right now there’s an ongoing series on my page in which I’m learning Palauan. But here’s the thing: I’m literally documenting all the time that I’m spending with the language, so that you can see how the process of becoming A1 (or possibly even higher) in a language is actually carried out!

I pronounce a lot of the words in interesting ways. I laugh at myself. I realize that mistakes are a part of this journey. Nevertheless, I persist.

Palauan is a lovely language and the website I’m using ( says that Palauans are very fun to talk to.

For those unaware, Palau is a Pacific Island nation, located somewhere between the Philippines and the Island of Papua, located perpendicular to them both and not too far from Indonesia either.

I highly recommend you carry through with this experience, it will not only motivate you but also show you exactly what goes into this process.



A handful of other languages have been lined up as “you’re next” in this series, not also to mention other plans for languages that I’ve studied but that I’m not fluent in yet.

What’s more, given that I live in New York City, something like Moses McCormick’s “Level Up” series is in order.

(For those unaware, this means that you walk around stores and streets and other public places and you engage with people in their native language, note reactions and learn how to improve!)

But another post on that will definitely come in its own time. Right now I’m very worried about overstepping the boundaries with using published materials and it costing me a copyright strike AND my place in the YouTube Partner Program.

And that’s without even getting into the idea of possibly filming people without their consent. But hey, I should at least try it for the sake of linguistic diversity, now, shouldn’t I? And anyone who doesn’t want to be filmed can easily be cut out, right?

More on that next time!

Because right now I have to teach!

Thanks for 10,000 views, folks! Just wait till ya see what happens when this reaches 100,000!

Oh, and…here’s your map!



Could I get everywhere else?

Overmorrow is Coming

many languages

For nearly a month I’ve neglected a lot of my blogs, but this is in part due to holidays, my game design, and also quite a lot of study.

This weekend marks two important events for me. For one, the Polyglot Conference, in which I and many others will meet in person many of the authors and luminaries who inspired us to go on our many language journeys.

Second, October 10th and 11th marks four years to the day that I began my three years abroad right after college, which began in Krakow and then ended up in too many other places to count. Alas, I seem to have forgotten all but the most basic Polish, but another task will soon come to me before this academic year is out, one that will require me to re-learn a lot of it!

Through the study of a lot of my languages, I’ve had to re-evaluate some of them both down and up in the past month (The Celtic Languages I was a lot weaker in than I thought, and  the Finnic languages were stronger).

In the past month, I also made the difficult decision to drop Greenlandic from my repertoire for the time being, although it is truly impossible to forget a language entirely. Given how much I have already devoted to Greenlandic already, it seems that this is merely a pause.

But I also remember that Icelandic and Danish I first struggled with a lot at first, and then, upon becoming more hearty a “language hacker”, I wasn’t nearly intimidated by them.

The past few weeks have been replete with virtually non-stop study, putting my work for my game and even my MA final examination on hold (I was told by my MA examiners that I should use my language abilities in my reading list, but there is only so much you can do with a something like Icelandic in a final exam about Jewish History).

I do not say this lightly: there were also times in which I was absolutely frozen and unable to continue with studying, perhaps worried that, despite the endless hours I had thrown into lots of languages, that I somehow “wasn’t good enough”.

But above all, language learning is not a contest. Not particularly a sport, either. It isn’t an issue of who speaks language X the best being the winner, it isn’t about who speaks the most languages being the winner, it is a process of exploration, in the same way that hiking really isn’t a competitive sport.

To make this point, my biggest shame in my language learning experience, followed by my biggest mirth.

Heidelberg, Germany. February 2014. I was asked to give a “Referat” (something like a class presentation / teaching the class for one day). Obviously, the class was held in German, but I remember using so much Yiddish, Hebrew and English in between (the topic was Jewish studies) that one of the co-teachers actually shook her head in despair, wondering how a “stupid American” ever made it into this program to begin with.

That semester was actually quite replete with similar incidents like that, my journey through the German language, more than that of any other, being one of “tripping and falling”. The fact that I had Yiddish and Scandinavian languages under my belt at that point didn’t help much—I thought that my truest attempts at “High German” would always be tainted.

But as it turns out, in the last few months (June – July) my fears evaporated. Sometimes I still think of that semester and cringe. But I suppose I would cringe even more had I chosen to try even less than I did.

Now the biggest pride:

April 2015, Ben-Gurion Airport. On the way back from Israel, visiting my family members, with my Anglophone parents on the way back to the U.S. Given as I am the spokesman, the security staff, without my knowledge, puts me in the line for people who have Israeli passports (he mistook me for one of his own, and Israelis have possibly the most refined American-radars on the planet, blame Birthright).

Upon reaching the security staff at the end of the line, we were told that we should be in the line for foreign passports and that we had no business being in that line whatsoever.

And then of course there is the honorable mention of passing as a local in a place rumored by some to be the hardest to get the locals to speak to you in the local language.

Well, whatever becomes of this conference, it will definitely be fun, no doubt!

Looking forward to meeting my fellow hikers,


2015-08-18 12.56.52

1000 HITS!!! My Gift to You: 10 Vital Lessons from My Language Adventures (Part 1)

Two days ago, the hits for this blog hit the quadruple digits!

This list needs no further introduction except for the heartiest “thank you all” that I can muster…

tusen tack

  1. Confidence and Peace of Mind are the Most Essential Ingredient


“Everyone speaks this language better than I do, everyone’s gonna hate me, everyone will just see me as the stupid American anyhow…”


This is how I had to endure my semester a year ago, in which every single course of mine was held in German (although sometimes the instructors let me answer questions in either English, Hebrew or Yiddish).


I was self-conscious about my accent in the language. I was self-conscious about my grammar. I thought that people would correct me excessively.


It was a mind-numbing experience, one that made me feel tremendously stupid! My self-esteem was in another dimension and you can imagine the relationship I had with my American upbringing at that point.
As it turned out, one fine day I met Isabella the Italian, who turned out to not have any of this self-consciousness in regards to her language journeys, even if it meant using words in English while speaking German or using Italian while speaking English. Even while doing this, she laughed, she kept her peace of mind, and wouldn’t let a single mistake or slip-up faze her.


I wasn’t going to let this difference in passports phase me. I took up the same variety of carefree learning spirit, and with this came the final transformation in my soul from polyglot-wannabe to genuine speaker of many languages.


No matter how many words you learn, no matter how many mistakes you make, without a certain peace within yourself, you cannot speak any second language well.


You don’t need perfect confidence or inner peace. You just need enough to ensure that you can communicate and that people won’t judge you negatively. Which brings me to my next point…


  1. Most…Make that…ALL…People want You to Speak Their Language


I will never forget the time when I was surrounded by a bunch of students in Heidelberg from various countries.


Hopping languages from Hebrew to German to Swedish to Spanish and English again, I had some people begging me (cutely, not desperately) to pick their native tongue as my next language.


Whatever you might have heard about “being answered in English” might tell you, the fact is that everyone craves whatever attention may be given to their native languages, however badly it may be spoken.


I’ve seen Greeks light up in jubilation with just a few words of the language. Not even the nationalities with the reputation for being the most emotionless of all are immune to this charm.


Admittedly there are some countries where the local language(s) are put down, but if anything you should take this as “playing hard to get”…not also to mention that every place that comes to mind where this is the case has people who put on vastly different personae outside of their home countries.


Even if you had to stutter (as I did when I first ordered a drink on a Finnair flight), even if you have to mix up a gender (as I did with Swedish for the first time) or use an incorrect idiom (too many times in German and in Hebrew to count), your effort will matter, and people will notice!


There is a special phrase in Finnish that I like to use when trying to sell an idea: usko pois! (literally: “believe away!”) That is to say: take it from me, and you can thank me later.


  1. With Multilingual Friends, Juggling Languages is Very Helpful


I certainly found this a lot easier to do in New York City than anywhere else, but gone are the days where I felt that having a foreigner speak English to me at all is an insult.


What I sometimes enjoy doing is juggling various languages between someone who speaks several in common with me, and it can be surprisingly easy to keep this precedent going!


Usually you don’t even need to ask to switch the language, just make the switch and then the conversation will follow accordingly.


  1. Translations Create an Entire New Dimension for a Text / TV Show / Etc.


I remember a popular sport that my flatmates and I had at the National Yiddish Book Center—to watch the same portion of a Disney Musical Film in a series of different languages one after another. This can be surprisingly addicting, although the quality of dubs is, in the case of most languages, all over the place.


With every language grounded in the source of its origin, the translations can diverge significantly.


Imagine something like ice cream sundae with different toppings or flavors. The language alters the flavor of the work accordingly. You can experience the same text or episode in a different way and actually notice other things that you haven’t seen before, perhaps highlighted by a well-delivered line or by an oddity that becomes more apparent in one translation than another.


And then there is news media and how that diverges in accordance with the language…


  1. Less Common Languages Have Their Place


“Obviously you don’t encounter speakers of Scandinavian Language in Heidelberg, because generally there aren’t many of them


I got this over and over and over again during my time living in the city.


In New York City, however, I was met with a surprise. From the very first week, I had certainly heard Spanish and Chinese being regularly used, but now that it is nearly two months that I have spent here, I ran into more Scandinavians on the streets of New York than I have Slavs and Germans and Romance Language Speakers (other than Spanish) put together!


“That’s odd”, I thought, “I was expecting very much a similar mix to Heidelberg in regards to what European nationalities I would find here, I was not expecting to be regularly encountering Swedes and Danes with such an extraordinarily high frequency!”


Truth be told: every language as its place. If it isn’t where you are, then it is definitely somewhere else. Somewhere, someone will thank you for your effort…

My First Adventure at New York City’s Polyglot Bar

My image of the Polyglot Bar NYC that I conjured via the articles written about it was a place that had every major language in the whole world represented among its attendees.

As it turns out, I was fairly surprised to find out that there were about thirty people present, and half of them spoke Yiddish (myself included). There were more Yiddish speakers than speakers of Italian or Portuguese present, actually!

Wonderful. A bit odd. Cute. I really liked it. Will do it again in two weeks.

Some of my reflections:

  1. As a general rule, Americans never gave me the “why did you learn this?” spiel.


My name tag listed the languages that I knew and Northern Sami was among them (which I was definitely willing to practice, even though I consider myself quite weak). I was heartily congratulated by someone for having taken on that task. Apparently the only reactions I had from having the very rare languages listed were amazement.


There were those that asked me why I had the desire to learn Finnish or Dutch however. I could easily mention my Masters’ Thesis as my motivation to learn Finnish, but for Dutch I was left completely out in the cold. I went to the Netherlands as a tourist, yes, but so do many other people. And I think I’m the only person I know personally who went to the Netherlands as a tourist and learned the local language to an okay degree beforehand (my discipline wasn’t nearly as strong then as it is now…)


While in Heidelberg I got the “why did you choose this language?” question quite often…about pretty much anything that wasn’t too commonly studied. While in Europe, I got this from quite a few people:


“How did you decide upon that? Did you just wake up one morning and then decide, ‘y’know what? I’m gonna learn Greenlandic!’”


Yes, part of me thinks it is cute, but I’m also very grateful that I don’t have to put up with it here. Or, at least, not as much.


  1. I was the only speaker of any Scandinavian Language present


During my first semester in Heidelberg in which I was Sprachcafe-ing, this was also the case, but in the second year in Heidelberg this almost never happened. Swedish-speaking Germans from the University courses would show up, sometimes the occasional Dane or Norwegian as well (as well as native Swedish speakers, of course).


Interestingly I was not the only speaker of a Finno-Ugric Language present. As for Inuit languages, I usually expect to be the only one in the room that has any knowledge of them. Part of me likes it that way, but another part of me would be thrilled if and when it weren’t the case.


  1. People really were interested in trying out phrases in other languages


An Italian Speaker wanted to know how to say some basic things in Danish. Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish similarly got sampled by some of the people I spoke with. (Why is it always the Nordic Languages that have this appeal?)


Here’s the thing, though: don’t expect to say “God Morgen!” (Danish, not Norwegian) correctly on your first try. But come to think of it, I would pay good money to hear Danish spoken in an Italian accent…or maybe I should just watch Disney films dubbed into Danish? (Lady and the Tramp comes to mind…)


  1. The most enthusiastic small crowd I’ve seen all year!

I almost wrote “the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen all year”, but then it occurred to me that I was in Germany in July 2014 when they won the FIFA World Cup…so much for that title…

  1. Duolingo really worked wonders for me


I actually got laughed at when I told someone that I learned Portuguese from Duolingo (translated from the conversation, to my vague recollection: “That must have taken you an awfully long time, week after week of practicing…”). I was so comfortable with some conversations, one in particular in which I didn’t flinch at all, that I realized that I needed to, in accordance with some advice I had received, get into native learning materials.


Therefore, as of this morning, I have quit the Duolingo Portuguese course (because it was a bit of a hassle for me to complete the tree) and will train the language solely with television and conversations from now on. The training wheels are gone!


Therefore, two things: (1) My Portuguese is now at a conversational level and (2) I replaced the Portuguese with the New Irish course!


Brief aside about Irish: my professor (Viktor Golinets from Heidelberg) told me that Irish had the same sentence structure as Biblical Hebrew. He’s totally right!


  1. I didn’t feel nearly as self-conscious about German as I did most of the time when I lived in the country. The confidence difference really showed.


If only I trained myself to not be so scared as early as April 2013. But old habits die hard. This lack-of-confidence thing is hopefully dead for good. If it wasn’t before, it certainly is after last night.


  1. Sometimes I feel self-conscious with native speakers, but no self-consciousness at all with people whom I did not sense to be native speakers.


This will just required a pinch of mental discipline on my behalf.


  1. Near the very end, I began mixing up languages because I was a bit tired and overheated. But I’ve noticed something: only within the same families.


German and Yiddish were the biggest offenders, but interestingly I never mixed up the West Germanic (German, Yiddish, Dutch) with the North Germanic (Scandinavian).


Obviously part of this has to do with the fact that I am a hopeless romantic for languages (and lots of other things, too) and sometimes I just need a bit of focus.


But I obviously know what the cure is…


Going to the Polyglot Bar a SECOND TIME!

Cracking Tough Phonemes

Depending on your choice of language(s), there comes a time in which there is a certain sound that your mouth simply cannot manage…or so it seems.

Perhaps you may have heard of science (however questionable) that says that your mouth is fully formed by a certain age, and if you don’t collect a sound before then, then your chances of learning it are hopeless…

Well, here’s the thing: hopeless barely ever exists in any case, and if you have been struggling with a certain phoneme, this post will save you!

Here are some of the more troubling phonemes, in no particular order of difficulty (even if I were to rank them, it would be very meaningless indeed):

(1)    Swedish “sj-“ sound (discovery of the week: the Flemish “g” sound resembles this sound closely, although the same cannot be said of the “g” sound in Dutch which is spoken in the Netherlands)

(2)    Portuguese nasal vowels (ã, õ) and “m” at the end of words, which functions as “ng” in English, only pronounced nasally.

(3)    A host of other Portuguese vowels (áâàéêíóôúü)

(4)    Polish nasal vowels (ą, ę)

(5)    German “ch” sound, typified by the word “Ich”

(6)    Russian “ы” sound

(7)    Learning the distinction between hard and soft consonants in Russian

(8)    Dutch “ui” sound

(9)    The “th” sound for many non-native English speakers (sound also appears in Greek)

(10) Welsh “ll” sound

(11) Greenlandic (oh boy…), “q”, “rl” and “ll”.

(12) The swallowing of consonants at the end of words in Greenlandic. Danish carries a similar system in its phonology.

(13)Some may have trouble with any variety of guttural “kh” sound. Interestingly Hebrew is the one language best known for this, but similar founds appear in Dutch, German, Yiddish, and Russian. Swedish, Polish, and Greenlandic roughly qualify for things that sound similarly. (This is an abbreviated list, so feel free to add more in the comments…)

(14) On top of that, there are the various ways in which the letter “r” is pronounced and rolled in languages around the world. I’ve heard that there is even a training course at the University of Heidelberg that teaches you how to roll r’s properly in various languages, which, I gather, are the more commonly studied European ones.

You think that it might be too late to change your accent, yet alone learn a new sound…but thankfully I had a music teacher in high school who told the following story:

At one point he invited Buddhist monks to perform their chants for the school audience. Afterwards, he asked them if they could teach him, but they said that they could only do so if he were to initiate into their order.

Now, my teacher was dead-set on learning how to replicate this sound, and so he practiced it endlessly in the car, and on stairwells, the same way that I practiced the Danish stød during my adventure over the course of the past year. At one point, it just…stuck…he found himself able to replicate this chanting voice and became well-known throughout the school for using this Buddhist monk chant to imitate a Martian voice—one highly reminiscent of a cartoon character.

This brings me to one of four possibly ways I found to get over a sound I was struggling with..

(1)    Shower technique


This is exactly what my teacher did. This is what I did with two sounds in particular: the Swedish “sj” sound, which I sometimes still botch (although rarely) and at other times it comes out almost perfectly (and a handful of times flawlessly), and…well, the stød…that glottal stop you might have heard about…the Danish’s language’s signature move, as it were…


Just try and try and try it, and then it may stick. Not guaranteed to work every time, but sometimes if you feel that little else may work, sheer repetition will do you wonders, and the more often you do it the more likely you’ll be able to do it.


(2)    Singing technique


I mastered the pronunciation of two languages with singing. One of these was Russian, which I learned as a college student but then forgot after years of relative/complete disuse. The massive amount of mp3’s I gathered enabled me to learn songs, and when I sung along with them, it worked wonders for my accent reduction.


Last year the Ramat Gan chamber choir (from Israel) visited Heidelberg. Many of the members spoke with Israeli accents when I spoke to them, but when they were singing American gospel songs, the accents completely disappeared…as if by magic!


I similarly adjusted to Greenlandic pronunciation with songs as well. Only a few days ago was I teaching somebody some Greenlandic love lingo and he was struggling with the “rl” sound (as I remember doing). I could have tried to learn it by repeating it over and over again, but I did feel that singing Greenlandic songs made it that much easier for me to learn this sound—and trust me, I’ve seen people burst into laughter upon hearing these sounds only once—just to give you an idea of how foreign they may be for some Westerners.


(3)    Immersion technique


Familiarizing yourself with the rhythms of a language may extend to some sounds as well. Thanks largely to having Duolingo repeat Portuguese words to me very often, the nasal vowels were not particularly strange (neither were the rest of the members of the Portuguese “vowel zoo”, for that matter). Living in Poland and being surrounded by the language meant that the nasal vowels in that language just grew on me, and I have since noticed them in English spoken with a Polish accent (very easy to notice if you listen for it).


This shouldn’t encourage you to learn by osmosis. That won’t do you any good.


The truth of the matter is this: surrounding yourself with the language will only do you good if that is your target language.


(4)    Get help from a friend


My list above was largely geared towards sounds that would be hard for English speakers. There are some sounds that may be awkward for native speakers of other languages (Norwegian “å” comes to mind). The “repeat after me” technique is used as a standard among language teachers and may be just the thing you need. Just don’t feel too discouraged if you don’t get it on your first try. Your friend may very well tell you after a few tries that you said it just like a native!


That, and you may get an interesting trick about how to “unlock” a certain sound that you may have been struggling with a lot. (Elsewhere on this blog I detailed my rather naïve anatomy of the “stød” but also of the Greenlandic “q” sound).


There may also be other sounds that may exist in your native language, but you are unaware of it. For example, one of my professors, himself from Russia, told me that the “ы” sound exists in some English dialects in the word “milk”. I have also heard that the Dutch “ui” sound also exists in some English dialects as well.



In any case, a final sentence before I dismiss this class: never, ever, ever give up. And don’t let “science” about language learning tell you what you can or can’t do.


Just do it.