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.