The 2019 Polyglot Gathering: Personal Lessons and What I’ll be Doing Next

Here I am watching as the sun sets over Bratislava and a thunderstorm appears to be in the works. I’ll walk outside and enjoy the twilight but first I’ll need to relate a bit about how things went from my perspective.

The fellow attendees at the conference were curious, accepting, not in the least bit critical, vulnerable and kind. Often in the “real world” I sometimes hear comments like “let’s continue in English because I speak English better than you speak my native language” (I know, right?)

But the way things appear at Polyglot Conferences, everyone has a series of ladders and it doesn’t really matter how far you up on them…or not…you are, as long as you have some drive to go higher or even taste a language for a little bit.

There were also great lessons in vulnerability. I saw in genuine action that fluency is not perfection (and come to think of it, I never heard almost anyone speak non-Native English without some type of grammatical mistake. AND THAT’S OKAY.

Corollary: it’s okay to speak any language non-natively with mistakes too, as long as you can communicate and patch your errors one-by-one, which may indeed take a lifetime or never fully get perfect, but that’s the beauty of learning, isn’t it?

In any case, I had a humbling experience realizing what it was like for people to present in their non-native languages. I was a lot more reserved. I was energetic and I second-guessed my grammar a lot. I thought “wow, the speakers of Yiddish and Swedish are gonna give me a bajillion dislikes when these videos come out”.

My first thought after concluding both was that they were disasters. But later on I then realized that despite sometimes fumbling for words, using too many filler words, or even sometimes making Norwedish errors in my Niuean presentation, that’s okay.

It was really the first time I’ve done it and it gave me a newfound appreciation for the many speakers of other languages who gave talks in English as well (and I think I can compare myself favorably with how they did).

I didn’t have the same quality of the “taking a class with Jared is like getting a drink from a firehose” that I have with classes I teach in English (and my classes in other languages are like that but they’re usually not filmed, which was the big issue in making me nervous. I’ve taught dozens of classes in non-native languages before, just not with a camera in front of me that was headed straight to YouTube. I even noticed that when the camera was off I became a lot more natural and less nervous.)

But I guess that’s okay.

My next project will be to improve my Greenlandic and Danish both substantially for the sake of  “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, a task that will last ninety days at least.

Greenlandic I speak…okay but not well, and Danish I speak well but I’d like to speak better. I’d rate them as A2 and C1 respectively. I am already developing a plan to get a lot more Danish music as well so that I can create a full-fledged environment of being immersed in both languages (I already have a lot of Greenlandic music but I’m open for more suggestions, too).

The current challenge I’m doing is this one: http://mylanguagechallenge.com/

The requirements: film a 10-minute video after 90 days speaking your target language (or, should you choose the reading or the writing tracks, choose the appropriate avenue). I do have access to native speakers and a lot more than I thought was possible a week ago.

So here’s what happened.

I uploaded a video on Facebook of me speaking Greenlandic for a minute. A Greenlandic friend of mine asked to share it in a group, which he did, and then it became viral in Greenland generating hundreds of likes and I woke up with endless friend requests from all over Greenland (which I accepted because I’m making a video game about Greenland and because it is my favorite country, too!)

I got comments like “we should crowdfund his vacation here” or “he speaks better than most Danes who have been living here for a decade have” (this was something explicitly told to me by my host mom in Greenland. Info checks out.

Well this is going to be fun. Time for me to enjoy the Slovak twilight one last time for this journey.

Thanks for making all of this so memorable!

Quality Games: My Plans for Immediately After the Polyglot Gathering

Greetings from my hostel in Vienna!

So with two presentations, three performances and two mini-talks I’ll be giving at the Polyglot Gathering next week, it occurs to me that next week it all comes to an end and I’ll be in the real world again.

As much as I really like speaking multiple languages, there is one thing that needs to poke its head in.

Multiple things, that is.

For one, there is the understanding that maybe I should focus more on quality rather than quantity. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I deliberately finding myself using English in hostels in Austria and Slovakia JUST so I can feel vulnerable and get detached from my identity and self-esteem being entirely hinged on being a polyglot.

And a polyglot I will remain, mostly because I have to retain my knowledge of Yiddish and Nordic languages in order to earn money.

And the second thing, is, of course, my game, “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, which was delayed due to a number of personal crises in my life.

So starting with next week I’ll be focusing almost all of my language efforts on Greenlandic and Danish (my fluency in Danish notwithstanding, but I want to get better in terms of my accent and vocabulary) until “Nuuk Adventures” hits stores.

This will mean a lot of sacrifices on my behalf, but my languages should serve my professional life, not the other way around (unless it happens to be convenient).

Once Nuuk Adventures is out, I’ll likely be learning the language of the place where the next “Kaverini” adventure will take place. I’ve decided it but I can’t reveal it quite yet.

And I’m not going to lie, part of me is very excited to get a language to near-native fluency. Sure, my knowledge of other Nordic languages isn’t going anywhere and I’ll be retaining my Hungarian and Yiddish as well (and likely some Modern Hebrew), but nothing else is certain.

Perhaps I should say “thank you for understanding” in the event you’re disappointed. But this is a new beginning for me that I knew was coming for a while.

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Polyglot Report Card: May 1st, 2019

Thirty Days. Two Presentations. One fantastic conference. Lots of crises in my recent life in the past year but hoping I’m going to manage well.

So for this one I’m going to only rate languages that (1) I will almost certain encounter speakers of during the conference and (2) are not ones that I regularly encounter at language exchange events by different people (so no Spanish, German or English).

And exactly what I need to do for each.

Let’s go:

Yiddish: above all good in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation is very good, flow is mostly good, I just wish I had more vocabulary, that’s all. But I know plenty of people who would be happy with the vocabulary I currently have in Yiddish. After all, I have more than a decade of experience.

Yiddish plan: my 7,000+ word Anki deck. Use during commutes.

My Yiddish plan is also identical to my Scandinavian plan, but my knowledge of Norwegian is slightly weaker than Yiddish or of Swedish or Danish.

Finnish: Overall quite strong, I think I just need to solidify knowledge of some idiomatic expressions.

Finnish Plan: Cloze Deletions during my commute. Which I’m already doing.

Hebrew: Understanding is EXCELLENT. My vocabulary needs more depth but I don’t know if I’ll have the time to do it, especially with my presentations.

Hebrew plan: use Lingq or Clozemaster more often.

Hungarian: I can manage conversations about some topics well, others not so well. I need consistent practice.

Hungarian plan: watch YouTube / Hungarian TV during workouts or chores.

My Hungarian plan is also valid for Slovak but my flow is a lot better. For obvious reasons I’m more likely to focus on Slovak until after the conference.

Tok Pisin: Haven’t maintained it in a while but when asked to speak it I manage very well. My Bislama and Pijin have somewhat fallen down the wayside but I think I could manage them with a native speaker if I had to. I probably won’t encounter Ni-Vanuatu, etc. at that conference. I know because the guest list is mostly open.

Tok Pisin Plan: Listen to audio in the subway. I can literally understand everything said to almost everything said.

Hawaiian: Probably the dark horse rising star of my group, I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to use it but I won’t be surprised if I do. My accent is good, my basic vocabulary is good, my cultural knowledge is a bit on the weak side, I don’t know Hawaiian songs too well.

Hawaiian Plan: Oiwi TV needs myself a-watching.

Lao: Ha. Probably the one language I’m gonna be the most disappointed in (as was the case in the 2017 Polyglot Conference). I’m going to need to do more than just my Memrise course for this one (I only have Lao, Palauan and Hiva Oa / South Marquesan active on Memrise right now).

Lao Plan: multilingual posting in closed groups, uTalk speaking exercises, possibly customizing Lingq.

Fiji Hindi: I can understand a significant amount, but given that I’ll mostly be hearing Standard Hindi, this will need work. This is a language I retired for a while but then I decided to revive it this month because there will be many people who will have learned Esperanto and Hindi for the Gathering Challenge. (I did not, however).

Fiji Hindi Plan: Put an entire textbook into Lingq (I use the Gujarati slot) during one weekend when I feel very passionate. By “entire textbook” I mean “only the simple sentences”. Then go through the vocabulary during the week.

But as for what I will focus on during May, it will likely be Niuean and Fiji Hindi, actually. These are two languages I think that I’ll need the most for the gathering (with the exception of Slovak which I’ll likely soak up very well once I’m there). So I need to work on those. If I am very, VERY satisfied with Niuean, I’ll pivot to Slovak instead.

For what it’s worth, I’ll be focusing more on fewer languages once this conference is over. And I’ll write in more detail about my plan then.

My list remains the same for my post-Gathering language lineup, and I’ll redesign my website to suit it: Scandinavian, Yiddish, Hungarian, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Greenlandic and Finnish.

(If I add another language it will likely something required for a trip, business or a relationship but only if I deem it ABSOLUTELY necessary and fulfilling)

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I’m Presenting for the First Time at a Conference in a Language Other Than English. How Do I Feel?

Happy Birthday Mom! This post is for you.

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I may or may have not been writing about it here but I’m presenting at the Polyglot Gathering twice next month (actually in a month from this week!) One talk on the Kiribati language in Yiddish, and the other talk on Niuean in Swedish, and both of these talks are aimed at absolute beginners. (I don’t even think I remember anyone other than myself having learned any indigenous language of Oceania at the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik. To his credit, Richard Simcott did learn some words of Tongan, from me, and speaks with a great accent.)

This piece is going to be on the short side and a bit of a stream-of-consciousness sort of thing.

For one, I feel relieved. English is one of the languages of my ancestors, but Yiddish and Swedish are “closer to home”, so-to-speak (my great-grandparents on opposite sides of my family spoke those, I should also mention Hungarian and Russian as well).

I also feel as though it is a bit of a “polyglot prize”, in a sense, something that non-native English speakers can be handed for free but for native English speakers having opportunities to present in other languages may be scarce. (Yiddish? How many times to I get to present in that? And so close to the historical Jewish quarter of Bratislava no less? I’m so glad they went along with my suggestion!)

And then of course cruel YouTube commenters will have no choice but to be quiet and my legitimacy will be further cemented online, but that’s just a minor treat.

On the other hand, I’m worried about grammatical mistakes or otherwise being unable to find the right words. Also due to influence from Swedish youth culture, injecting in English phrases is something I do naturally when speaking Swedish and I may have to turn it off completely for this one (except if I’m reading something in English from the slides, given that Niue is, after all, not only English speaking but a former British colony. A book I cite in the presentation is from 1907, which is TWO YEARS after Niue was colonized).

Also another thing: the fact that I’m presenting on languages that I don’t know as well as my fluent languages. I haven’t been told how my accent sounds in either of them, but certainly a lot better than my first attempts at Kiribati which are enshrined in posterity in my YouTube channel. That said, I would imagine that given that people have told me that people appreciate all attempts to speak a language like Hawaiian or Maori (not also to mention my overwhelmingly positive reception as a foreign Fijian speaker in Fiji), the Niueans and I-Kiribati will be no different. (As a Jew I’m a minority myself and so I am tuned into issues of sensitivity and I LOVE it when gentiles learn about my culture/s, and the more the better).

I teach non-English classes all the time (and I’m about to do so again in twenty minutes). That’s not what I’m worried about at all. Perhaps the idea of being judged in an audience is something heavier. But I also imagine that most audiences will be forgiving, the same way that I am forgiving of English mistakes even on the university level, as long as people can express ideas (and often non-native speakers are a lot clearer than native speakers, even with limited vocabulary).

This is going to be fun. Any experiences you’ve had presenting in your non-native language/s? How did they go?

What I Had to Give Up to Become a Hyperpolyglot

Well I’m going to make a number of announcements now.

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While my Slovak studies have been continuing due to the fact that I will be presenting at the Bratislava Polyglot Gathering in 2019 (one presentation in Yiddish on Kiribati and another presentation in Swedish about Niue), I am probably going to retire from my hyperpolyglot life once that spiel is over in June.

I need to be clear about something: I will NOT return to speaking just English, given that my livelihood depends on my knowledge of Nordic languages and Yiddish (as well as, to a lesser extent, languages of South Pacific).

I just feel as though I had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to become that imposter-syndrome-riddled legend. And now I want to live for myself rather than my reputation.

I am glad to have “dated” so many languages and cultures, but now I’d like to settle down and really get to intimately know my favorite languages. These would be, in no particular order, Yiddish, Scandinavian, Finnish, Hungarian, Greenlandic, and Polynesian in general but with a focus on Tahitian and Hawaiian.

My English is EXTREMELY good, even by native speaker standards (I tested in the 99th percentile for vocabulary). I know that there literally might not be enough time for me to get to that level in my “favorite languages”, but I’d like to get closer.

Also the pressure of trying to get me to speak better (Spanish / Modern Hebrew / French / etc.) has been bothering me. I somehow see it as friends who would encourage me to break up with a girlfriend I really love.

So as a result of that I may stop attending language exchange events as often as I used to come June. But maybe I’ll pop in occasionally.

Here’s what I felt I needed to give up as a result of becoming a hyperpolyglot:

 

  1. A Sense of Belonging

 

I became “that guy”, in a sense, the one whose reputation as a “language genius” always proceeded me. ALWAYS.

I never really could find myself connecting to my American culture on a deep level. I gave up American television and news. I found myself permanently apart from the country I spent the most time in.

Even though I felt significantly “at home” among foreigners of all types sometimes, I constantly felt as though I was American first, speaker of their language second.

I became the bridge. A true member of none of the cultures I partook of, but a genuinie member of none of them.

 

  1. Full-Time Fluency without Doubts

 

There were exceptions to this, but often with the languages that I had to spread myself thinly to maintain, I felt that my knowledge of idioms would be thinner than I would have liked, even then I worried about my grammar sometimes.

At first I figured that I didn’t really WANT native-like fluency, but with each year I feel that it is what I want in the languages I want most.

I saw it this way (and the book “Babel No More” manages to point to this): I put most of my chips on the languages I liked most and then spread many of them thinly across many others.

Now I’m going to put all of my chips on the eight languages I like the most. And the fact that Scandinavian languages and Yiddish are closely related, not also to mention the Polynesian family, gives me an advantage in that respect.

I don’t want to sound “learnerese” anymore in any of my languages. I want to sound completely natural. And I got there. But only with a few. But even with those view I want to get better.

I also knew seventeen languages to conversational fluency, but even with half of those I felt as though many of them had holes. Holes are okay. Even very good speakers of English as a second language have them. But I want to make the most of what I can get and that will involve optimizing my skills.

 

  1. Leisure Time

 

This is self-explanatory. I had to convert all of my free time to maintenance. Walking around? You better be listening to audio in one of your target languages. Playing a game? Same.

It took an unbelievable toll on my mental health. The idea that I had to maintain my reputation all of the time meant that everything that wasn’t explicitly related to my career had to go to language learning. The only fun I really had for fun’s sake was video games but even then it was usually to note “what is this game doing well? How about not so well?” concerning what I would incorporate into “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” and other projects.

 

  1. Security and Confidence

 

Language learning is highly vulnerable because there IS a point where you will sound like an idiom. I got told that my accent was terrible. Sometimes I even got told to stop speaking the language.

And that’s not even going into what was said about me online. Whenever I would read some things, entire days if not weeks would be plunged into despair.

Even with fluency, either professional or conversational, I interpreting things that native speakers said very seriously. “Pretty good” was code for “needs work” or “not passable”. I would interpret anything other than endless praise as “you better work on it!”

And even then I would sometimes interpret praise as the fact that I needed work on it too. (It had to do with a post I read saying that native speakers don’t praise each other’s language skills).

It was a neurosis that I was aware of from my days in religious school as a pre-teen. The endless “shoulder checking” and the idea that God would always punish you for every small thing…and only now while writing this do I realize that it ended up in other areas of my life without realizing it.

 

  1. Ability to Converse with Certain People

 

This is an odd one. Because my life became so internationalized, there were people to whom I could connect to VERY easily and others whom I could barely manage a conversation with at all.

Among most internationals, I didn’t need to explain the whole Macedonia naming controversy at all. Among many Americans, it was necessary. And many people throughout the world only imagine the South Pacific as “Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti and that’s it” (Kiribati required a lengthy explanation as did Tuvalu or the Federated States of Micronesia). And that’s not even mentioning the constituent countries of New Zealand (such as Niue).

I didn’t want to learn about American pop culture too deeply. It felt fake for me. Sometimes it cost me the ability to connect with people. Although with other internationals we could always talk about our cultural differences or about the things American locals were never asking us about.

 

  1. Time to Relax

 

My polyglot career became everything and it consumed every aspect of my life. I always wanted to get better, almost like an addiction in a sense. I wasn’t allowed to relax because I figured “someone else out there is doing a better job than you are and YOU have to keep working!”

Again, this was another transmuted neurosis from my high school and college days in which I was a “striver”.

 

Bonus: Pressured to learn popular languages and get good at those.

 

Do I need to say more about this? Some people barely believe languages outside of Western Europe exist. The idea that my heart was elsewhere some people found confusing.

If you love something, go ahead and choose what you love above all else. And that’s what I’m going to do.

What Made Learning Languages of Oceania Different from Learning Other Languages?

Thanks again to Teddy Nee for this idea! Check out his musings at: http://www.neeslanguageblog.com/

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The number of people I have met who have studied foreign languages from Oceania I number no more than twenty, MAYBE thirty at the absolute highest. And I meet dozens of language learners every week if not a couple hundred every month (!)

Even if you don’t intend on learning any (and that’s okay, obviously!), perhaps you are a bit curious about how the process is different from learning other languages.

I’ll lay out a number of differences between, let’s say, me having learned Fijian last year and my learning Slovak right now.

 

  • It is nigh impossible to avoid material from Christian missionaries in native-speaker immersion.

 

And given that SBS Radio Australia just discontinued its Fijian radio program (among other indigenous languages of Oceania) a year or two ago, budget cuts may make this even more of a reality than it already is.

 

Jewish as I am, I really have to admire the efforts of missionaries in how much effort they go in localizing their materials. I’ve said it many times on this blog, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses alone outdid all of WIKIPEDIA not only in terms of how many languages were represented but also the qualities of their translations as well. Wikipedia has no more than 300 languages or so, jw.org has over 700.

 

My studies of Tuvaluan and of Tongan would have been IMPOSSIBLE if not for the efforts of contemporary missionaries. Granted, I choose to learn languages from Oceania out of environmental and cultural exploratory reasons, not because I have any intention of converting to Christianity.

 

Here’s how I recommend you use the material:

 

Glosbe has translation memories (for those who don’t know what this is, this is when cross-translated texts are put into a database for other translators to reference). You’ll find cross-translated sentences (e.g. English to Fijian).

 

Get a Clozemaster Pro account, pick a language that has the Cloze-Collections feature, and add sentences (make sure to check the second check box so that the other answers you get are ALSO in your target language). Keep adding sentences and playing through them. The Cloze-Collections features is being beta-tested so there have been some issues with it (e.g. you’ll still get 100% mastered sentences showing up).

Also feel free to use sentences from language learning textbooks as well.

Lastly, use spoken and musical audio in order to hone aspects of your accent. Again, a lot of the material available, if it isn’t news broadcasts from Australia, New Zealand or even the countries themselves, will probably be audio Bibles or other materials aimed at Christians.

 

  • Lots of self-practice is needed if you don’t have access to native speakers.

 

You NEED to be recording yourself. If you’re brave enough, share the recordings on the Internet. If you’re braver still, try sharing it in forums or on Reddit.

 

The 30-Day Speaking Challenge is a FANTASTIC place to start, even if you have to even read from a script at the start and then transfer to improvisation (with or without vocabulary lists). More info here: http://hugginsinternational.com/

 

With this you need to actively imitate native speakers more attentively. Describe the texture of your target language to yourself. What are you noticing about the consonants and vowel sounds?

 

With some accents (although I have heard it used in particular about French and Slavic languages), feel free to imitate them over the top and then tone it down accordingly. The Fijian language’s consonants are very juicy. Languages of Micronesia have a guttural quality that will make foreigners’ eyes bulge the first time they hear it (I’m still amused by the missionary that once referred to Marshallese as “sounding like baby talk”).

 

I can go on the street in New York City and hear Dominican Spanish and Jamaican Patois. I can also hear many languages of China and India as well, not also to mention Hebrew, French, Brazilian Portuguese, and Yiddish. Unless you live in some metropolitan areas of Australia or New Zealand (which have large communities from all over the continent) or areas in Arkansas where Marshallese is commonly heard on the street, you probably don’t have that luxury. So make up for it with more voice training.

 

  • People of Oceania are fiercely proud of their languages in ways that many Westerners aren’t. Many of them will also jump on any opportunity to help you.

 

I’ve heard some people who are citizens of EU countries subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) wish that they had another native language.

 

There was NOT A HINT of this when I was in Fiji, not among the iTaukei, not among the Indo-Fijians, and not among the members of other nationalities I encountered in Suva or Los Angeles or online.

 

When I started posting videos of me trying to learn Gilbertese online, within less than a month I found I-Kiribati online willing to help me(and if it weren’t for my stress levels I’d take them up on it).

 

Palauans. Samoans. Fijians. Hawaiians. Many of these nationalities (and more) will gladly use your interest in their language to cement friendships with you.

 

With speakers of English Creoles, there may be “situation-appropriateness” to be accounted for (e.g. some Solomon Islanders may not consider Pijin suitable for some written needs, such as in business letters or exchanges). Aside from that, you’re in for a world of love.

 

  • Music is readily available in any national language of Oceania.

 

And entire YouTube channels are devoted to it.

 

KiriMusik:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCG4tYNU1mJ1U5D4qTqrc39w

MusicTuvalu:

https://www.youtube.com/user/MusicTuvalu

MusicofSamoa (WITH KARAOKE TRACKS):

https://www.youtube.com/user/musicofsamoa

 

You get the idea.

 

Use it.

 

  • Films may NOT be readily available in many of these languages.

 

Unless, of course, you account for the Jesus Film.

 

Kiribati and Samoa have a good deal of online movies available for free on YouTube. The Melanesian English Creoles also have some. But many of the others may be lacking.

 

  • Sometimes you’ll only have access to one book to learn the language. But if you have material for native speakers, one book is enough.

Check this post: https://worldwithlittleworlds.com/2019/01/24/learning-languages-from-oceania-a-guide-on-how-to-start/

 

  • You’ll get a lot of discouragement from some people (who know NOTHING about Oceania) that claim that learning such languages is “useless” or can’t even locate the countries on a map.

I tell them exactly how, while these countries may be small, knowing the language can give you instant insider privileges and friendships, precisely because so few people take that path.

If you show up to a Kiribati village with knowledge of Gilbertese, they’ll ask you to make a speech at the Maneaba (something akin to a town hall or a meeting place).

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People will be curious to hear your story and wonder how someone could POSSIBLY be so smart so as to be able to learn the language as well as you do (even if you’re not that good).

I’m certain that if the people discouraging you were to just taste a LITTLE bit of the “red carpet treatment” I got in Fiji as a result of me using the local language, they would reconsider.

 

  • Learning Languages of Oceania can be heartbreaking

Some nations, Kiribati and Tuvalu most famously, have made rising sea levels one of the cornerstones of their national identity. And they have every right to.

I remember one time I heard a story about someone who showed up to a Yiddish class the first day in a university setting. S/he was sobbing so much thinking about all of the culture that was lost to the Shoah and how we will never know anything about the millions of people murdered just because they were Jewish, 80% of whom were native Yiddish speakers.

I’ve had to deal with that pain myself in learning and teaching Yiddish. Looking into a vanished world, but still admiring what remains of it, whether it be in the heartlands of Yiddish culture themselves or with Yiddishists all over the world.

With each word of Kiribati, Tuvaluan or Marshallese that I pick up, I am cognizant of the fact that I may actually outlive the very earth on which these cultures were formed and created for over a millennium. Unless we care a whole awful lot and manage to turn things around and defeat greed, that is.

Having to deal with that, I understand another level why many people not only don’t learn languages of these places but don’t learn about them almost at all to begin with. That reality is terrifying. The “words of the last generation” contain a pain that is unprecedented in human history – literally watching your country vanish.

But it is precisely because I want to heal that pain that I devote myself to this area of the world. And I hope I may inspire you to do so as well.

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When Do You Know You’re Good Enough in a Language to List in On Your (CV / Profile / Etc.?)

Perhaps one of the more straightforward ways is “testing procedures”. But what if your target language doesn’t have that? What then?

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Let’s say you’re learning a language from the developing world for which there is no test. When do you know that you can list (Fijian / Dzongkha / Tuvaluan / Tok Pisin) on the list of languages you speak?

There are a number of milestones you must pass on the way to conversational fluency (being able to have bar conversations in your target language) and then, should you so desire, to professional fluency (being able to perform your job[s] in your target language).

  • Learning the most essential verbs (to want, to have, to be)
  • Learning how verbs work (this is going to be harder to learn in some languages than others. Spanish verbs may take you a month, Lao verbs will take you five minutes at most.)
  • Learning how gender works, if any.
  • Learning how politeness tiers work, if any.
  • Learning how adjectives work (do they go before or after the noun they modify?)
  • Learning the “pronoun zoo” (This can be very straightforward in some languages. In some languages like Tok Pisin and Fijian, you’ll have to deal with ungodly large amounts of pronouns [the two of us but not you, me and you, the large group of us but not you, etc. In other languages, especially in East Asia, this is noted via pronouns you’d use with your partner but not with your boss. Sometimes as a foreigner in Asian countries you will be expected to use only a narrow set of pronouns. Still, recognizing many of them can be useful).
  • How prepositions / postpositions work.
  • The case system, if any (in Finno-Ugric languages, for example, this overlaps with the previous point).
  • Any miscellaneous grammatical features that enhance understanding significantly (such as Finnish or English having “multiple infinitives”. To give an example in English “I want to eat dinner” vs. “I don’t feel like eating dinner”.)

 

Once you pass all of these “checkpoints”, your primary goal, then, is to fill in the vocabulary that is missing. It will mostly be nouns, adjectives and verbs, but sometimes more complicated prepositions can also be involved.

 

There is no singular way to acquire vocabulary but there are some very FUN ways I can recommend:

 

  • Television and videos (subtitles can be used if you’re disciplined enough, otherwise many YouTube videos can explain words through “context”, not also to mention in the comments and description).
  • Joke pages (remember that our friends at uTalk said that the best way to learn is to make things funny!)
  • Writing exercises
  • Apps (e.g. Memrise, Clozemaster, uTalk, Mango Languages, ‘n friends.)

 

Okay, now back to the question at hand, WHEN do you know you are good enough?

The same way that I described milestones above, you’ll have to pass a number of milestones that genuinely “prove” your worth. Think of these as “boss fights”, in a sense.

Some boss fights would include things like:

 

  • Understanding a 15-minute video or audio in your target language and understanding anywhere from 90%-100%.
  • Having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker in which you get genuinely complimented or EVEN if you get mistaken for a native speaker.
  • Conducting your job entirely in your language for a substantial period of time (15+ minutes, again, is a good benchmark).

 

So when do I put a language on my list? If I can do tasks like these CONSISTENTLY. Usually if I have done any of these tasks ten or more times than I can put the language on my “fluent” list.

And the reverse is true: if I fail to accomplish doing that in a row several times, it is no longer on my fluent list.

You can also modify this list to include writing and reading as well.

 

  • Having a chat conversation for 5+ minutes in the language. (You tend to do more quickly with writing so I modified the time from 15 minutes to 5.)
  • Reading several articles in a row in which you don’t need to reference a dictionary (or barely need to).

 

A final note: there are those who will glorify testing procedures above all and say that fluency is binary (either that it exists or that it doesn’t exist). It is very possible to pass a fluency test and then forget absolutely EVERYTHING (I’ve met several people who have done so, actually). They are worth something and they are an accomplishment, but if you definitely show signs of fluency and belonging the likes of which I’ve shown above, and ESPECIALLY if you’ve been getting extremely positive signs from native speakers of your target language, don’t worry about having a test result or not having a test result.

Strictly speaking in terms of paper qualifications, I speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Danish and Swedish (to the exclusion of my other fluent languages). Sure, I know these well (although my contemporary Hebrew showed signs of decay at the tail end of 2018 but I’ll get it back in order soon), but that doesn’t show the whole picture of how I live my life. And neither should you be discouraged by narrow slips of paper. The world has been poisoned enough because of that.

Feel free to let me know what you think!