My Biggest Strengths

Back in February I wrote a piece on my weaknesses, and at the request of the one-and-only Ari in Beijing, I’ve been asked to write what my biggest strengths are.

And he explicitly mentioned that I’m not allowed to generally list “language learning” as a strength.

But it really isn’t. It’s an activity. Your strengths are applied to activities. “Skiing” isn’t a strength, “being capable of sensing even slight tremors” is a strength.

My weaknesses in the article above are as follows and while I wrote the piece in February 2017 I think I haven’t vanquished any of them yet:

  1. I burn out easily
  2. I’m hypercompetitive
  3. I get nervous easily
  4. I dwell on past failures for far too long
  5. I put more stock in other people’s opinions of me, my progress and my work than I do in my own opinions thereof.

I think it only seems fair for me to write five strengths, and the first one I “teased” in the previous article:

  1. I can make connections between events, words and many other things with great ease.

If you have this mastered, your memory can be unstoppable (although not perfect, I would venture, but who knows? The human brain is always surprising me).

Word I need to remember? I can associate it with where I was when I first used it.

Name I need to remember? I can sometimes bring a mental image to mind, even when I’m not thinking about it, to tie it to that person’s name.

(I did this with the Jewish holidays when I was little. I associated each one with a particular character or image and that way I wouldn’t forget them. Fun times. P.S. I know I’m not the only one that did that)

It’s like an artificial form of synesthesia, in which you can use your various senses to tie together whatever needs to be remembered.

I’ll give an example of this. I needed to know the Burmese word for water (ye), and I associated it with the following: (1) where I was in the restaurant when I first used it (2) what the waiter looked like and (3) the way he was walking (4) the general setup of the restaurant and (5) a mental image of Sans (yes, the joke-cracking skeleton, that one) for some odd reason.

Now before you say that this is way too much mental effort and it would be a pain to undertake it, keep in mind that your brain is already taking in these details! Focus on the word or words you need to remember, and attach them to details you see around you. This will work wonders.

But one thing that also really helps jog my memory is being corrected by native speakers or otherwise messing up with them badly. True story!

(2) I bind myself to my most important commitment with oaths

June 2017: learning Krio was on the agenda, and I thought it was long overdue (and I’m finally conversational in it!)

Given that I felt I really needed to do it, I made a commitment, inspired by advice from Olly Richards (who I look forward to seeing again at the next Polyglot Conference!).

30 minutes of exposure everyday -> Progress

So what did I do?

I took an oath. I was to study 30 minutes of Krio every day for three weeks. If I didn’t study Krio on any one of the days, I would delete this blog. Permanently.

Now you’re probably gasping in horror, but I know that this actually works. And I made the Krio commitment and I became conversational during the three-week period, after having nearly started from scratch!

And I spoke Krio to my father (who worked in Sierra Leone) for the first time. His eyes perked up. He hadn’t heard the language since he left West Africa. And that was before I was born.

That wouldn’t have happened if not for my commitment.

My next goal is to learn Hungarian considerably well to very well before I meet my family members for the High Holidays. And luckily I know what to do.

And you know what to do to! Can you?

(3) I’m aggressively nonconformist and realize that a lot of messages found in many societies (and the U.S. in general) are intended to stifle hope and talent.

There have been few sadder things I have heard in conversation that people convincing themselves that they “don’t have talent” or that they’re “just average” and that they’re “okay with it”.

Between mass media culture in general as well as television in general (sorry to single it out), I feel that a lot of aspects of American popular culture are actually meant to hinder the road to extraordinary success rather than act as a key to it. I should also say that the US is far from the only country in which this is true.

Speaking to people I know I feel that a lot of people would really pursue extraordinary dreams and become the heroes of our time. I believe that almost all of us are capable of it in some measure. One thing that is holding them back is limiting beliefs, or even worse, their friend circles.

These friendship circles are a VERY powerful force in your life. Hone it correctly and it’s like having all the divine forces in the world on your side. Choose the wrong friends and you’ll be shackled to a life of wishing you were something more.

Think about what sort of messages you are giving and think about what they’re trying to do to you from a psychological standpoint. Some of these really open doors for you (make you want to explore the world, make you want to explore yourself, etc.). Many of these try to close doors for you (be needlessly afraid of things, keep you stuck in patterns of mediocrity, and somehow trick you into thinking that it doesn’t matter whether or not you put in a lot of effort into your dreams).

(4) I Have Musical Muscle-Memory and Perfect Pitch

Surprisingly this does count for a lot, in part because I can detect pitches of voices and other auditory things and “capture” them in my memory.

It’s like having a music and voice recorder in your brain and it works wonders.

This isn’t strictly related to language learning, and I don’t really know if I was “born with this” or not, but I discovered it in my AP Music Theory Class as a junior in high school. I did better on the auditory test than literally any other standardized test over the course of my whole life.

With language learning, it helps me pick up small textures of vowels and consonants not only specific to languages as a whole but also their regional variations. In learning some Polynesian languages in which resources are scarce, this is really helpful.

Tokelauan, for example, spoken on an island in the Pacific by about 3,000 or so native speakers…if you’ve seen “Moana” (Vaiana), you’ve heard this language before in some of the songs, and the band that performs in the film also has a lot of fantastic music. Te Vaka (The Canoe) is very much work checking out.

And when I didn’t get much of a Tokelauan pronunciation guide (besides “all Pacific languages’ vowels sound exactly the same), I actually had to pick up subtleties by listening to their songs!)

 

(5) I am determined to be a champion, no matter what.

Since I was seven years old, I’ve determined that there’s only one sin for me: living an ordinary life.

I’ve made too many sacrifices and committed too much time to my dreams. Losing is not a choice for me.

I realize I have one shot at life and that, no matter what, I have to be the best champion I can be.

I want to become the legend that many people dream of becoming, knowing or meeting even once.

And the hardest thing about it isn’t actually acquiring the skills. Put extraordinary amount of time into something you really like and you’ll become a star, put even more time and you’ll become a role model to those in your field. That’s fairly straightforward and it requires “not giving up”.

I’ll tell you what the hardest thing is: other people trying to make you feel bad about the fact that you’ve chosen to chase your dreams, to become the legend that you secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) dream of becoming. They’ll somehow try to convince you that the problem is you, that maybe if you’d only “be like everyone else” than you’ll live a fulfilled life.

That’s a lie.

You’re welcome to do that if you want, you’re welcome to be more conformist, but it’s your deathbed regrets you’re bargaining with, not mine.

I KNOW that’s not what you want.

So here I am, telling you that you deserve the best. Onwards, champion!

Yes, I know I’ve posted this song on the blog before. Yes, it’s in Finnish. Yes, the lyrics are online in both Finnish and English.

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My Weaknesses

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Here’s something you probably weren’t expecting me to write about, and I highly recommend all bloggers who give advice of any sort do very much the same.

Here I am, someone who writes instructions for people wanting to use their languages to talk to other people, to get to know other cultures, or who came here finding a perspective on how to learn rarer languages or those spoken in places in which English proficiency or fluency is the norm.

But I’d like to let you in on something: I don’t even see myself as any variety of authority on most days. Regardless of how much external validation or how many interviews I get or even if I speak ten different languages in a single evening without faltering in any of them (it has happened!), I still see myself as very much a flawed creature.

I just hope that my musings could provide an antidote to the discouragement we encounter all far too often.

My biggest weaknesses, and what I can do about them:

 

  1. I burn out easily.

 

This wasn’t the case back when I was in school, but I think the novelty of polyglottery has a bit worn off and for a few months now I’ve been hard-pressed to do any variety of language learning that isn’t directly connected to the Internet or an mp3 file.

I’m moving out of my apartment right now and as I write this I have on my left side a pile of no less than eighteen language learning books, and while some of them I have looked at cover to cover, I have an expectation that I should have memorized the contents of at least one, and I have done no such thing, despite the fact that a handful of the books are very worn out from overuse.

On top of game design and writing this blog I feel that my energy has been beaten down through cynicism, and somehow I need to get it back.

 

A possible fix: Maybe I should take a break from almost all rote-language learning for a while (excluding the maintenance with entertainment that I would usually use to take break, after all, watching “Let’s Play” YouTube videos in Finnish hardly counts as work in my book.)

Barring that, maybe I should wait a while and then perhaps a change in my life would cause me to return to these projects with new vigor.

I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to learn Welsh and I feel that I haven’t been making ample progress. On top of that, I have a travel destination in May 2017 (most likely) and an accompanying language mission that I cannot afford to “screw up”.

More on that for another time!

 

  1. I’m hypercompetitive

 

…but not in the way you might think!

 

I’m hypercompetitive with the ideal version of myself that I’d like to become. So when I make a mistake somehow or can’t switch languages fast enough (this is one thing that has been tripping me up as of late!), I blame myself.

If I feel as though I’ve been floundering in maintaining certain languages, I get uneasy even if I’ve had a lot to do otherwise and most other people would forgive themselves!

In short, I expect myself to be superhuman, but I can’t have it any other way. I’ve tried.

What’s more, I also have external competition, perhaps worrying that many other polyglots that have focused on more popular languages see me as something “less” because I would commit more time to something like Irish or Bislama than to French or Spanish.

 

A possible fix: take a note of my weak feelings and note to which languages I’ve had these troubles with. Use mini-exercises , nothing to stressful, to make myself feel good about using these languages again. Realize that mistakes are actually okay—after all I catch myself making grammatical errors or using the wrong prepositions in English more frequently than I used to!

 

  1. I get nervous easily.

 

There was that one time that I was asked to speak Icelandic to a guest at an event and I was so tripped up for a number of reasons that I could barely get coherent sentences out.

Then there are the times in which, if I have had something with sugar in it, even a little bit, my memory banks will be positively scrambled. It’s bad when you have to show up to an event having rehearsed Spanish the whole day and forgot the word for “download” accidentally (descargar, for those curious).

I should know that word, I think to myself, given how much time I use with video games to practice Spanish (which I am only moderately proud of and don’t consider myself good at most of the time, this statement applies both to video games and to Spanish).

I figure “more practice”, head home, watch six videos in Spanish and write out words I don’t know and develop techniques for memorizing them, and it occurs to me that vocabulary really isn’t the problem, the actual problem is self-doubt.

 

A possible fix: However grateful I am for my schooling, I have to recognize that, sadly, one of its purposes was (and remains) to suck out a lot of our confidences. Realize that the problem isn’t a lack of practice or a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of mindfulness. I should focus on this sort of mental discipline as much as sheer rote-learning when preparing for language exchange events.

 

  1. I dwell on past failures for far too long, even though I know I shouldn’t

 

Some of you know this about me, but concerning events especially I have a photographic memory.

Sadly, one thing this has done is that I remember almost every time a native speaker has put me down / answered me in English / I’ve been tongue tied or unable to form a sentence / something bad was said or written about me / I couldn’t think of the right word / I didn’t live up to my standards.

I even took a year-long break from Spanish because of thoughts like these.

 

A possible fix: realize that a lot of the being answered in English bits were due to (1) insecurity on behalf of the native speaker (2) a contract (in which they may be required to speak your native language) (3) in which the native speaker has too much of his or her native language in the home or at work and wants a change (I’m okay using other languages if necessary) (4) habit (look, if you met the person before you could manage their language well enough, be easy on yourself! They may be used to communicating with you in the language you met them in)

For the other concerns, see the possible fix in (3), above.

 

  1. I often put more stock in other people’s opinions of me, my progress and my work than my own opinions thereof.

 

This, again, has to do with schooling and grades.

There is one good thing to this, though: if I get validated or complimented or being told I speak “fluent” or “wonderful” (insert language here), I feel an extraordinary confidence rush. Thankfully this has been happening more and more.

A possible fix: I’ve been used to discounting my own opinions as invalid (also perhaps something to do with my schooling), now I just have to do this to my own negative opinions. This has to be called a “one-sided optimistic bulldozer”.

Truly a worthy investment on your part, too.