My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

ajunngila

Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.

 

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

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

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 17

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

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

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

tumbuka

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

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

ajunngila

 

Conversation Between Richard Howeson and Jared Gimbel

 October 23, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

J: Yes.

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

J: Hmmm…

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

J: I did too, actually!

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

J: Indeed.

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

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

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

J: Yes.

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

J: Yes.

R: And the language comes from…

J: Fantastically put!

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

J: Agreed.

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

J: “Női” and “férfi”?

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

J: Very true.

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

J: Indeed.

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

J: (In a Danish voice) Ja!

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

J: Yup!

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

J: (Gasps) Very well done.

Richard Howeson, Chairman and Founder of uTalk 25

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

J: Yes

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

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

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

J: That’s fantastically put!

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

J: Indeed. Very well.

R: From friends like yourself as well!

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

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

J: Good!

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

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

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

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

R: Was I on a bicycle?

J: Yes, it was a bicycle. Yes.

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

J: Aha!

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

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

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

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

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

J: Yes. And you’ve done that.

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

J: Yup.

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

J: YES!

R: Do you utilize that or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

J: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J: Yes

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

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

R: No Internet down there!

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

Trip_Planning

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

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

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

J: Tell me.

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

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

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

J: GOOD POINTS!

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

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

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

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

J: Wow.

R: Including from Mandarin and Arabic.

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

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

J: I saw your photo ops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother of the Sea and Me

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

 Greece

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

 

May 2018: Sometimes Losing Focus is Necessary (and Plans for June!)

Not all plans are realized, and that’s okay. Especially given that May was considerably tumultuous for multiple reasons. For one, I needed to go into overdrive concerning “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” as well as the fact that I found myself more often without the motivation to rehearse languages and doubted myself more than I usually do.

That said, any variety of victory is to be celebrated. I devoted the first third of this month to Rotuman, a minority languages of Fiji, and it was very difficult for me to make recordings due to the fact that sometimes making a simple sentence took ten minutes that I had to cross-check from several sources. (THIS is what it is like learning a minority language with extremely few resources, this warrants its own post).

There is a new website devoted to Rotuman and I may glance at it at some point in the near future or even devote videos to it.

In addition to that, I got sidetracked a bit too often in May. Kiribati for the beginning, Hawaiian in the middle, and above all I had Fijian hogging almost all of my time to the detriment of any new “acquired” languages.

What’s more, rehearsing languages like Spanish and German feels like a dull chore (and Jewish and Nordic Languages, well, I sort of have to in order to continue teaching and so that really renews my motivation. I make no secret of the fact that I “don’t love popular languages any more than I have to”, although maybe the Jared of the future will be different in this respect).

May was a tornado for way too many reasons to count, and I got sidetracked and I did make a lot of new videos or new blogposts and that’s okay.

But this really enables me to clearly define my goals for June:

For one, I’ve decided to priority for the REST OF THIS YEAR one of my prominent heritage languages, Hungarian. 30 Minutes a day, every day (excluding emergencies, illnesses, travel, etc). If I don’t, I delete my blog. I may miss one day if I make up the minutes the previous day.

I’ll also let on the fact that it is my intention in the more distant future to raise my children multilingually (ideally in English / Spanish / Hebrew and two heritage languages from both my side and my spouse’s side). That’s a topic I’m not qualified to speak about quite yet.

For June, in addition to 30 minutes of Hungarian every day I’ll most likely choose to focus on a Southeast Asian Language (given that my Fijian is probably good enough to join the ranks of my conversationally fluent languages). The likely candidates are Lao and Khmer, the less likely candidates are Burmese and even Thai (which would be close enough to Lao to not be stressful, I can understand a significant amount of some of the Disney Animated Films dubbed in Thai because of my Lao studies). Vietnamese, while I like it, would probably be too stressful at this point, not withstanding my promise of no new languages for this year (I did study Thai previously, even with an exchange teacher, so I can re-activate it if necessary but it seems unlikely now that I’ll do so).

The biggest challenge for me right now is not only maintenance but also learning to believe my good fortune. Thanks to some unsavory encounters online I’ve actually learned to lie about my language skills–by downsizing them or claiming I speak fewer than I actually do. This is true even in person.

I also feel right around the time that there are certain languages that I “don’t feel the spark with” anymore, and I may have to drop some accordingly. I’ve noticed this happens right around the time that the seasons change.

In addition to this, I think I do need to devote at least ten minutes (if not thirty) to each of my fluent languages every week. Ones I teach are exempt from this (given that the classes count towards this quorum). This will almost certainly be time spent in public transport or waiting for it rather than anywhere else.

Here I am in Milwaukee at my grandmother’s house, bidding you greetings and wishes for success. Now I’m going to ponder as to which Southeast Asian Language I like the best. 🙂

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

70 years of Israel! Happy birthday!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Perhaps this will change with time.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Liked: The Educational Culture is Something to Marvel At.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Liked: Every Day in Israel Feels Like an Adventure.

 

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

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

 

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Happy birthday, Israel!

Think Human Translators Will Be Replaced By Machines? Not So Fast!

In line with the previous piece about corporate narratives discouraging cultural exploration and language learning, there is a corollary that I hear more often and sadly some people whom I respect very deeply still believe it:

Namely, the idea that translation, along with many other jobs, will be replaced entirely by machines (again, a lot of misinformation that I’m going to get into momentarily)

My father went so far to say that my translation job wouldn’t be around in a few years’ time.

Iso an Jekob

I don’t blame him, he’s just misinformed by op-eds and journalists that seek to further an agenda of continued income inequality rather than actually looking at how machine translation is extremely faulty. After all, fewer people believing that learning languages is lucrative means that fewer people learn languages, right? And money is the sole value of any human being, right?

I am grateful for machine translation, but I see it as a glorified dictionary.

But right now even the most advanced machine translation in the world has hurdles that they haven’t even gotten over, but haven’t even been ADDRESSED.

I will mention this: if machine translation does end up reaching perfection, it will almost certainly be with very politically powerful languages very similar to English first. (The “Duolingo Five” of Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese would be first in line. Other Germanic Languages, with the possible exceptions of Icelandic and Faroese, would be next.)

If the craft “dies” in part, it will be in this sector first (given as it is the “front line”). Even then, I deem it doubtful (although machine translation reaching perfection from English -> Italian is a thousand times more likely than it reaching perfection from English -> Vietnamese) But with most languages in the world, translators have no fear of having their jobs being replaced by machines in the slightest.

Because the less powerful you get and the further you get away from English, the more flaws show up in machine translation.

Let’s hop in:

 

  • Cultural References

 

Take a look at lyricstranslate.com (in which using machine translation is absolutely and completely forbidden). You’ll notice that a significant amount of the song texts come with asterisks, usually ones explaining cultural phenomena that would be familiar to a Russian- or a Finnish-speaker but not to a speaker of the target language. Rap music throughout the world relies heavily on many layers of meaning to a degree in which human translators need to rely on notes. Machine translation doesn’t even DO notes or asterisks.

Also, there’s the case in which names of places or people may be familiar to people who speak one language but not those who speak another. I remember in Stockholm’s Medieval Museum that the English translation rendered the Swedish word “Åbo” (a city known in English and most other languages by its Finnish name “Turku”) as “Turku, a city in southern Finland” (obviously the fluent readers of Scandinavian Languages needed no such clarification).

And then there are the references to religious texts, well-known literature, Internet memes and beyond. In Hebrew and in Modern Greek references to or quotes from ancient texts are common (especially in the political sphere) but machine translation doesn’t pick up on it!

When I put hip-hop song lyrics or a political speech into Google Translate and start to see a significant amount of asterisks and footnotes, then I’ll believe that machine translation is on the verge of taking over. Until then, this is a hole that hasn’t been addressed and anyone who works in translation of cultural texts is aware of it.

 

  • Gendered Speech

In Spanish, adjectives referring to yourself are different depending on your gender. In Hebrew and Arabic, you use different present-tense verb forms depending on your gender as well. In languages like Vietnamese, Burmese, and Japanese different forms of “I” and “you” contain gendered information and plenty of other coded information besides.

What happens with machine translation instead is that there are sexist implications (e.g. languages with a gender-neutral “he/she” pronoun such as Turkic or Finno-Ugric Languages are more likely to assume that doctors are male and secretaries are female).

Machine Translation doesn’t have a gender-meter at all (e.g. pick where “I” am a man, woman or other), so why would I trust it to take jobs away from human translators again?

On that topic, there’s also an issue with…

 

  • Formality (Pronouns)

 

Ah, yes, the pronouns that you use towards kids or the other pronouns you use towards emperors and monks. Welcome to East Asia!

A language like Japanese or Khmer has many articles and modes of address depending on where you are relative to the person or crowd to whom you are speaking.

Use the wrong one and interesting things can happen.

I just went on Google Translate and, as I expected, they boiled down these systems into a pinhead. (Although to their credit, there is a set of “safe” pronouns that can more readily be used, especially as a foreign speaker [students are usually taught one of these to “stick to”, especially if they look non-Asian]).

If I expect a machine to take away a human job, it has to do at least as well. And it seems to have an active knowledge of pronouns in languages like these the way a first-year student would, not like a professional translator with deep knowledge of the language.

A “formality meter” for machine translation would help. And it would also be useful for…

 

  • Formality (Verb Forms)

 

In Finnish the verb “to be” will conjugate differently if you want to speak colloquially (puhekieli). In addition to that, pronouns will also change significantly (and will become shorter). There was this one time I encountered a student who had read Finnish grammar books at length and had a great knowledge of the formal language but NONE of the informal language that’s regularly used in Finnish-Language vlogging and popular music.

Sometimes it goes well beyond the verbs. Samoan and Fijian have different modes of speaking as well (and usually one is used for foreigners and one for insiders). There’s Samoan in Google Translate (and Samoan has an exclusive and inclusive “we” and Google Translate does as well with that as you would expect). I’m not studying Samoan at the moment, nor have I even begun, but let me know if you have any knowledge of Samoan and if it manages to straddle the various forms of the language in a way that would be useful for an outsider. I’ll be waiting…

 

  • Difficult Transliterations

 

One Hebrew word without vowels can be vowelized in many different ways and with different meanings. Burmese transliteration is not user-friendly in the slightest. Persian and Urdu don’t even have it.

If I expect a machine to take my job, I expect it to render one alphabet to another. Without issues.

 

  • Translation Databases Rely on User Input

 

This obviously favors the politically powerful languages, especially those from Europe. Google Translate’s machine learning relies on input from the translator community. I’ve seen even extremely strange phrases approved by the community in a language like Spanish. While I’ve seen approved phrases in languages like Yiddish or Lao, they’re sparse (and even for the most basic words or small essential phrases).

In order for machine translation to be good, you need lots of people putting in phrases into the machine. The people who are putting phrases in the machine are those with access to computers, not ones who make $2 a day.

In San Francisco speakers of many languages throughout Asia are in demand for being interpreters. A lot of these languages come from poor regions that can’t send a bunch of people submitting phrases into Google Translate to Silicon Valley.

What’s more, there’s the issue of government support (e.g. Wales put its governmental bilingual documents into Google Translate, resulting in Welsh being better off with machine translation that Irish. The Nordic Countries want to preserve their languages and have been investing everything technological to keep them safe. Authoritarian regimes might not have the time or the energy to promote their languages on a global scale. Then again, you also get authoritarian regimes like Vietnam with huge communities of expatriates that make tech support of the language readily available in a way that would make thousands of languages throughout the world jealous).

 

  • Developing World Languages Are Not as Developed in Machine Translation

 

Solomon Islands Pijin would probably be easier to manage in machine translation that Spanish, but it hasn’t even been touched (as far as I know). A lot of languages are behind, and these are languages spoken in poor rural areas in which translators and interpreters are necessary (my parents worked in refugee camps in Sudan, you have NO IDEA how much interpreters of Tigre were sought after! To the degree in which charlatans became “improvisational interpreters”, you can guess how long that lasted.)

Yes, English may be the official language of a lot of countries in Africa and in the Pacific (not also to mention India) but huge swathes of people living here have weak command of English or, sometimes, no command.

The Peace Corps in particular has tons of resources for learning languages that it equips its volunteers with. Missionaries also have similar programs as well. Suffice it to say that these organizations are doing work with languages (spanning all continents) on a very deep level where machine translation hasn’t even VENTURED!

 

  • A Good Deal of Languages Haven’t Been Touched with Machine Translation At All

 

And some of this may also be in part due to the fact that some of them have no written format, or no standardized written format (e.g. Jamaican Patois).

 

  • Text-To-Speech Underdeveloped in Most Languages

 

I’m fairly impressed by Thai’s Text-to-Speech functionality in Google Translation, not also to mention those of the various European Languages that have them (did you know that if you put an English text into Dutch Google Translate and have it read out loud, it will read you English with a Dutch accent? No, really!)

 

And then you have Irish which has three different modes of pronunciation in addition to a hodge-podge “standard” that is mostly taught in schools and in apps. There is text-to-speech Irish out there, developed in Trinity College Dublin, It comes in multiple “flavors” depending on whether you want Connacht, Ulster or Munster Irish. While that technology exists, it hasn’t been integrated into Google Translate in part because I think customization options are scary for ordinary users (although more of them may come in the future, can’t say I know because I’m not on the development team).

 

For Lao, Persian, and a lot of Indian regional languages (among many others), text-to-speech hasn’t even been tried. In order to fully replace interpreters, machine translation NEEDS that and needs it PERFECTLY. (And here I am stuck with a Google Translate that routinely struggles with Hebrew vowelization…)

 

  • Parts of Speech Commonly Omitted in Comparison to Other Languages

 

Some languages, like Burmese or Japanese, often form sentences without any variety of pronoun in the most natural way of speech. Instead of saying “I understand” in Burmese, you would literally say “ear go-around present-tense-marker” (no “I”, although you could add a version of “I” and it would still make sense). In context, I could use that EXACT same phrase as the ear going around to indicate “you understand” “we understand” “the person behind the counter understands”.

In English, except in the very informal registers (“got it!”) we usually need to include a pronoun. But if machine translation should be good enough to use in sworn interviews and in legal proceedings, they should be able to manage when to use pronouns and when not to. Even in a language like Spanish adding “yo” (I) versus omitting it is another delicate game to play, as is the case with most languages in which person-information is coded into the verb (yo soy – I am, but soy could also mean “I am” as well)

Now take a language like Rapa Nui (“Easter Island Language”). Conjunctions usually aren’t used (their “but” comes from Spanish as a loan word! [pero]). Now let’s say a machine has to translate from Rapa Nui into English, how will the “and” ‘s and “but” ‘s be rendered in a way that is natural to an English speaker?

 

Maybe the future will prove me wrong and machine translation will be used in courts instead of human beings. But I’ll come closer to believing it when these ten points are done away with SQUARELY. Until then, I’ll be very skeptical and assure the translators of the world that they are safe in their profession.

 

 

ga

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!

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How to Do Polyglot Karaoke, Even If There are Only English-Language Songs in the Catalogue

I’ve performed Karaoke songs in a total of thirteen languages to date, not only have I done languages like German and Swedish but also Breton and Greenlandic. In an era in which English-language songs seem to be taking over everywhere, how do I do it?

This piece has been requested for a long time no one has ever written a piece on this before, so I’m going to relate my procedure as best I can.

For one, let me detail the variety of karaoke events I’ve been to thus far in my life:

  • The ones that take place in a bar with many people that sign up and take turns. (In some Chinese ones, you also pay one dollar per song).
  • The room that you rent with your friends, and
  • The living room variety in which you and your friends scramble for what you can find on YouTube or other video services.

For (3), the process in singing songs in other languages can be fairly straightforward. Find songs in your target language that you know happen to exist in Karaoke versions and just sing away (given that I’ve never heard a Breton-language cover song, this is how I got that language on the list).

For (1) and (2), as I already mentioned, you’ll usually need to rely on foreign-language covers of English songs, although you may be lucky and find songs in western European and East Asian Languages in your catalogue (e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). This is particularly common in establishments in international cities owned by people from Latin America or East Asia.

If you are in another country, you will usually expect to find hit songs not only in that country’s language(s) but also in the languages of nearby countries. (One example that is hardly surprising is that Swedish songs can be found in many Finnish karaoke establishments. I have a vague memory of Polish ones having some German- and Russian-language songs as well, and had I been more astute at the time I might have noticed ones from other Slavic-speaking countries as well, such as Czechia or Ukraine.)

You can use your smartphone in order to have the lyrics on reference, or otherwise you can memorize them beforehand if you’re feeling committed.

So, where do I find foreign-language cover songs?

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

Ah, yes, these have been covered in a vast host of languages, almost all Asian and European (although The Lion King was dubbed in Zulu and Moana / Vaiana was dubbed in Tahitian with a Maori dub on the way). What’s more, these covers are due to the official localization efforts of the Disney Corporation.

You can find many of the lyrics for these versions available online, and even if you can’t find them on lyric websites, you could find them in videos (in which the localized language in subtitled) and then you can type them out and post them online or just e-mail them to yourself.

These are usually by go-to songs in multilingual karaoke, although there are some things to know about:

 

  • Some songs require very fast-paced singing or chanting (“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, “You’re Welcome” from Moana / Vaiana). Unless you’re okay with messing up in front of other people, rehearse these beforehand. Obviously the better you know the language the more readily you’ll be able to use it quickly.
  • Some languages are “latecomers” to the Disney localization game (the Baltic languages [Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian] as well as Vietnamese come to mind). Interestingly many of the Nordic dubs (and some from former communist countries such as Hungary) were actually done in the 1990’s. Interestingly while the voice of Bianca the The Rescuers was a native Hungarian speaker (Eva Gabor), she could not actually voice the character in the Hungarian localization because she was deceased by the time it was in production. Some of the localization collections cover the whole collection of Disney films (even Icelandic, oddly enough) others start from a certain point (I think the Baltic Languages were from 2010 onwards).

 

  • YouTube / iTunes Store Fiddling Can Actually Turn Up Some Interesting Song Covers Across Many Languages

 

Yesterday I purchased a Burmese music album (10 USD for 101 songs, that is NOT a typo!). Across that album (entitled “Greatest Hits”), I encountered past Eurovision Songs, Britney Spears, “You Raise Me Up”, and ABBA…in BURMESE.

I’ve come across a number of very surprising covers, including Chris Brown in Tok Pisin, “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a host of languages, and “You Raise Me Up” in GREENLANDIC:

 

 

There’s seldom a chance that typing in “covers in (INSERT LANGUAGE HERE)” is actually going to turn up meaningful results. You’ll just have to play around with recommended videos, playlists and what-have-you until something interesting comes to you. When I bought that Burmese album, did you think I was getting a bunch of cover songs? Well, it was in the iTunes store, but I don’t have the time to listen to 101 song previews and I hadn’t purchased any new music since early July.

This is one way that the fact that English songs are “taking over the world” can be used to your advantage: you can find fan-covers and fan-translations of a lot of these online. Sometimes you may encounter “singable translations” via lyricstranslate.com or even find them in YouTube Comments(!) And this time, you have many, MANY more languages represented.

Also, one thing I should mention is that a lot of English-language pop songs are commonly translated with singable versions into Irish, which probably has among the richest collection of cover songs out of any market out there (except for maybe Myanmar or other East Asian countries that, as of the time of writing, I don’t know a lot about).

 

 

A lot of these Irish songs also come with full lyrics and English-language translations of these Irish-versions.

 

Other Comments

 

You’re probably wondering, “won’t people think I’m a weirdo for doing this?”

Well, let me tell you, in the United States, I’ve got NOTHING but positive reactions from doing this (from the audience, at least). Some organizers have had mixed reactions but nothing wholly negative (one encouraged me to “sing in Klingon next time”)

I’ve even got some prospective students and friendships out of it, not also to the mention the time I was stopped by a stranger in a bar saying that he saw me sing the Lion King in Icelandic…five months ago! (I do an awful job at being forgettable…)

And, of course, if you’re together with your polyglot friends, you’re with people who think like you, so what more is there to want?

Also, people are not going to be judgmental about your accent, even if you encounter native speakers of the language (happened once when I sung a Polish song), you’ll actually get more enthusiasm from THEM than from anyone else out there.

One of my big life lessons from a few years ago was that “different always does better in the store”. In the store of life, as long as you abide by the social contract, being different and doing it differently will only do you wonders.

Happy singing!