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

My Finnish Language Journey: Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland!

finnish ain't hard

Yesterday and today buildings throughout the world were illuminated with blue lights in honor of the birthday of a country that has developed a stellar reputation well outside its borders in recent decades.

My journey with Finnish has been an interesting one, because it’s one that I learned how to speak well while leaving me in complete mystery in exactly HOW I pulled it off.

I’ve used all of the following:

  • Reading dialogues out loud
  • Reading grammar notes out loud from textbooks
  • Watching Disney film snippets and Pokémon in Finnish (dubbed versions)
  • Clozemaster
  • Transparent Language
  • Writing exercises
  • Later on (once I acquired B2 level) teaching the language to other people.
  • Language Exchange Groups (I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Finnish with real people in comparison to Swedish, Danish and Norwegian [especially the first two])
  • Songs (including passively, with lyrics and actively with karaoke)
  • Radio
  • Let’s Play Videos with Finnish commentary
  • Writing to people who speak the language.
  • Video games

 

Too often I get asked the question “what do you use to learn so many languages?”

The question should not be “what do you use to learn” them but “what DON’T you use to learn them?” I became successful with Finnish (despite the fact that I still feel as though I have a long way to go with it) because I threw EVERYTHING at it.

And that’s what a successful attempt to learn a language LOOKS LIKE! You don’t’ just expect to use “Duolingo” and get fluent (it’s in all likelihood not going to happen). You need to use AS MANY tools as possible to make a language a part of your life. The most successful of my language missions have had that, while those that were / are lacking are those in which I still have yet to use EVERY available means of using the language.

Looking back on the journey, here’s what I wish I told myself in 2012 when the Finnish Language and I seemed like we had a future together (which we DID!)

 

  • Throw Out Limiting Beliefs Immediately

 

Too many people are stuck with ideas that they’ll never be good, or that they won’t even be manageable. Others are stuck with ideas that they’ll just get answered in English all of the time. Yet others enter the world of Finnish and other target languages with a negative mindset, thinking that it is something they intend to lose as soon as they enter it.

I entered at first saying “I’ll see what I can get. I can always learn something and I can always learn more later”. But all the while I never DREAMED that I would be capable of mastering the grammar of the language, both colloquially as well as formally, the way that I did. And I should have thought even more than “I’ll manage”, I should have thought “I’m going to be GREAT!!!”

And this leads into another point…

 

  • Finnish (or any other grammatically rich language) is a giant feast. Savor each ingredient separately and don’t expect to gulf down EVERYTHING at once.

 

Many of the cases are straight-up prepositions (as is the case with the other Finno-Ugric Languages), but some other elements are more idiomatic. One that trips up my students regularly is the –ksi ending, which indicates that you are talking about a noun, and more specifically “given that it is that noun” or “into that noun” (e.g. transformation).

 

englanniksi sanoja – English(ksi) words(partitive)

 

English words, or, more accurately “given-that-they-are-English” “words-some-of-them”.

Okay now you have ONE concept, now see if you can manage personal endings for nouns (Kaveri [friend] + ni [my] -> “Kaverini” – “friend(s) of mine”) or the fantastic conjugating “no” (en -> I … not, not I. et – you (sing.) … not, not you, ei -> he/she/it …. Not, not he/she/it, etc.) usage of nuanced suffixes, verb conjugation, AND variant forms of verb conjugation and other grammatical features in colloquial speech! (These might not be in your textbook!)

Oh, and manage all of these concepts at once spoken by a native speaker at quick speed. Sure, the fact that Finnish words are always accented on the first syllable is going to help you, to some degree, as is the fact that some Finns speak very slowly in comparison to Romance Language speakers, but the grammatical buffet of Finnish is going to OVERWHELM YOU.

Unless, you take it in, bit by bit, and count every single one of the small victories.

This is true with other languages, but this is even MORE true with languages in which you might struggle with forming a simple sentence for weeks!

 

 

  • Use Flashcards and Other Similar Apps WITH Immersion for Progress

 

Memrise helped me reach my goals with Finnish but I couldn’t have done it with only them. I also had to use YouTube Finnish in order to bring words that I “vaguely” memorized in the app into a genuine context where they made sense.

Often when I was watching any amount of fun things in Finnish I would remember a word that I had seen in Memrise matching the context EXACTLY.

Unless a language is VERY closely related to one you know, or one that you’ve had experience being exposed to but have gaps in it (as is the case with Polish for me, for example), the flash cards by yourself are not going to be ideal.

But pair with other methods, everything builds off each other.

 

  • Being disappointed with your language progress means that you’re either studying too much or using the language without studying too much.

For all of my languages regardless of level, I noticed that there are some languages that I’ve STUDIED too  much to the exclusion of using them for fun (Irish) and others that I’ve USED too much without studying too much of them anymore (Greenlandic). To correct this imbalance, apply one or the other, depending on what you HAVEN’T been doing.

For much of my Finnish studies, I managed that balance PERFECTLY, more than with any other language I’ve studied. And I’m glad I did.

  • Small words mean a lot in making you sound like a fluent speaker.

 

Thanks to me having watched a lot of Pokémon in the Finnish dub (more than I care to admit) as well as a lot of gaming channels in Finnish, I’ve really learned how to use simple one-word expressions that make me sound believable when I put them in my speech (some of these qualify as “filler words” but not always).

 

Think about it: how often have you heard non-native English speakers say “very good” as opposed to “cool beans!” or “that’s great to hear!” (the latter of which are very American indeed, I think).

 

I got a lot of simple expressions like these thanks to me using Finnish in these “controlled environments”. They didn’t make me fluent, but they made me confident and believable with great regularity.

 

  • No language is too hard.

 

I don’t necessarily say “no language is too unlearnable” because I’ve tried to find some languages to learn in which I can almost seldom find ANY materials for them.

But even though a language like Greenlandic (and Burmese, later on) got me to almost doubt this, you need to keep in mind that, especially with more politically powerful languages, your L2 is learnable, even to near-native fluency. You just need to find methods that work, and utilize EVERYTHING you have in order to make it work.

The apps themselves are great, but they won’t make you fluent alone. Same for the books, videos and TV shows. Bring them altogether, and you’ll become someone who impressed almost EVERY native speaker you’ll meet.

 

That day can be yours! Go ahead and take it!

 

Let’s conclude with this, now, shall we?

 

7 of my Favorite Foreign-Language Gaming Channels

 

As the Polyglot Conference looms ever-nearer, and my trip to Greenland even nearer than that (one month from today, actually!), it occurs to me that I had to thin my outline in order to make room for what is likely to be many, MANY questions from the audience

To that end, one thing I’d really like to write about is what sort of channels devoted to playing various games (and beyond) have provided me with significant entertainment.

Keep in mind that (1) these are based on the sample size of languages that I have had deep experience with (2) as a general rule, these tend to come from the developed world and (3) any channel that I am subscribed to is, in my opinion, 100% created by winners!

I’m not rating these based on how much these channels have helped me learn languages, I just want to express that (otherwise I would have to rate them completely differently under that metric).

You can for a list, and here it is!

 

  1. Streview (Israel)

Primarily focused on reviewing video games in Hebrew, this channel also serves to highly Israeli gaming culture as a whole (something that, for obvious reasons like being stuck in class during a lot of the day, I never got to experience in detail).

What’s more, Streview also shows a colloquial Hebrew that they don’t teach you in the Ulpan, one with enough English words to make your Hebrew school teachers cringe.

If you’re anywhere in the Gimel/Dalet level in the Ulpan or above (B1/B2), I highly recommend you get to experience this channel:

 

  1. Sami Hartikainen (Finland)

 

While Sami does tend to do some series on major commercial games, like Sonic Mania and Super Mario Maker, Sami also brings a significant amount of unpredictable Indie Games into the mix which makes his channel super-fun for me to turn to time and again.

His videos really helped me hone my Finnish-language accent as well as get regular exposure to the language’s more casual registers in a way that other sources, even TV and music, weren’t really doing.

Sami’s voice is also very theatrical as well but not overdramatic:

 

  1. TheGerald39 (Poland)

For some odd reason his voice sounds like that of a radio announcer coupled with that of a storyteller. Also, one thing you can use “Let’s Play” ‘s for is simultaneous translations (e.g. because a lot of games are localized in the world in English, especially outside of select Western European countries or the Americas or East Asia, a lot of people ad-lib translate all dialogue into their native language. It actually really helps to train you to think in your target language and it is supremely helpful).

The Gerald literally does this better than ANYONE I’ve ever seen, in ANY language. Even if you don’t speak a word of Polish or any other Slavic language, have yourself a listen:

 

  1. Lasse Vestegaard (Denmark)

Great production values, a great voice and a fantastic array of games and other side-video projects make this channel one of my favorites for Danish practice whenever I need it.

What’s more, the fact that he uses a lot of browser games in his Let’s Play videos is very refreshing (and I’ve discovered A LOT of very interesting programs because of him!)

Here’s an extremely interesting video in which Lasse tries his hand at an Airport Control Tower simulation. Does he have what it takes to become an air traffic controller in real life? Have a watch!

 

  1. Matboksen – Tommy & Marthe (Norway)

This channel has a very homegrown and genuine quality to it that other channels are significantly lacking. The Norwegian used on the channel is suitable for learners of all types and I’ve found many of the videos on this channel helpful for rehearsing my Norwegian regularly when I’m not up to watching heavy-duty TV or reading complicated articles.

What’s more, Tommy and Marthe tend to ad-lib translate the dialogues from the many games they play (esp. from the Zelda series) with just the right amount of personality.

Surprisingly I remember their ad-libbed Norwegian voice-overs more vividly than any actual dialogue from the games themselves!

  1. Domtendo (Germany)

The owner of a voice you never truly forget, Domtendo has proven to be such a success in the German-speaking world that he also expanded to narrating video game news. As you could guess, his channel does focus a lot more on Nintendo games and virtually every game I’ve seen him play has been localized into German as well.

My prediction is that Domtendo will hit 1 million subscribers in 2018, and for good reason: a lot of genuine reflection coupled with moments of “rage” and usage of the German language in its colloquial form as genuinely as it comes. Extremely helpful to many learners of German and highly recommended:

(Watch the final scene of this video for something extremely Schadenfreude-worthy):

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Mustachtic (Sweden)

I don’t really know what makes this channel so interesting for me at all, to be honest. I just know that I really like it.

 

Yn Chwarae (Welsh)

Donkey Kong Country in Welsh. Because why not.

 

Senkou Jimmy (Hungary)

 

The most smile-causing voice acting I’ve ever seen in Let’s Play videos, period.

 

 

And now the #1 slot goes to…

 

  1. ZetaSSJ (Chile)

 

While not particularly helpful from a language-learning standpoint, ZetaSSJ’s channel is my overall favorite gaming channel as of the time of writing.

He does focus a lot on Super Mario Maker, but he’s probably the best player of any Mario game I have EVER seen. And watching him play through levels on Super Expert (which, for those unaware, are collections of levels that have been failed nearly 99% of the time) provides more tension than the scariest horror films.

He also includes a lot of pop-culture phenomena in his videos, including editing soundbites from well-known internet memes onto the gameplay videos (Including the Titanic recorder piece and “Surprise, Motherfucker!” with significant regularity).

Watch this now. Even if you know absolutely nothing about Mario at all, or don’t speak Spanish or a related language, you won’t regret it in the slightest:

 

”How Do You Know So Much About Everything?”, or How to Build an Encyclopedic Memory

 

Too often throughout my life have people tried to convince me that somehow my mind was “special” and that I was “gifted”.

Later on in life, it occurred to me that the only thing that really made me different was the fact that I “tripped” on some successful formulae on how to memorize things and that I applied them with consistency.

If you’ve had a conversation with me in real life, you’ll definitely know that I am an experience collector that draws in a lot of different histories and cultural experiences from throughout the globe and draws them together in ways that are inspiring at best, intimidating at worst.

Today I decided that I’m going to let loose some of my secret as to how I developed the memory and how you can develop an encyclopedic knowledge of anything of your choice!

You already have an encyclopedic knowledge of SOMETHING

That’s one important thing to keep in mind. Even if it is very simple details about your life, your family or your work sphere, there is something that you know very well in detail.

How exactly did you remember it? I’ll give you some clues.

For one, you associated the various facts and faces and stimuli used for recognition with multiple elements. Some of them were:

  • Feelings
  • Incidents associated with certain feelings (e.g. funny stories, awkward stories)
  • Places (we’ll get to the memory palace in a bit, which is probably the world’s most tested-and-true memory technique)
  • Your senses (you may associate smells or sounds or melodies with them)

Another thing you also did in order to remember these details about your life is the fact that your brain has been convinced (and rightly so) that learning these details is actually essential to your survival. (If you can trick your brain that learning something is essential to your survival, your brain is going to learn it whether you like it or not. Humans are the most successful species this planet has ever seen and your brain is, by extension, served as the key to that success. Trust it).

In places like Germany and Myanmar where I could not always rely on people speaking English or other languages I knew, my brain kicked into second-gear when I needed to learn phrases of the local language, especially ones that would be useful in emergency situations. Even in places like Sweden and Iceland knowledge of the local language could be a survival advantage and …

(I was writing this in Grand Central Station and a fire alarm went off. Despite the fact that the announcement was in English I literally couldn’t understand a single word. Serves to show you that sometimes even “your language” can be completely unintelligible to you and you don’t give it a second thought or become insecure about it!)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

I was having a conversation about multilingualism at (one of) my rabbi’s classes last night. Interestingly I said that a lot of people memorize other things with great success (e.g. names of sports teams and what years they won, names of Pokémon, video games, video game levels, TV shows, episodes and seasons, books you’ve read, names of your teachers throughout your life, etc.) One reason for that is that they associate it with places, feelings and stimuli.

Take the example of sports games. I’ve lived with a lot of students from Spain when I was in Poland (to whom I owe the fact that I talk Spanish like an Iberian). They went to sports bars very frequently and no doubt they associate each game with a different place and a different set of emotions, not also to mention the sort of things that their friends or other company said or did during the game or afterwards. In so doing, they have an advantage in memorizing a “timeline” in their head given that they associate each incident with stimuli that serve to enforce the memory.

Or take video games. I can literally draw of map of the Kanto Region (from the original Pokémon games) from memory. I can tell you where in Kanto to find any of the individual species in the Red Version (I started with a Bulbasaur, for those curious). I can even hum the music from any of the routes or the cities (although this is probably due to my musical memory in general, which is something I may write about another time). What’s more, I KNOW I am not the only person who can do that.

I associated each place not only with the melody but also the type of Pokémon that were found there, in addition to places in real life where I was when I beat certain gym leaders in the game. (I beat Brock in Hamden, Connecticut outside of a place called Wentworth’s Ice Cream store, for example).

Now how exactly can you apply this to ACADEMIC knowledge?

For one, since I was very young, I associate particular places with other stimuli (they were usually visual or musical). I also associate places with individual customs or landmarks. Flags, obviously, became a big help as well.

This was something that I may have picked up later in in my childhood from edutainment games. Take, for example, the 1990’s versions of “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?” (I’ll have you know that they depicted some places I’ve been to in real life, including Yafo in Israel, Gamla Stan in Stockholm, and the Old Town in Heidelberg with not a hint of inaccuracy in the SLIGHTEST. Okay, they probably copied the details from panoramic photos, but whatever). In the games, you not only associate the places with hints that the characters give to you but also the landscapes and the musical pieces that echo the “mood” of whatever place you’re in. (Yafo is going to be very different from San Francisco, and Mount Kilimanjaro is going to be very different from either of those).

The places no longer became lists of places I’ve never heard of, they became places of living people, real places and a culture that I tasted, to whatever small a degree, with the game’s soundtrack (I would say that Israel, Iran, Iceland, Zaire (as it was called then), France and Germany probably have the most memorable musical pieces in that game).

Or let’s take verb conjugations, for example.

For Finnish, I associated them with particular sentences that I heard in songs and spoken by characters in dubs of animated movies or cartoons. In so doing, the grammatical “pains” of Finnish (such as conjugations of verbs, conjugations of the “no” verb [in Finnish, “no” is a verb and you have to conjugate it and pair it with the stem of another verb afterwards], or the relative pronouns [don’t get me started on these!]) weren’t so painful anymore.

In Hungarian, I’m doing something slightly different, in which I’m associating them with sentences from my Anki deck, all of which seem to tell a story by themselves (okay, let’s open up the deck right now and see what I get. Okay…the sentence is … “apám jól van, mint mindig” [Father is well, as usual]. Doesn’t that sentence tell a story by itself? Doesn’t it cause some emotion of sorts to stir up in your heart? When you hear the sentence, you may associate it with a particular “taste” captured in the sentence. Remember that.) No doubt I’m going to head onto what I did with Finnish-dubbed cartoons as well, probably later on down the line…

Here’s probably another point you need to take away: just reading stuff off a page over and over again is NOT LIKELY TO WORK. You have to pay attention to how each element you’re supposed to be memorizing makes you feel.

What words in it resemble things or words in other languages you already know? What sort of story is the word telling? (In many Germanic languages [Yiddish, German, mainland Scandinavian] you “over-set” something to translate it, but in Finnish and Tok Pisin you “turn” it).

Are you learning it with a friend or eating something you really like (or really don’t like) while you’re learning it?

Did a native speaker correct your pronunciation and did you feel embarrassed? Did a native speaker compliment you and make you feel good about it?

These emotional turns are going to cause your memory to go into Jedi mode, which is why immersion in another country (or another area of the country or the city that you’re living in that you haven’t explored), which is very likely to create emotions of all sorts, is such a good idea, regardless of whether you’re a beginner (like I was with Burmese in Myanmar back in May), on the intermediate plateau (like where I sort of am with Greenlandic right now concerning my Greenland mission in October) or fluent (like with Danish in Greenland).

You can also use music to create emotions as well, which is why learning from a song (and a song text) is a fantastic idea as well, even though it may not assist you in conversation at the absolute beginner stage (although no doubt it will help you up your vocabulary count in the intermediate stage and beyond!)

In summary:

  • To develop an encyclopedic memory, know that it is possible. You already have a very good knowledge of at least something, no matter who you are.
  • Associate what you want to learn with “hooks”. They can be anything that evokes an emotion or a visual that may assist with it. Pay attention to what “connections” you can make between what you want to learn and what you already know. Your knowledge base is like a Lego Castle and the more you build on it the more opportunities you’ll have to link things.
  • Use hooks of all sorts.
  • If something’s not sticking, feel free to expose yourself to it multiple times and your brain may come up with a hook eventually. If not, you can stare at the what you want to learn (e.g. a word, a conjugation) and make something silly so that you remember it.
  • Associate pictures or other sentences or tunes with what sort of words you want to learn.
  • Most importantly, realize that ALL humans are capable of this, and you don’t need a “certain type of brain” in order to get an encyclopedic knowledge of things. Just keep working on the hooks and you’ll get asked what I get very frequently in no time. “How on earth to you manage to KEEP SO MUCH STUFF in your BRAIN?!!?”

 

Happy hooking!

20140928_074028

“With All Due Respect, I Just Don’t Believe It” – How to Handle Skeptics

Today I’m going to address what is probably the highest quality problem a polyglot could have: having people actually doubt your skills.

I’ll go ahead and begin with this: there are some languages that I speak very, very well (my list is at the top of this page). Then there are those that I still speak smidgets of. And, of course, those that fall in between this, not to mention those that I’d like to learn some day.

If you are one of those who is a skeptic of my skills, I will either invite you to talk to me about my language journey or even see me in “action” at a polyglot event or even on the streets of a city. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of which, I’ve been inspired by Moses McCormick’s “Level Up” missions and thought I should come to do something similar. For those unaware, Moses McCormick collects pieces of enough languages to actually make me look like a novice and interacts with native speakers, filming the results. The extended metaphor involves the acquisition of Experience Points common to Role-Playing Games.

Okay, so what’s the problem?

Imagine you go to a language exchange event with something like this:

come back when you can put up a fight

This is an abbreviated list.

Now, granted, you’ll encounter a lot of very shocked people. And reactions like these:

  • Why don’t you speak language X better?
  • Why don’t you speak language Y at all?
  • Why do you focus on “useless” languages?
  • What else do you do with your life aside from learning languages?
  • Why don’t you speak language of variety Z? (Up until the Myanmar mission, it was usually “I do not see any Asian Languages on here”, despite the fact that Hebrew is, technically speaking, an Asian language).
  • What’s your secret?
  • Can you say “thank you” in all of these, just to make sure that you’re real? (I can do this without any effort at all, actually)
  • How did you pick up every single one of these? (Each one has a different story. I used a lot of animated cartoons to learn Danish, but I literally couldn’t have done that with something like Breton. Living in the country obviously helped with Sweden, but as things stand going to Papua New Guinea to learn Tok Pisin is a non-option for me, so I had to “simulate” the immersive environment via technology…not too hard!)

 

And then a handful of those like this:

 

  • “There’s no way you’re telling the truth about that”.
  • “I just don’t believe you”

 

Thankfully, these skeptics are in the pure minority, and I usually encounter ones like that about once every two months or so.

And if you were to think that it was mostly on the Internet that I encountered folks like these, you’d be completely right.

And I usually don’t respond to them. After I make enough videos and collect enough interviews, there won’t be any more room for skepticism.

Here’s Why I Don’t Pay Attention to Hyperpolyglot Skepticism

 

  • I’m secure in my abilities

 

Here’s how I judge my fluency in non-Native languages and ensure that I’m “on the ball”.

I find videos of non-native English speakers of varying levels on television, etc. My goal, as things stand, is not to sound like a native in all of the languages I speak, but in my best ones I want to be able to speak as well as fluent speakers of English as a second language.

If I can translate everything that they are saying into a language and verbalize everything that they say using my vocabulary, then this means that I am in a good place. This means that my skill in that language is solid.

I realize that at this moment, I should not focus on “catching up” to native speakers. The native speaker of Hebrew or German or Finnish is going to have a permanent advantage over me. I may really like these languages, but Israelis or Germans or Finns have lived and breathed the culture for their whole lives. Unless I commit an ungodly amount of time to the task, I’m not catching up. But that’s okay.

Likewise, I have the advantage as a native English speaker over everyone who is not. I can use idiomatic expressions with more ease than … most native speakers of English, actually!

And this leads to another problem I’ll address on another day: the fact that my vocabulary in English is extremely sharp, and that sometimes I have to hold my vocabulary sets in my other languages to a lower standard. But that’s okay.

(Sometimes it’s even necessary. Bislama’s comprehensive vocabulary is 7000 words and nearly half of those are place names, leaving about 4000 words, which is nearly one-fourth the size of an English native speaker’s vocabulary. Keep in mind that comprehensive vocabulary means all known words in the language! Dutch’s comprehensive vocabulary, for the sake of comparison, is, if I recall correctly, around 400,000, among the largest on the planet).

 

  • Some insecure people want to make you feel bad about your choices. Ignore them.

 

I remember one time I encountered someone who spoke to me with an almost visceral hatred about the fact that I was “dabbling” in a lot of languages.

This person tried to say that it was wiser to invest very strongly in a handful rather than hop around.

But here’s one reason why I know I made the right choice: not only are skills transferable between languages (e.g. my Yiddish and Swedish and Icelandic vocabularies have very detectable crossover between them, and even Tok Pisin and Burmese and Vietnamese have grammatical elements in common!), but memory software is just going to get even better. The possibilities to increase your vocabulary size will be even more endless than before.

Take, for example, the fact that video games have causes some people to play them to develop very good reflexes (I can’t even remember the last time I dropped a glass or plate on the floor, actually). In comparison with soldiers that fought in the second world war, contemporary soldiers, thanks to using software and games, have developed reflexes that would have been considered superhuman a century ago!

What’s more, I know that learning a language is like watering a plant. The plant grows over time with enough care, and some plants grow more slowly than others. In that regard, I know that having thirty plants and watering them all slowly is going to be wiser on the very long term than having three plants that grow quickly.

I am very sure that the case for many languages places me on the winning side. Although if you chose to focus on a handful of languages instead, I respect that choice very much. After all, the maintenance involved on my end can be downright painful! And that pain isn’t for everyone, and neither might the reward from that pain be something that you even want…

 

  • I expect to make mistakes

I don’t advertise myself as someone who speaks a bajillion languages all perfectly, I advertise myself as someone who is solidly conversational in around 17-20.

I’ve heard solidly conversational English speakers in places like Iceland. They were very good and I was extremely impressed. Were they absolutely perfect or using the vocabulary of college graduates? No. But it wasn’t necessary.

Usually people forgive my mistakes, even stupid ones, by chalking up to the fact that being a hyperglot leads to confusion (although I’m constantly working on trying to decrease that confusion). Even speaking a few languages very well can also lead to confusion!

I am someone who chases new experiences with enthusiasm, and I expect there to be mistakes and I ditch perfectionism on the short term.

I look at language learning as a jigsaw puzzle. You assemble the frame (which is the basic structure on how a language words with its basic verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and the most common vocabulary) and then you assemble the rest of the puzzle by just arranging the pieces as noticing how they fit together based on the guide that you’ve seen. Here’s the key difference: putting together the language jigsaw puzzle never ends.

 

Conclusion

I’ve had people throughout my life that doubted my abilities. I’ve had people throughout my abilities that didn’t think that I was smart enough or didn’t think that my skills were well developed enough for a changing world. There were even those that tried to tell me that my religious upbringing during adolescence was like a permanent handicap!

And yes, there are those that tried to get me to doubt my commitment and my attachment to one of the greatest passions of my life, getting to experience the many tongues of the planet.

I’ve been a high achiever since I was a toddler. I’m used to this sort of resentment and I may feel some pang of despair or insecurity at times, but aside from that, I just know that, after enough demonstrations and enough hard work, I’ll be the winner.

And those that doubted me will be the ones having to apologize.

And really, if you have people doubting your skills, especially on the Internet, don’t pay attention to them. This is me telling you that your grand vision for your life deserves to be yours, and you need all of the encouragement and care required so that you can get it.

Onwards!

Myanmar Saga + Extra Double-Feature Daredevil Language Mission!

Tomorrow I head off to the Golden Land (Myanmar / Burma).

As a Yiddishist I am actually amused by the fact that a popular Yiddish name for the United States was (and remains) “di goldene medine” (also meaning “The Golden Land”, or somewhat more accurately, “the golden country”). I’m hopping one from Golden Country to another, so it seems.

On one hand, I feel significantly confident in my ability to say a lot of “touristy” things in Burmese, although I’m not fluent (and I have problems reading the Burmese script, too!).

This is my first tonal language that I’ve taken seriously since my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 or so, and as a result I’m quite worried about whether I’m getting it right but luckily the fact that I have a musical ear certainly hasn’t hurt.

Where am I? Well, let me put it this way: part of me feels that I’m walking into a test that I haven’t studied for. At all. And that this test determines my future.

But another part of me feels that I’m entering into the testing room with as many “cheat sheets” as I want.

Now, time for me to tell you that I got caught off guard!

Apparently I have layovers in the United Arab Emirates and in Thailand (and Thailand only on the way there).

So you know what this means:

I’m also on a mission to see how much Gulf Arabic I can learn on the plane to Dubai, as well as elementary Thai on the way there.

(This, in addition to Burmese, which will be in quite good shape, I think, after three weeks).

Time for me to layout my plans:

 

Burmese:

myanmarsaga

I’m gonna have to memorize as many phrases in “Birmanisch für Myanmar – Wort für Wort” to the best of my ability, including how to put sentences together and all that fun stuff. The fact that my life may depend on knowing this stuff means that my memory is probably going to go into Jedi mode. I’ll see how well I do (or how badly I do).

What’s more, I also have five Burmese Memrise courses in offline mode on my phone, including a complete guide to the characters. I know that various Pali loan words are not pronounced the way they are spelled (see my previous post on Burmese here), but I expect to be able to read Burmese by the time I set foot in Mandalay for the first time.

Interestingly this is my least urgent mission. I got time for this. My most urgent mission would be.

 

Surprise Gulf Arabic EXTRAVAGANZA!

UAE

 

If only I found out that I was having a layover in Dubai literally two days ago, I would have a book (I wasn’t told this due to miscommunication. My parents are the ones that are bringing me along to play translator).

I managed to get the Lonely Planet Middle Eastern Phrasebook purchased online. It will come to me tomorrow, and I hope that it will arrive before the shuttle to the airport does.

But even if that doesn’t happen, I have other tools for Gulf Arabic, namely a Peace Corps Guide (primarily aimed at Saudi Arabia) that is 300 pages long, as well as a Japanese-based Gulf Arabic app, and the free preview for the Gulf Arabic Kauderwelsch book (I wouldn’t underestimate those free previews given how helpful one of them was for me in Iceland).

Thanks to me having done Dari on Mango Languages (to help improve Tajik), the Arabic alphabet isn’t as strange to me as, let’s say, Thai characters.

I’m focusing on the casual Gulf Arabic for this time. Will probably only use in the airplanes or on the airports. But at least that will be enough to write an article on. I hope.

I am reminded of one of my friends, a fluent speaker of Egyptian Arabic, who remarked that Gulf Arabic sounded like “frog talk”. Part of me has dreamed of learning it ever since.

What do I intend to do? Go through the books and the apps on the plane, and the book (that will hopefully arrive!) using mnemonics along the way. Write as much as I can. If there are native speakers I can interact with, great! This will be a challenge I remember!

 

Thai: Something New

 

thailand

 

Got an Italki language exchange partner who wanted to learn Northern Sami from me (which I forgot a while ago but am relearning bit-by-bit to prepare for the lessons). She’s teaching me elementary Thai in exchange and I’m enchanted by everything about it, the same way that I am enchanted with…pretty much every language I’ve ever studied.

Thanks to her help I’m headed into this situation with more wisdom than with my “see how much Gulf Arabic you can learn in a day” assignment.

I still have zilch idea how to read. At all.

But I am capable of speaking. A little bit, but I’m capable of that little bit.

And that is something.

PLAN: Same as for the Gulf Arabic one, except for I’ll be studying it on the plane from Dubai to Bangkok. I also won’t be studying this for the “way back” trip.

 

Vanishing for the Vacation.

 

I’m not going to be writing posts during my trip to Myanmar (May 10th – May 29th). I’ll even leave my computer at home.

I’ll miss all of you, but I really, REALLY look forward to sharing the results of my daredevilry with all of you!

 

Another announcement:

 

I WILL BE PRESENTING AT THE POLYGLOT CONFERENCE IN REYKJAVIK, 2017!

 

“Using Video Games to Learn and Maintain Languages”.

 

I’ll get to that soon enough. But first I have to take on some adventures.

 

While I’m my adventures, I’ll be thinking of you, dear reader, and knowing that I can share my ventures as inspiration to make your linguistic dreams come true!

See you in June!

2015-08-20 14.50.06

A Free Afternoon in the Life of Jared Gimbel

jippi-mundolingo

This is a diary of my planned activity on April 4th, 2017, after having eaten lunch, before Mundo Lingo, which is an international language exchange event. (I actually carried through with the plan, it took me three hours, and was VERY intense!)

This also isn’t technically speaking a “free afternoon”, because I have one class in Biblical Hebrew to teach at 4 PM.

I’m doing this for the purpose of helping other people discover my routine and how it can help them. I vary it often and it isn’t perfect, but too many people have been asking for it and so here it is!

 

Time Budget:

 

I’m going to aim for 12:30 in the afternoon as the part to begin budgeting my time. So now let’s ask some questions:

  • What languages am I likely (or certain) to be speaking that evening?
  • What languages need work?

Knowing Mundo Lingo and its Spanish name, Romance Languages are a must, so let’s draw up my collection thereof, sadly nothing out-of-the-ordinary:

 

Castilian Spanish

French

Italian

Portuguese (with a focus on Brazil but practicing with European Portuguese would be cool,too)

 

I should study these earlier in the day, because I’ve noticed that after studying for a while I tend to burn out.

Sunday I was told (by a Catalan native speaker, no less) that I spoke Castellano “perfectly” (first time I’ve been told that EVER), so I’ll be budgeting less time for that.

Now for my weaknesses with French:

  • Knowing nouns isn’t a problem thanks to me playing Nintendo 3DS games in French, the issue lies in verbs which have proven an issue.
  • Comprehension of native speakers also proves a problem. Interestingly I seldom have problems understanding learners.

 

Italian:

  • I have significant weaknesses across the board, but verbs especially. However, I have a lot of passive understanding.
  • Tried to improve active understanding by watching gaming videos (mostly of “Super Mario Maker”, my favorite video game to watch “Let’s Play”’s of) but I’m just not that good yet, so I think I’ll stick to cartoons instead. Pokémon seems like a good choice for me to see where I am and also to learn vocabulary through context

 

Portuguese:

  • Worried that I lapse into Portuñol at times.
  • I can understand a lot, even from native speakers.
  • I don’t know a lot about the culture of Brazil.
  • I don’t know a lot of profanities (not that I intend to use them).

 

So let’s budget up the first hour, from 12:30 until 1:30.

 

  • 1 short Spanish video.
  • 1 Italian Pokemon Episode (watch all the way through!)
  • Look at French verb tables
  • Actively listen to Brazilian Music for the remainder of the hour.

 

Now I have two more hours until I have to prepare for my class to teach at 4:00 PM.

 

I should spend this time with my languages that I am likely to use and that need a lot of work. My energy is likely to peak at the time between 1:30 and 2:30.

Looking at my list, this would mean Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Hungarian.

 

Polish:

  • Good grammar when it comes to verbs
  • Just general vocabulary gaps
  • Need to review cases.

 

15 minutes, one fun video (I’ll make sure that it’s one of somebody playing a video game with a lot of English and in which he or she translates a lot of it into Polish, ad-libbing), and then declension review, esp. with numbers.

Russian:

  • Good grammar.
  • Need to improve idiomatic usage.

 

15 Minutes with Transparent Language and/or Phrasebooks, focusing on interacting with other people rather than individual words.

Ukrainian

  • The exact same situation, except for slightly better (because of its similarity to polish) and slightly worse (Because I haven’t practiced it as much.

Do the same thing as with Russian.

Hungarian:

  • I’m a beginner.

 

Do the same thing as with Russian and Ukrainian.

 

Okay, now for the final hour:

 

  • 3 minutes of exposure to each of the Melanesian Creole Languages (on Radio)
  • 3 minutes of exposure to Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish
  • 10 Minutes of German
  • 5 minutes of Dutch
  • 5 Minutes of Danish

 

(I leave one minute free in the first two bits to account for opening and closing windows, etc.

 

  • 3 minutes of exposure to Irish, Cornish and Breton apiece
  • 5 minutes of Welsh
  • 5 Minutes of Icelandic
  • 5 Minutes of Tajiki
  • 5 Minutes of Burmese

 

I’ll be using a combination of videos for the languages I know well (like Danish) and learning materials for those I don’t know well (like Tajiki or Burmese)

 

That leaves me at 3:40

 

  • Prepare my Hebrew class for 4:00 PM
  • Watch some silly YouTube video in English until my class begins.
  • Take off to public transport.
  • Use learning apps on the way there.

 

Okay, so putting the entire recipe together, a total of three hours:

 

12:30

 

–              1 short Spanish video. (12:30-12:40

–              1 Italian Pokemon Episode (watch all the way through!) (12:40-1:00)

–              Look at French verb tables (1:00-1:15)

–              Actively listen to Brazilian Music for the remainder of the hour. (1:15-1:30)

 

1:30

 

  • Polish YouTubing (1:30-1:40)
  • Polish Grammar Review (1:40-1:45)
  • Russian Transparent Language Session (1:45-2:00)
  • Hungarian Transparent Language Session (2:00-2:15)
  • Ukrainian Transparent Language Session (2:15-2:30)

 

2:30

 

–              3 minutes of exposure to each of the Melanesian Creole Languages (on Radio) (2:30-2:40)

–              3 minutes of exposure to Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish (2:40 – 2:50)

–              10 Minutes of German (2:50 – 3:00)

–              5 minutes of Dutch (3:00 – 3:05)

–              5 Minutes of Danish (3:05 – 3:10)

–              3 minutes of exposure to Irish, Cornish and Breton apiece (3:10 – 3:20)

–              5 minutes of Welsh (3:20 – 3:25)

–              5 Minutes of Icelandic (3:25 – 3:30)

–              5 Minutes of Tajiki (3:30 – 3:35)

–              5 Minutes of Burmese (3:35 – 3:40)

 

3:40

 

Prepare for my Biblical Hebrew Class I’m teaching (review those words I don’t know, look at several translations of the text we’ll be going over just in case “funny” issues concerning rare words come up)

 

4:00 –  5:00 PM

Class

 

5:00 PM

On my way / early dinner at place next to event.

 

6:00 PM – I don’t know

Mundo Lingo

 

Enjoy!

 

 

How I deviated from it in practice:

 

I changed the French bit in going through the routine. I looked at the verb tables, went to French Duolingo to rehearse them (I felt that I could recognize all the basic forms afterwards), then I started watching…you guessed it…gaming videos in French until the 1:15 mark. Yes, it was Super Mario Maker.

I listened to the Brazilian music but there were some songs that made me wish that I had chosen a different path. Any recommendations for Brazilian Music are highly wanted, keep in mind that I really like music from the Nordic Countries in particular.

I used videos instead of radio for the Melanesian parts. (Hey! I know I’m asking for a lot of recommendations, but if you know of any good Creole / Pidgin radio stations from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea, let me know in the comments!)

Gave 8 Minutes to German and 7 to Danish (instead of 10 / 5) for no other reason than I liked a recommended video on the side.

Due to problems (Radio Kerne was playing English music instead of Breton programming, and loading issues), I actually got two minutes of Breton instead of three.

Due to similar problems I did Welsh on Duolingo instead of using assorted videos and radio.