Everything You Know About “How Many Languages Can a Human Learn and Maintain?” is WRONG. Here’s Why…

Possibly one of the emotionally charged topics in the language learning world (and one that no one has good answers to, myself included) is the topic about how many languages a human being can learn.

We will never know the answer to that questions for way too many reasons. Here are some of them:

  • While most language enthusiasts haven’t thought about it (or have been put in a position to think about it), the language vs. dialect debate is getting increasingly muddy. Should the Caribbean English Creoles count as separate languages? The ISO 639-3 codes seem to think so. But would governments think so? How about universities? And obviously different areas where this question is more relevant will approach it differently (such as Jamaica and Italy, two completely different countries).

 

  • There is no definite way to quantify or even qualify proficiencies (except for, maybe, extended interviews on tape or eyewitness accounts of polyglots at conferences or gatherings). Even test results aren’t safe, given how many people may pass them and proceed to forget everything. (And if people can forget their native language, this is certainly also a possibility).

 

  • Human history and, by extension, history of human languages, is too long and too varied to take all the variables into account. I may have said this before in another one of my articles, but in some places like Western Africa or Melanesia, speaking ten languages is seen as normal. In many areas of the west, especially former British colonies, ten languages is seen as nearly superhuman if not in fact outright disbelieved by some people. This is despite the fact that there is no dearth of polyglot videos on the internet.

 

  • In addition to that, different areas of the world and different time periods would measure fluency differently. Mezzofanti, considered by some the greatest polyglot of all time, obviously had no usage for words pertaining to computers in any of his languages given as they did not exist when he was alive. He probably didn’t need to discuss complicated matters of science, either. Also (and this is another thing a lot of languages gurus don’t even realize because the languages they tend to choose) not all languages on the planet have that vocabulary. (In the event that you would talk about it, you would possibly use loanwords, primarily from a colonial language, or even switch into English or another colonial language periodically. However yes, there are some languages that have that vocabulary even though you think they might actually not.)

 

We will never know the answer to how many languages a human being can possibly know, and I highly encourage you to distrust ANYONE who tries to come up with an answer to the question. Because in attacking the question, they get the methodology wrong for all sorts of reasons.

 

Here are some of them:

 

  • Only taking into account their language experiences and those of their friend circle, which tend to be overwhelmingly skewed mostly towards politically powerful languages of Europe and sometimes Asia. Dialect continuums are not accounted for. If you think that Italian and Spanish are the equivalent of closest languages there are, give it some more thought. The Persian Languages are even closer, as are the “BCS” languages (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbia) not also to mention my own pet languages, the Melanesian Creoles (of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama). Not all language counts are created equal, and this point alone would be capable of disqualifying the question altogether, but I’ll go on.

 

  • Not realizing that technology has changed and will continue to change. Mezzofanti didn’t have Memrise and many of the memory tools that I use on a daily basis. Technology has the capability of turning us into superhuman versions of our ancestors. An average person who has trained with contemporary first-person shooter games (which I never play, by the way) would have significantly better reflexes and hand-eye coordination than pretty much ANY soldier that fought in the Second World War. They would be considered SUPER SOLDIERS back then (this was a factoid I picked up from the 2016 Games for Change Conference). But for some reason almost no one considers that a similar thing is also happening for language learning and skill acquisition.

 

  • Using Ziad Fazah’s “Viva el Lunes” performance in order to automatically disqualify anyone who claims to speak 50+ languages. For those unaware, I’ll summarize it in one sentence. Liberian/Lebanese Polyglot who won Guinness Book of World Record’s title for most multilingual person goes on Chilean television, is tested and struggles even with basic sentences in most of his languages. But to dismiss any claims of that nature just because of ONE incident is a logical fallacy, and while I haven’t met anyone who has significantly pulled off that number, I wouldn’t automatically revert to skepticism. Just because of one person who may have likely overestimated his abilities doesn’t mean that we as a species should hold ourselves back. Who knows? There may be someone who may actually speak 59+ languages and who actually CAN show the skills. You never know!

 

I get it. A lot of people have deep insecurities, including many in the polyglot community. The temptation to knock others down or be dismissive only shows defensiveness and maybe a poor attempt to hide your own imposter syndrome. This is why I’m willing to consider anyone’s language proficiency based on claims alone (note I said “CONSIDER” not “definitively judge”, because there is no way to really do that.)

 

  • Using data about famous polyglots that have been dead for centuries (or even those that are STILL ALIVE) in order to draw conclusions as to what human beings in the 21st century can do. Really? In the case of the ones that have been dead for hundreds of years, they’re not relevant to our brains and our technology and our learning abilities NOW. Maybe they could be used in order to speculate about limits before the technological revolutions that happened during my lifetime, but we’re changing now and most people who answer the “how many languages is it possible to know?” question don’t acknowledge how contemporary technology sets our time period apart.

 

  • Different vocabulary thresholds for different languages. One person whose opinion I very much value said that a vocabulary of about 16000 words were required to reach a C2 level (the highest possible level, considered equivalent to a highly educated native speaker) in a language. But here’s the thing: in Bislama (an English Creole that is the primary language of Vanuatu), there are literally about 4,000 words (excluding proper nouns, which would bring the count up to 7,000) IN THE ENTIRE LANGUAGE. So if you speak with one-quarter of that amount with some languages, you get a near-native vocabulary, an advantage not afforded to languages like French and Swedish with significantly larger vocabulary lists (Swedish’s list of loan words from English ALONE is likely larger than the comprehensive vocabularies of the Melanesian Creoles COMBINED). And before you say “well, that’s just concerning Creole languages”, the same variety of comprehensive word counts can also be found the further away you get from the developed world AND the further you delve into languages without as much political support.

 

If there is a definitive limit for amount of languages learned, even to a high level, we will never know what it is, in part because of all of the factors that I lay out here.

 

It’s an interesting mental exercise that, let’s be honest, is usually used to discourage people and create skepticism so that some people can have their egos buttressed, but it’s one with no definitive answer (in the Talmud, we end such debates with the word “teyku”, meaning “let it remain unresolved”. And that’s what we’re going to have to go with this debate as well.)

 

What do I intend to do? Well, for one, I’m going to try my best and learn many languages, some to fluency, others to degrees of curiosity, and I fulfill MY vision. Because if you constantly live in the fear of judgment of others, you’ll never live your full life.

 

And that’s something you deserve to do! Don’t let ANY discouragement get you down!

come back when you can put up a fight

I really need to start using new pictures of myself.

How to Choose Your Next Language: The Only Post You’ll Ever Need

The advice that I put in this article is literally found nowhere else and if you’ve come here for a list of eight languages you should consider studying, you’re not going to get that.

Too many people have asked exactly what sort of process I use in order to pick what language goes “next on my list” or which ones I’d like to learn manageably well (Breton) vs. professionally fluent (Danish).

Too many people embark on a language-learning journey and just say “I want to be fluent. Period.” But it requires more thought than this. (Learning English for communicating with customers vs. learning English for law school are going to be too very different things. And besides, not all of a language’s “realms” have been fully explored by native speakers. Far from it, in fact!)

The fluency that people like this probably have in mind is when the various “realms” of their target language pertaining to their life are filled up.

If you think I need to talk about music theory in Tok Pisin or Finnish, think again. While I do know that vocabulary in my native language, I barely use it. I could manage it if I want (although keep in mind, some languages don’t have all of these “realms” filled in, Estonian in particular prides itself in being the smallest language in the world with a very comprehensive scientific vocabulary!).

Anyhow, language choice.

 

Reasons that I would disregard when choosing a language

Too many people pick languages based on “how many native speakers it has”.

This is not a helpful metric, for a number of reasons.

For one, the one thing you should NEVER do with your life is entrust the choices in your life to other people. E-ver!

Obviously earlier in your life it may have been necessary but if you’re independent in any capacity I highly recommend anything that even contains a whiff of letting other people choose your destiny.

There are those that choose languages like Spanish and Chinese because they have a resonance with their friends from places where they are spoken. They have become attached to the music and to the literatures and the many cultural mentalities contained in such a place.

There are others that choose these languages because of cultural misunderstandings—perhaps they think that a fear of Mexico or China is just too much to bear in the United States and learning these languages will help serve as a protection against such a fear.

There are others still that encounter speakers of these languages with great regularity.

But choosing a language based on an abstract concept of “lots of people speak it” and very little else is pointless and ill-defined.

People who learn Spanish or French for reasons like this and little else barely get past the intermediate stage, don’t have the cultural resonance required for genuine fluency, and probably continue their learning for ill-defined “monetary benefits” or “understanding people” when just sticking to learning material aimed at foreigners year after year, being surpassed in progress by people who learned the language out of a genuine love for the culture and way of thinking.

(You CANNOT become fluent with just language-learning materials! You NEED material intended for native or fluent speakers!)

And never, ever, EVER ask ANYONE “what language should I learn next?”

Ask YOURSELF that question instead!

I’m sorry if my word choice is too harsh, but I’ve decided that in the coming year, I’m going to be a lot more uncensored in my opinions. It’s good for clickbait, after all!

Also peer pressure is not a good reason in the SLIGHTEST. Not for language, not for anything. “No French? No Turkish? No Chinese?” Got this year after year after year.

And the only thing that really got me interested in the French language to begin with wasn’t even France, it was West Africa and the Pacific Islands!

You are the boss of your life. Disregard the rest of people who want to pressure you or make you feel bad. Make decisions that you really want from the heart, and you’ll be a legend. Let other people make your choices, and you’ll end up burned out and full of regret. End of story.

Okay Jared, so HOW should I choose my language instead?

Step 1: Look at one of the following things:

 

  • A map of the world
  • The language index at omniglot.com
  • The register of flag emojis in your smartphone keyboard (if you have one)
  • A very vast collection of language-learning books
  • The travel section in a bookstore or library.

 

Feel free to use a combination of these elements.

What places or languages in that list stick out to you?

Which ones might you have been dreaming of seeing or knowing more about since you were a kid?

When the language is written on a page, does it feel like something you ABSOLUTELY must have in your life?

When you read about the language or the country where the language is spoken or visit online forums about the language or communities associated with it, do you feel a sense of wishing that you were a part of that? Do you feel a sense of wishing that you would like to communicate with these people and understand this culture?

When you listen to music sung in this language, how does it make you feel? Would you like more music of that sort in your life or not?

Also, another metric to consider using is to look at your own heritage.

What language(s) did your ancestors speak? Do you have relatives that speak it or otherwise are (or were) capable of understanding it? You’ll have the motivation to learn such languages because, whether you like it or not, they are a part of who you are.

I got very much attached to languages like Yiddish and Swedish precisely for this reason, and it seems that it will be that way with Hungarian, too.

It’s Okay to Learn a Language for Silly Reasons, Too

Sometimes a language jumps out at you and you don’t know why. Maybe it sounds cool. Maybe you like the writing system. Maybe you read something funny about the way the language is spoken (“Danish sounds like seal talk”) or written (“Greenlandic looks like a kid banging on a typewriter”)

You’re probably wondering, “Jared, did you just write that it wasn’t a good idea to choose a language based on number of speakers, but it is okay to choose a language because it ‘sounds cools’?”

Precisely.

Here’s the reason why.

When choosing to invest in a hobby or buying a product, it is primarily an emotional decision. Logical decisions can be used some of the time, but if you want a lasting attachment to your investment, choose something based on your emotions rather than what other people think might be good for you.

My choice to have learned Greenlandic was not a logical decision in the slightest. My choice to have taken the book out from the library, photographed the language section in the back, and put it on Memrise was all purely from an emotional standpoint.

Where exactly did it land me?

Well, I became attached to Greenlandic because I liked how it looked on paper and how it sounded. I also had a fascination with Greenland since my childhood.

Several years later, I’m going to Greenland to meet with some of the country’s biggest names in the arts and I’m developing a video game set in Nuuk. I was also interviewed by Greenlandic National Radio in December 2016!

This was all because I had an emotional attachment to my project.

And you need a project that you, similarly, are emotionally attached to.

The choice of language has to be YOURS.

It has to be one that you long for deeply, that you can think about with a smile and talk about with friends and show you true devotion to the culture and literature and idioms and everything that language is.

It can be any language in the world! It doesn’t matter if it is a global language or a small national language or a minority language or an endangered language or even an ancient tongue that is used only in writing.

You have to choose it because you genuinely love it!

Love conquers all, and this is doubly true for language learning.

many languages

This building from Antwerp has been featured in WAY too many foreign-language learning posts. I think I may be the one that started the trend! 

The Fascinating World of Mooré, Moré, Mossi…That Language Spoken in Burkina Faso…

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you’re probably not too surprised to learn that a new national holiday of a country that most people don’t know much about shows up about every week or so.

In the case of today, we go to West Africa, in particular to Burkina Faso, which is where a language I’m currently learning is primarily spoken—Mooré, Moré, Mossi…however you want to spell it.

While today (August 5th) is the Burkinabe Independence Day (more on the word “Burkinabe” in a moment), something I’ve sadly noticed is that only developed countries seem to get Google Doodles for their national days (so Peru and Norway get them, but Vanuatu and Burkina Faso, not so much).

Another trend I need to speak to is the fact that only official colonial languages tend to be used in the interfaces of the Google Search Engine as it is localized in the developing world (Sierra Leone and the Seychelles Islands are noteworthy exceptions in Africa that I can think of), and sometimes the “actual” local languages are completely glossed over. It’s truly a shame because I think people need to realize the true extent of linguistic diversity in the developed world!

Burkina Faso is the only country name I can think of that actually uses two distinct languages in its name. “Burkina” in Mooré means “land of honest people” and Faso in Diouala (another language of the country) means “fatherland”. Further complicating matters is the fact that someone from Burkina Faso is “Burkinabe”, and the “–be” suffix comes from yet a third language of the region, Fulani.

But you’re probably wondering exactly why I chose this language and not many other languages besides, even when you just take Africa into consideration.

For one, my father really wanted to provide medical help in French-speaking areas of West Africa in the same way that he did in Sudan and in Sierra Leone. He actually even got tapes to learn French, and while my sister and I learned French at the time, he himself struggled.

As a result, I actually have three native languages (English, Ancient Hebrew and French) but I forgot French since then and had to re-learn it as an adult. I can read EXCELLENTLY, but I can’t really speak it consistently well (although sometimes I can speak it very well if I’m in a good mood or studied correctly that particular day).

I also saw pictures of Ouagadougou (yes, that is the name of the Burkinabe capital), and it looks like it was taken out of a style guide for a fantasy video game!

Have yourself a look:

ouagadougou.PNG

What’s more, after my study of Salone Krio (Salone = Sierra Leone), I really wanted to see how many similarities there would be to another African Language. Yes, I could have chosen one closer to Salone, but I’ve had a fascination with Burkina Faso for a long time. Life is too short and too precious to not learn the languages you want. So if there’s any language you want to learn, no matter what it is, do something about it. Now. Even if you can’t focus all of your time on it, just learn a few words to sate your curiosity. Learn something about the culture of that language. You won’t regret it.

Since I was young I was (and continue to be) very heartbroken by the way that African cultures are underrepresented or, even worse, distorted and portrayed as uniform in many aspects of American popular culture. Perhaps this has to do with the Atlantic Slave Trade, which really encouraged a lot of the slaves to think that the cultures of their homelands was worthless and should be discarded in favor of whatever cultures or religious practices their owners had.

In an era of climate change and unfolding civil wars, the true aspects of this inequality are coming out to literally be deadly to entire ethnicities, peoples and countries.

We NEED more people who take languages from the developing world seriously. It will help these places heal. I remember hearing from my father’s friends who were priests about the many sides of life in Tanzania and the way that they enthusiastically injected entire dialogue snippets in Swahili in their narratives, complete with English translations afterwards. Truly magical.

Luckily, thanks to the Peace Corps and Live Lingua Project, both available online, you can learn many of these developing-world languages for FREE!

Anyhow, something about Burkina Faso.

I’ve been learning Mossi for about a month now and I’m nowhere near conversational and my vocabulary has significant gaps, even on a basic level. However, thanks to books I’ve been capable of finding idioms and other curiosities about the language that I really like and that I think should be shared:

 

  1. To say Happy Birthday in Mossi, say “Ne y taabo”, which is a greeting that is used for all occasions that occur on a yearly basis. Use it for birthdays and to someone who just drank water at the conclusion of fasting during Ramadan.

To say “Happy New Year”, use this phrase: “Wend na kõ-d veere” (the first two e’s in the sentence should be nasalized but it won’t show up in my orthography). It roughly means “may God show us next year”.

The nasal o looks identical to the Estonian õ (a sound that is extremely difficult for foreigners to pronounce and not pronounced the way it is in Mossi), which did lead to confusion despite the fact that I’ve chosen to abandon Estonian for the time being in favor of languages that my heart yearns for.

 

  1. For those unaware of what nasal vowels are, these are pronounced with your nose. The two European Languages that I associate most with nasal sounds are Portuguese and Polish, although even when Europe is taken by itself they aren’t the only ones that have them.

Mossi actually has nasal vowels for a, e, i, o and u! (Polish, by comparison, just has a nasal e and a nasal a). This meant that I needed to expand my repertoire of nasal vowels. But hey, at least they’re not click sounds, which would be an interesting thing to write about in any case. (Mossi doesn’t have these)

 

  1. Perhaps due to influence from Islam, a lot of greetings and wishes involve an invocation of God:

 

Oh My God.PNG

 

And you answer any of the God-blessings with “Amina” (Amen in Hebrew is a cognate to this word from Arabic).

Interestingly enough, Amina is also a female name. Which means that she must go through life with a significant amount of confusion. Or not.

 

  1. The money system is based on the 5-franc note, and so 15 francs would actually be expressed as “3 wakirs” In other words, in the oral language you somewhat have to clash with whatever numbers you actually see on your bills or coins.

Wikipedia tells me that Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo all use the West African Franc. I’m curious if they also use the same system as well…

 

  1. And probably the coolest expression I’ve come across in Mossi, is a congratulations or a good luck: Wend na maan zũ-noogo, which means “May God give you a capacity to survive near-death experiences against all favorable odds”. One who has a near-death experience and has survived (August 2005 in Glacier National Park comes to my mind immediately) has acquired “zũ-noogo”

I can’t wait to grapple with this fascinating language in more depth! At the present moment it doesn’t seem likely that I’ll be visiting Africa (although there was that one time I encountered a Burkinabe bar tender in Manhattan who was conversational in ten langauges!), but who knows what sort of opportunities for personal and professional development lie ahead?

Because if there’s one thing my journey has taught me, it is that doing the stranger thing always gets you noticed and respected more. And I’m going to continue to do that for as long as I can.

Ne y taabo!

burkina faso

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.

IMG_8420

Important Lessons I Learned from a 3-week Journey through Sierra Leone Krio

Three weeks ago I set out on a journey to learn a language that was important for my family history: Krio, the English Creole of Sierra Leone. For those unaware, my parents worked there before I was born, and I often heard stories about “Salone” (pronounced “saal-loan”, two syllables) throughout my life.

Often my parents were fairly reluctant to open up about the full extent of what they experienced in Sierra Leone (they left shortly before the Civil War made famous by Blood Diamond, which my parents as well as many people from Salone were vexed by concerning the fairy tale / white savior elements, but on some level reluctantly satisfied that it did bring awareness about the Civil War to places like Hollywood).

I should start out by saying that I actually had two missions, one to improve Greenlandic (which was sadly not a success!) and another to learn Krio to whatever degree I could, giving myself 30 minutes a day.

If I didn’t allot myself to the 30 minutes a day, I actually said I would permanently delete this blog. So that really kept me to the commitment!

However, for Greenlandic (in which I was in no such “rush”, although I may be closer to the release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”), I made no such deal. Then I got handed a translation job last week that sucked out almost all of my time for a week and threw my study schedule for Greenlandic out the window completely.

However I cut it, my Greenlandic mission crashed.

But my Krio mission, perhaps because of my commitment, was a success! I had promised myself ever since 2014 that I would become conversational in it, and while I have a long way to go (I wouldn’t call myself fluent yet…), I would call myself proficient in spoken Krio!

Welcome to the club, Krio! You’re my first African language. Glad to have you with us on the show today. And on all other days.

salone

The lessons I picked up from having my Greenlandic goals thrown to the wayside are straightforward: I had a routine, but I burned out easily. Perhaps I should have been more fluid rather than with the rigid goals that I set (in which I would read a certain amount of something every single day, and then that lasted a week and a half and then I “wasn’t feeling up to it”).

That said, I think I discovered that my big weakness with written Greenlandic lies in the suffixes. More on the fascinating Greenlandic Language here (and I’ll likely write another piece about it on June 21st, the National Day of Greenland, and yes, it was picked because it is the longest day of the year!)

So, lessons I picked up during the Krio Journey:

  • Have a Fluid Routine, Especially if You are Otherwise Busy or Consider Yourself “Lazy”

I should have done this with Greenlandic. I should have said, “30 minutes of engaging with Greenlandic with new material, however you please, every day, no exceptions”.

The fact that I did that with Krio meant that I was capable of adjusting my routine towards whatever I wanted to do that day. Needed music? I could do that. Needed a grammar review? Yup. Wanted to read? All right then.

Surprisingly, this actually made my routine fairly well-balanced and it worked in raising not only the various levels of my understanding and speaking (I didn’t do much writing with Krio because of the inconsistency across writing systems I encountered), but also prevented me from burning out!

Even having the heaviest translation job of my life didn’t throw me off my routine!

 

  • Use YouTube Personalities as Your Virtual Friends and Mentors

 

Chances are, if anything on YouTube is in Krio (although I didn’t do a lot of documentary watching), I watched it. In some cases, I watched some videos as many as ten times on different days!

This actually bonded me to the creators and I saw fit to imitate them, their accents and the Salone personalities (because if you don’t have a connection to an associated culture of the language you will NEVER be fluent! At least this is my opinion).

A lot of people aren’t aware of this, but you actually come to imitate the various people in the media you consume. Yes, even in works of fiction! Given the unbelievably high standards I have set for myself, I have to choose my media very carefully, because often, especially in the smartphone world, you may end up spending more time with them than your real-life friends!

The great news for you as a language learner is that you can self-select virtual peers using TV Shows / YouTube Channels / other video content featuring characters and/or creators that speak your target language.

The same way that your peers will influence you professionally and in terms of their hobbies, your virtual peers will do the same. In this case, I got myself a Krio-speaking friend group in two-dimensions and it was fantastic! (Not also to mention other learners of Krio online through various platforms! Salone enthusiasts of the world unite!)

 

  • If you’ve studied a lot of varying languages, you’ll notice similarities peek in, and in the weirdest places.

Krio uses the word “we” as an all-purpose relative pronoun. That means, “Who, that, which”, as in “the person who (whom?) you are trying to reach is not available. Please call again later”.

Oh gee, I wonder what other languages I’ve studied that use an all-purpose relative pronoun?

Swedish (along with its Scandinavian siblings) uses the word “som” in the EXACT SAME MANNER that “we” is used in Krio, although “som” has usages that “we” in Krio does not have. I’d write more but I think that in 2017 people get bored really easily so if you’re really curious, write about it in the comment and I’ll explain it in more detail…

Bislama (the Ni-Vanuatu Pidgin English with French and local loanwords) in particular had uncanny similarities to Krio. “Nomo”, meaning “only” or “just” in Krio, is used in the same way that Bislama uses “nomoa” (and yes, Solomon Islands Pijin does the exact same thing). Bislama also used the word “se” to indicate an indirect statement, which means the “that” in “I think that you are going to want to learn Krio after reading this blog post”. Yes, both are related to the English word “say”.

Krio also did away with most of the accusative and possessive cases’ remnants in English. Imagine “us” and “our” being replaced with “we” (or “wi” in the case of Krio) and you’ll get an idea of something you may need to get used to with Krio. Tajik also uses nominative pronouns to indicate ownership similarly, although the execution is different.

“I heard once you pick up about four languages, the rest become easy”. Yes, but as long as you’re not staying limited to one family.

If you pick up French, Spanish and Italian one after the other, you’re going to likely struggle if you want to learn any East Asian language.

But given that the first languages I studied were French, Biblical Hebrew, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Talmudic Aramaic and Russian, there’s obviously more variety in that (and I studied all before I reached the age of 16).

Yiddish, Norwegian and Swedish, the first languages I reached true fluency in, were handed the keys based on my prior knowledge of a wide birth of languages (none of which I was conversationally fluent in five years ago), something that only just continues to endow me with an endless array of unfair advantages that it genuinely scares me!

 

  • Studying a Developing-World Language is going to be Different from Studying a Developed-World Language

 

Developing-world languages tend to be different from developed-world languages in the following way:

 

  • Significantly less internet content

 

  • Significantly fewer localization options

 

  • More focus on spoken forms rather than written forms (for comparison’s sake: when I was learning Solomon Islands Pijin and my first step was the Lonely Planet Phrasebook, I distinctly remember the phrase, “Relax, business letters are written in English!” [shortly afterwards they explained how to write a letter to your friend in Pijin].

 

  • Prospective language learners, especially from the west, often toss them aside as “insignificant” and prefer their colonial languages (such as English, French or Portuguese). Yes, you could get by with Standard English in Sierra Leone or the Solomon Islands. But you won’t understand the culture beyond a surface level without knowing the true language that unites these countries (I cringe already when I think of people telling me “I will never learn a creole language. Ever”. I could write a whole article about it and I probably will one day). Fun fact: China is actually going to be investing in teaching native African languages so as to build trust with the developing world. The U.S. needs to step up its game in this regard. The Peace Corps books are great, but they’re not enough by themselves.

 

  • Like many endangered languages, a lot of developing-world languages reflect the advanced vocabulary of their former colonizers and code-switching is common (yes, Irish-speakers from the Gaeltachtaí will use English in a shockingly similar back-and-forth manner when speaking Irish sometimes, not unlike what I’ve heard Krio speakers using between Krio and English!)

 

Learning Creole Languages, and Krio in particular, made me more aware of the true face of colonialism and empire as well as made me a better human being. I feel that knowing Krio language and culture, even in the short journey I’ve had thus far, taught me more about Sierra Leone and West Africa in general than any amount of photos or stories from my family members ever could (although no doubt I am grateful for them). I also had no clue that the Afro-Carribean Cultures and Salone Krio cultures were actually siblings, not also to mention the many different types of African-American cultures that exist throughout the US.

Now I know where to go from here: not only continuing my journey with exposure through Krio-language content throughout my life, but share with other people how I came to discover a land of fascinating, brave and articulate people without even having set foot on it!

Here’s an idea: look at a map of the world and think about where you would like to go and what cultures you’d like to experience. Pick a language you’d like to learn based on your thoughts, which I hope are running wildly and colorfully. You won’t regret it!

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Le Français: My (Not Exactly) First Impressions

It’s not quite a secret, but French is actually my second language. My father had a desire to visit/work in French West Africa, and as a result bought himself some tapes for kids. My sister and I were quite young children then, and we picked it up, even going so far as to attend weekly French lessons at some point.
But then, because of disuse, both she and I forgot all of it…well, almost all. Thanks largely to the not-always civil exchange between France and Britain, not also to mention the Norman invasion, the French language is the biggest source for English import words, more than any other language on earth.
In honor of Bastille Day yesterday, I betrayed the expectation set in my own blogpost and I went ahead with the French Duolingo course anyway (I often do things like this in honor of certain calendar dates). I haven’t gotten very far, nor do I even consider myself even close to having my first conversation, but I thought that now would be a good time to write down what my “first impressions” are…even if they aren’t first impressions at all…
Thanks to having learned so many languages to varying degrees, I know that the first element to encounter is always frustration and hopelessness. I remember when I was going to Hebrew University for the first time, I was in Newark airport by myself, confused about what to do, wondering if my luggage would actually find its way to Tel-Aviv, and then, I was nagged by the following thought…
“You know, Jared, you could always just quit. You could just decide that you’re not going anymore and just stay here in the cozy U.S. of A…”
Well, good thing that I didn’t.
I know this feeling all too well. I remember seeing in a Lonely Planet advertisement that the hardest part of any journey is deciding that you’re going to go. This is true for many things and language learning is definitely one of them.
Did I go off topic? Yes, I think I did.
I found the pronunciation particularly difficult, but thanks largely to one of my previous linguistic adventures, I didn’t find myself as intimidated.
Throughout the lessons as well as trying to grapple with TV shows for children and seeing how many words I could make out, I had constant flashbacks to my first steps in learning Danish.
Mention Danish to a native speaker of Swedish or Norwegian and you may get treated to a certain homily about how written Danish is very familiar to him or her, but when it is spoken it sounds “as strange as Chinese”.
Both with Danish and with French, I had a lot more familiarity with the written language before I even started studying it to any degree. In Sweden, Swedish, Finnish and Danish are the most common languages (in that order) on product labels. Because I was exposed to it just by sight-reading, I had a “leg-up” with Danish and I expect my French journey to provide a similar advantage.
I learned Danish after having studied both Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees, and similarly, I have had my Portuguese and Spanish adventures (not also to mention some vague knowledge of Italian) that have been vaguely helpful in understanding what little French I encountered yesterday. One way in which the situations are not comparable, however, is the fact that the Scandinavian trifecta’s members are a lot closer to each other than the biggest of the Romance Languages could ever hope to be.
Within my first few weeks of Elementary Polish back in June 2011, I remember being frustrated so much by saying certain words out loud that I almost threw my laptop across the room. I imagine that French may frustrate me in a similar manner somewhere along the journey (and all of my languages have, although some more than others…and the journey is continuing with all of them…my native language included), but I keep on having to tell myself that I’ve encountered far worse obstacles.
The fact that it is one of the world’s most commonly studied languages will make it easier for me in every regard. For one, every single one of the basic phrases had an air of familiarity about it, thanks largely to Anglophone popular culture. Finnish, on the other hand, provided only about five import words in the whole English language, the best known of which is “sauna”.
Part of me also feels a little bit guilty for starting it this late again. After adventures in stranger languages, I something tell myself, “Jared, what took you so long?”
I’m just on the first few steps. I’m developing a good sense of the phonemes (which are always the most important part and, in some cases, could always use improvement throughout the learning process, no matter how advanced you are).
The most important thing that I should tell myself is that I shouldn’t expect magical results instantly, especially when I’m not putting in as much effort as I could. But after Lord-knows-how-many-times of doing the same, I know that already.
I remember one time when I was learning Greenlandic in a cafeteria and putting together a sentence for someone, I was told, “it’s interesting…to you, Greenlandic is just another language…”
I have adopted the same mentality in this case. French is just another language.
As is Faroese, which I will write about…some other time!