Week 3: Not Enough Words to Understand Anything

At this moment, by my count, I have studied 230 new words of vocabulary, which is more than a third of the initial 625 words I am setting out to learn, and is about the number of words an average 2-year-old knows. I get conflicting information about how much vocabulary you should have in order to be able to generally understand your language -- some say 1,000 words will allow you to understand about 70 percent of anything you read, others say that the most common 1,000 words are used in 89 percent of everyday writing, and others say we can't hope to be able to understand new words from context until we can understand 95 percent of the words used commonly in writing, which is about 3,000 words.

I suppose I won't know with Yiddish until I get there, and, if I keep up at this rate, I'll have a thousand words under my belt in a couple of months, and be up to 3,000 words in about a year of study. I'll tell you this: 230 words isn't enough to understand anything. I can figure out maybe 10 percent of headlines from The Yiddish Forward, which I have subscribed to on my Facebook page -- although, in fairness, that's about 10 percent more than I understood three weeks ago.

I have been reading a new book on learning language that insists that constant exposure to the spoken language is essential, even when you don't understand what is being said, because it teaches you the prosody, or the unique sounds and rhythms of patterns of a language. And so I recently started listening to MP3s of short stories written in Yiddish, available in MP3 form online.

Doing so has mostly communicated how very, very little I understand, and it's not a surprise, as I certainly didn't expect to understand the language after three weeks. But when you're starting with a language, you necessarily suffer from a bit of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which you tend to overestimate your competence because you have no idea what real competence is. It's a little bit like climbing a mountain that is shrouded in clouds, and you think, if I can just get to the cloud line, I'll have gotten to the top of this mountain. But then you reach the clouds, and climb through them, and look up, and the peak is still miles above you, and the climb is going to get harder and harder as you continue.

I'm well below the cloud line now, and so I have no idea how much climbing this mountain of Yiddish is going to require. And there are different stopping points on the mountain -- after memorizing just a few dozen phrases and a few hundred words, someone can reasonably get along ordering food or asking directions. Multiply that by ten and they can get along in a lot of concrete, day-to-day interactions. Multiply it again and they can have complicated, abstract conversations. Each marker is an area of accomplishment, a place in which a certain degree of fluency has been reached. But if I know my Dunning-Kruger, each place is also a cloud line, and when you're reached it, you can see that more of the mountain still towers above you.

One thing I have noticed in the past week is that my ability to read Yiddish has advanced appreciably. I'm not fast, per se, but I am faster, and words that I have already learned I have started to recognize quickly, which is important -- otherwise you end up sounding out every single words syllable by syllable, and that's a slow process.

And I'll just mention that I have started to add in Yiddish phrases to my flashcards, which is a bit of a different process. The phrases come from an old Berlitz recording of basic Yiddish phrases, which is available now via iTunes and is missing all the supplemental printed material that originally came with it. This isn't so bad, as it means I must actively listen to what the phrases are and then figure them out. It takes some real effort, as Google translate is rather bad with idioms, and a lot of these are idioms. "Bon voyage" the English speaker will say, as though that's an English phrase. "Gay Gezunt," the Yiddish voice will answer, and that means "Go in health," which isn't what bon voyage means at all, and Google Translate refuses to help me with this. On the other hand, because I have to figure out the idioms on my own, they seem to stick more.

I'm adding the phrases in because even though I am only 230 words in, I can't stand not being able to say anything at all. Additionally, the flashcards, according to the word list I have been using, leave out parts of speech like "with" and "very" and "to," and you need these to be able to create sentences. It's very hard to represent these parts of speech the way I do flashcards, in which a concrete image represents the word, rather than the English translation.

The solution, according to Gabriel Wyner, is to write down entire phrases on a flashcard (often with a little image that sort of represents the phrase), and then drop the meaningful word. In English, you might have a phrase like "I went to the fair." You would create a flashcard that, on one side, had the complete phrase, and on the other you write "I went __ the fair." In this way, you learn that "to" is the word that fits in the absent space between the sentences, and you also learn a sentence, and both are useful. In this way, you start picking up grammar through usage, rather than spend years puzzling over declension charts and the like.

I haven't actually gotten to any of these flashcards yet. I've only learned about half of the flashcards I have created, so I won't eve start seeing these phrases for a few weeks, until I catch up on my vocabulary. So we'll see how it works then.

This is a break in the program, somewhat. Wyner likes people to learn vocab first and then move on the phrases taken directly from grammar books. But Benny Lewis, author of "Fluent in 3 Months," likes to get people talking as soon as possible, and recommends starting with phrase books meant for travelers, as they give people a lot of immediately usable sentences. So I have sort of merged Wyner and Lewis' approach, and we'll see how that goes. 

I've also added in a few vocab words of my own, even though they are relative uncommon words, but they are words that describe me and my life, and so I will need them sooner rather than later. I am a vegetarian, so I threw that in. I was adopted, and my biological family is Irish, so I added in the words for Irish and Ireland. I am a playwright, so I tossed that word in. I'll continue doing this when I think of words I need, regardless of whether they are among the most common 1,000. 

We'll see how this goes. I suspect the most effective language course is whatever language course gets you communicating, but maybe that's just the Dunning-Kruger speaking.


Why Yiddish?

I used to feel bad for Yiddish. It was, for somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 years, the secular language of European Jews, and it had millions of speakers before they were wiped off the earth by the Holocaust. There have been dire predictions about the death of the language ever since, with every Yiddish speaker who dies seen as being one less person who speaks the language, never to be replaced.

With the exception of some Hasidim, who often still speak Yiddish, religious Judaism didn't do much for Yiddish. It wasn't taught in my Hebrew school, or at my summer camps, or at the Jewish high school I attended, or at the Jewish Studies program I studied in college. We did not sing Yiddish songs, we did not watch Yiddish films, and Yiddish theater was nonexistent in Minneapolis, as it was in most of America.

Still, I grew up with a lot of Yiddish. My father speaks some -- mostly curse words, which he makes free and ample use of. When I was young, there was still a pervasive use of Yiddish as a cultural marker among Jews, so we would shlep, and we would oy vey, and we would gevault. It was a great language for complaining, or, at least, spicing up complaints, which we called kvetching. It was still easy to find copies of Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish," and people read it and borrowed from it. There was also the trailing influence of comedian Lenny Bruce, who used Yiddish often and freely, inventing himself as a Jewish hipster and reinventing Yiddish as the language of the Jewish hipster.

And Yiddish then had a strange cultural cache in Hollywood, so you would hear everybody, even non-Jews, toss around Yiddish phrases. "The whole megilla" could be heard from an actress on Carson while "meshuggeneh" was later said by a comic on Letterman. But the last gasp of this, as far as I can tell, was Mike Myers' "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman" sketches on Saturday Night Live, inspired by his mother-in-law, who was actually named Linda Richman. It's still the impression of Jews speaking Yiddish that I hear the most, even though much of it is nonsensical ("shpilkis in his genechtagazoink"?) To put this into perspective, people who recite this impersonation to me are doing a 25-year routine about a woman who is now about 77-years-old -- not exactly the most contemporary reference.

In the meanwhile, Hollywood's new Jewish comics don't seem to do much with Yiddish. I recently saw "The Night Before," a Christmas movie by a Jewish filmmaker with a largely Jewish cast that took great pleasure in actor Seth Rogen's unmistakable Jewishness. And yet I don't think there was a single Yiddish word in the whole film. I'm not sure why this is. The cast is also a decade or thereabouts younger than me. Perhaps they were raised in a world with much less Yiddish in it, or perhaps Yiddish seems dated or cliched. Maybe there is no conscious decision-making going on, and they just have so little experience with Yiddish that it's not a comic tool in their toolbelt.

And so it's is easy to feel bad for Yiddish and think that it's a great tradition that is on its way out. I think that's why I initially became interested in the language, years ago. I felt like something was slipping away, and it wasn't something small, but instead the language of a people, and not just of a people, but my people, my family, who spoke Yiddish when they came to America.

I'm not so discouraged now. There is an active Yiddish community in America, both among the Hasidim and among Jews who have just taken an interest in the language, like me. There may be more attrition than new growth, in the sense that more old Yiddish speakers die than new ones are born or educated, but that's not quite the same thing as extinction. It seems to me now that there will always be a cult of Yiddish. More than that, thanks to the same technological developments that inspired this project, it is no longer prohibitively difficult to learn at least some Yiddish. I mean, I don't know how long I intend to keep this project going, but I plan to come out of it a lot more familiar with the language than I am now.

But the question I asked in the headline for this post is a simple one: Why Yiddish? And I suppose my answer is just as simple. It's a Jewish language, and I'm Jewish. It's the language my family spoke, and I'm part of my family. It has become a cult thing, and I like cult things. It seems like fun, and I like fun. So, why not Yiddish?


Week 2: Cell Phone Yiddish

I've been studying Yiddish for two weeks now, and I have been doing it entirely on my cell phone. I am going to try to learn as much of the language as I can this way, which I know is an odd little project, but I am someone who likes odd little projects.

This is, I should note, not my first time studying the language. I got interested in the subject years ago, when I was in my early 20s, and so organized a class at my Hillel House. Our instructor was an older gentleman we found at the Jewish Community Center, and he used a delightfully odd textbook called "The Yiddish Teacher." The instructional book makes some very odd pedagogic choices, and so the first phrases you learn are things like "the bear has eaten my father" and progress to "my sister always walks alone in the woods and weeps." It's as though the only function of Yiddish is to translate Edward Gorey for Jews in the Pale of Settlement, and I enjoyed the class as a result, but am not sure I learned too much that is useful.

There is a new pedagogy in language, and I'm not sure it is any better, but it sort of suits me. There has been this sort-of street movement to hack language instruction, found online on blogs and in books with titles like "Fluent in Three Months" and "Fluent Forever."

This approach mostly consists of learning a massive amount of vocabulary words, some basic sentences, and then getting out there and talking with natives. It makes extensive use of new technology, such as web sites that allow you to video chat with other learners or native speakers in real time. They favor a flashcard system called "spaced repetition," which times how often you see a flashcard, so that you see cards you don't know more often and cards you do know infrequently. They offer a lot of little tricks to language acquisition, and I needn't go into them just yet, but all promise a greater or lesser degree of fluency in a short time.

I have taken a lot of language in the past. I studied Hebrew for, gosh, probably a decade, through Hebrew School and then a Jewish high school I attended and then college. Despite this, I barely have a 1-year-old's ability with the language, although I do find that I know an awful lot of random words in Hebrew. I took French in Junior High School and remember none of it. I took American Sign Language in college and, at best, remember how to sign the alphabet.

They all used traditional language techniques, such as learning a bunch of related words (days of the week, parts of the body) and then constructing simple sentences,and later teaching the grammar and bewildering me with the way a word changes from present to past tense. In fairness, when I actually studied the languages, I was pretty competent at them. But as soon as I stopped taking the classes I stopped using the languages, and lost them.

This is part of the appeal of learning language via cell phone. I always have it with me. I pull it out whenever I am bored, which is often. I listen to music and podcasts on it constantly. I sometimes watch movies or television shows or read books on it. You can't always have a language class with you, or a native speaker, but you can always have a cell phone.

Right now, my approach has been fairly straightforward. I can already read Yiddish, thanks to years of Hebrew and having taken the Yiddish class years ago. So at the moment I am focused on vocabulary acquisition. I have a list of the most common 625 words typically used in a language, thanks to the book "Fluent Forever." I am using a space repetition flashcard program called Anki to learn these words -- and, as per "Fluent Forever" author Gabriel Wyner's suggestions, I put Yiddish on one side of the card and a photo of what it represents on the other. This is supposed to bypass the problem of translation -- instead of thinking the word "cat" and then searching your memory for the Yiddish word for "cat" (it's kats, by the way), you simply see an image of a cat and then spontaneously remember the Yiddish word, so you're not constantly thinking in two language.

That's how it's supposed to work, anyway, and sometimes does. My brain has a tendency to shout the English word for whatever image I see on a flashcard, but I suspect linking a Yiddish word with an image will have long-term benefits, and, at the moment, I have only been doing this for two weeks.

The process of creating the flashcards is relatively simple and a little time consuming. I translate the word in the Google Translate app, find an image for it on Google Images, and paste both into a new card. (I won't get too precise about how I do this, as technology changes so much that any description I give is likely to be moot in a few months.)

There are some issues with this. Yiddish is a language that, like many, uses gendered nouns. Google Translate does not tell you the gender of a noun, and my workaround for this is to type is "the" in front of whatever noun I am looking up. "The cat" becomes "die kats," and "die" is feminine, and so I label the noun as feminine on my card. I am trusting Google to be right about this, and it may not be, but, then, almost all Yiddish nouns are feminine. Moreover, modern Yiddish speakers have mostly abandoned gendered nouns, making nearly everything feminine. So if I don't get this entirely right, so what.

There is a lot of trusting of Google Translate when you're doing cell phone Yiddish. And it's not great when it comes to sentences, but has a reputation for relative accuracy on individual words. Still, sometimes it gives several word options, and, when I'm unsure, I'll double check using other online Yiddish resources.

I'm sure that I'm still getting some of it wrong. But while traditional language education stresses getting everything right at the start out of fear of students developing bad language habits, this new street pedagogy of language learning allows -- and sometimes encourages -- the fast acquisition of flawed language. After all, that's how we learned English, and we can always fix mistakes later.

I'm about 150 words in to the first 625 -- or about number of words spoken by a child who is a year and a half old. By the time I reach 625 words, I will have the vocabulary of a child who is a year older, and when I know 1,000 words I will have the upper end of the vocabulary of a three-year-old child. 

It's worth pointing out a few things here. Firstly, knowing 1,000 of the most-often-used words in a foreign language will theoretically allow you to understand 70 percent of what any nonfiction you read, and almost 80 percent of any fiction. 

Secondly, this is almost certainly not true. Because while you might know the words, you won't necessarily know how to use them. But, still, rapid vocabulary acquisition is the first step in this new approach to language learning, and it's easy enough using the spaced repetition system. I should be at 625 words within a month of now, and 1,000 words two weeks later, if I am doing my math right, and I probably am not.

It only takes about a half hour per day to go over my flash cards, but it takes another half hour per day, and several hours on the weekends, to actually make the cards. Still, based on past approaches to learning language, an hour a day is remarkably little time to commit, and a lot of it can be done when I grab a moment here or there, instead of in one fell swoop. 

There is one more thing that I should mention: I have also been listening to a lot of Yiddish music in my cell phone library. I have been told that music is not a great way to learn language, because we tend to listen to the music but not the lyrics, but I don't know that this is true. I know almost all the words to a half-dozen Yiddish songs, and don't recall ever having sat down to learn them, so I must have picked it up from listening. Besides which, listening to music does two things for me: It gives me a better sense of pronunciation, and it immerses me in a world of Yiddish.

That world doesn't really exist anywhere nearby for me, unless I want to enroll in an expensive Yiddish language immersion course, or move to a Hasidic neighborhood, or spend my time insisting on speaking Yiddish to old Jews at the JCC. But when I put my headphones on, there it is: A world in which everybody speaks Yiddish.