Week 8: Leap Day and a Six-Month Goal

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 58 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 23 hours
I have reviewed 743 individual flashcards

Because weeks go into months so oddly, this is both the end of my seventh week of studying Yiddish and the end of my second month. At least I am not using the Jewish calendar, with its lunar cycles and occasional intercalary months. I've never been able to quite figure out how the Jewish calendar figures anything out, by, by my reckoning, I would now be finished with my third day and my 18th month.

I suspect I have entered a period of study that I call the churn, and am familiar with from other things I have studied. This is a long period where you just continue to study and study and study and don't seem to be progressing at all. There is this long gulf between just starting to know things, which is exciting, and knowing enough for it to meaningful, and that long gulf can be frustrating.

That's certainly how it feels just now. I know that I am gaining incremental knowledge, much of it useful. As an example, I have started to recognize parts of compound words, and there are a lot of them in Yiddish, and they are pretty fun. There's a Yiddish word, unter, and it means under. So it gets used in rather obvious ways -- an undershirt is made by combining the Yiddish words for under and shirt: Unterhemd.

But it's also used in surprising ways. "To sign," like when you give an autograph, is unterscribn, literally "underwriting." If you're going to bribe someone, the word is unterkoifn, or "underpaying." I expect being able to recognize this sort of thing will be useful down the road, as a lot of words are built out of combining parts from others words.

I've also realized that plural nouns are going to be a bit of a trick. Yiddish has many ways to make a noun into a plural noun, and they don't necessarily follow any easily remembered rules. Sometimes, Yiddish just sticks an s on the end of a word, as we often do in English. Sometimes, they add an n. Some words are the same whether they are singular or plural. And sometimes the inside of the word changes, as it does in English when we change a mouse into mice.

So the only way to learn the plural for Yiddish words is just to memorize it. I'm not going to start doing that yet, but I'm going to have to at some point.

Another thing I learned this week: When you affix the word "the" in front of a word, the sort of "the" you stick there depends both on the gender of the noun and whether it is plural or not, and it gets a little crazy here. If there's only one of something, and the noun is masculine, you say "der" for "the." If it's feminine, "the" becomes "di." And if it is a neutral noun, "the" is "dos." And you just need to know the gender of a noun, because there are no hard and fast rules for this either. A beard, as an example, is feminine. An ovary, in the meanwhile, is masculine. The mouth is neutral, which is not my experience with mouths at all.

But when it becomes plural, both the masculine and the neutral noun become dem, which I like, because it sounds like a street tough is saying "them." But a female noun becomes der. Which I have to assume was a decision made a thousand years ago by people who just thought this might be funny, because it means that when a female noun becomes plural, it takes the form of "the" that we otherwise use for singular male nouns. I'd read some subtle sexism here -- it's as though the language has decided that more than one female nouns are the same as one male noun. But, frankly, it's just too convoluted to be effective as sexism, although that's never stopped something from being sexist in the past.

So I have learned these sorts of grammatical rules, but just learning a rule is next to useless. You need to know how to apply it, and I don't know what the plural for any word is yet, and it will be a while before I learn it. And even if I did, you can't speak a language by building it out of grammatical rules you have memorized. Otherwise, trying to construct a sentence consists of desperately trying to remember the language equivalent of math problems, and that's a slow way to speak.

So this is the grind. It's the time between when you have learned something, the time when you can quickly recall it, and the time when you can make use of it without having to think about it.

And it's not just grammar. This is true with the words I have learned, where I still struggle to remember what they mean. It's true of the sentences I have started to learn, where I barely have the sentences themselves memorized, and am not at the point where I really understand the separate parts of it, or how to take it apart and build a new sentence using the pieces.

I know, I know -- I'm only two months in. The average 3-year-old child has about 1,000 words they can use, and I don't even have that yet. And 4-year-olds know 5,000 words. 8-year-olds know 10,000 words, and have you ever read a book written for an 8-year-old? Not exactly Proust.

Newspapers tend to be written at an 9th grade level, and those 14-year-olds know somewhere in the area of 25,000 words. At the rate I'm going, it would take me 240 plus weeks to learn that many words, or more than 4 1/2 years.

I know I do this too often -- this sort of back-of-the-envelope breakdown of words, ages, and months. I don't expect it makes for thrilling reading, and it's really just a way for me to try to understand the benchmarks to learning, and how much time I can expect it to take.

And, of course, as I have mentioned before, there are different ways to judge proficiency than trying to talk like a 14-year-old. There is something called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which divides proficiency into three groups, with two levels per group.

So there is A1, as an example, which sounds pretty good, as in America if you're A number 1, you're just about as good as you can be. But Europeans don't care for American English phrases, and so A1 in the CEFR test means you are a beginner. Here's what a beginner can do:

  • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
  • Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.
  • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
I should note that I'm not even able to do this yet, so I am somewhere below beginner on this test. The person who is at an A1 level generally has a vocabulary of somewhere between 1200 and 1500 words, so when I have doubled my vocabulary, I'll see how I feel about this.

The highest rating on the CEFR is C2, also defined as mastery or proficiency, and those folks can do the following:

  • Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
The person at this level generally has a vocabulary of  somewhere between 3500 and 5000 words. Presumably they make due with less words than a 14-year-old because 14-year-olds need to many words to describe dreamy pop stars and to badmouth each other on social media.

So that's a much more reasonable goal -- one that can even be accomplished in a year!

And there's an even more reasonable goal, and it will be my first one. I have never completed my college language requirement, and would like to be able to test out of it. In order to do this, I must be fluent in a language to the point where I can read and listen at the Intermediate-High level and write and speak at the Intermediate-Mid level. At my college, these levels are defined using a different scale, one developed by the  American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or ACTFL.

At the risk of getting too wonky, here's the basic definition of Intermediate high level:

Intermediate High speakers are able to converse with ease and confidence when dealing with the routine tasks and social situations of the Intermediate level. They are able to handle successfully uncomplicated tasks and social situations requiring an exchange of basic information related to their work, school, recreation, particular interests, and areas of competence.

I can't find anything that gives a sense of how many vocabulary words this might require, but it does roughly line up with the the B1 level of the CEFF. And that's somewhere between 2,700 and 3,000 words.

That's about 7.5 months, not counting the month I have already completed. So there, after some protracted and probably hideously misconceived math, I have reached my first testable goal: B1 level of CEFF, or the equivalent, in another six months or thereabouts.

And how do I demonstrate my level of competence? Well, the NYU school of professional studies offers a proficiency test in Yiddish. The test is not cheap, and I may have to go to New York to take it, so I won't take it until I feel confident that I have reached the level I want to reach. But I'm going to shoot for six months, and am glad to have a clear goal, and a testable one.
Intermediate High speakers are able to converse with ease and confidence when dealing with the routine tasks and social situations of the Intermediate level. They are able to handle successfully uncomplicated tasks and social situations requiring an exchange of basic information related to their work, school, recreation, particular interests, and areas of competence. - See more at: http://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012/english/speaking#intermediate
Intermediate High speakers are able to converse with ease and confidence when dealing with the routine tasks and social situations of the Intermediate level. They are able to handle successfully uncomplicated tasks and social situations requiring an exchange of basic information related to their work, school, recreation, particular interests, and areas of competence.
Intermediate High speakers can handle a substantial number of tasks associated with the Advanced level, but they are unable to sustain performance of all of these tasks all of the time. Intermediate High speakers can narrate and describe in all major time frames using connected discourse of paragraph length, but not all the time. Typically, when Intermediate High speakers attempt to perform Advanced-level tasks, their speech exhibits one or more features of breakdown, such as the failure to carry out fully the narration or description in the appropriate major time frame, an inability to maintain paragraph-length discourse, or a reduction in breadth and appropriateness of vocabulary.
Intermediate High speakers can generally be understood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives, although interference from another language may be evident (e.g., use of code-switching, false cognates, literal translations), and a pattern of gaps in communication may occur.
- See more at: http://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012/english/speaking#intermediate


Week 7: Joe and Paul

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 51 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 20 hours
I have reviewed 639 individual flashcards

Had I studied nothing but the original 625 words I started with, I would be done with all 625 right now. Instead, I got bored and plugged in a few phrases, a few words I particularly like, and some song lyrics, and so here I am -- I'm at the letter X, and will probably be done tonight, a day later. It's not as tidy as I would like, but this is what happens when you get bored.

In fact, I am feeling the lack of tidiness. I have an additional 250 flashcards I have created, and they're all mishmash. I know a lot of words, but I have no real clue as to how I might turn them into a sentence. I need grammar, and I need it badly.

Additionally, I'm starting to see the value in these words lists, which I will detail in a moment. It's like the Yiddish world is a blur, but it is coming into focus. This will happen a lot faster if I focus on the most frequently used words, but that's not what I'm doing. I'm adding words in almost at random, and I don't intend to stop completely, but I am desperate to start really understanding the language.

So I downloaded a Yiddish grammar book called "Grammar of the Yiddish Language" by Dovid Katz (available here) and found a list of the most frequent 1,000 words in Yiddish (available here). These will be my primary study tools, although I intend to keep adding phrases from my Berlitz book as well.

Let me tell you, I was suspicious of the whole "learn 1,000 words" thing, because, for a long time, I was accumulating vocabulary but couldn't understand anything. Now I've past the 500-word mark, and I'm getting tantalizing glimmers of comprehension. I listen to a lot of Yiddish music, which, for a long time, has been a series of "buh buh yai di dais" and little else, and now words are popping out all over. While I do not understand individual sentences, the shape of the songs are starting to form, as well as their subjects. I'll listen to a song and suddenly realize the singer is singing of fish in the sea, or of various rabbis doing the twist, or of millionaires on Delancey Street.

There is a song I have gotten obsessed with. It's called "Joe and Paul" and was by Borscht Belt comedians The Barton Brothers, although apparently it was originated by Red Buttons. The song is a parody of an actual Yiddish radio commercial by Brooklyn clothing store magnate Paul Kofsky (there was no Joe; he made his partner up). The song is a relentless Yinglish melange, a machine gun blast of slangy Yiddish and English pronounced like Yiddish, and it seems like it's the summit of Yiddish study for me.

If ever there was a piece of comedy stripped of context, it is this one. There is no Joe and Paul any more, no Yiddish radio, no commercials, no Borscht Belt, and few Yinglish speakers. Worse still, the song is done in a Poylish accent, so I couldn't understand it even if I understood it.

Except I do. I'm not sure when it happened, but it all sort of clicked last week. There are stretches I don't understand, admittedly, but more that I do. Maybe if you were raised with Jewish humor, as I was, this sort of thing works on an intuitive level, because I seem to be following the song about the twisting rebbes pretty well too. (It's a real song, by the way: "Der Chassidcher Twist" by Mike Burstyn, which will probably be the subject of a future post.)

Whatever is going on, it's hard not to want more.


Week 6: Book: Born to Kvetch

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 45 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 17 hours
I have reviewed 549 vocabulary words

I don't have a lot to say about my Yiddish studies this week, except that I am starting to plug in a lot more phrases, and it's a trickier proposition. A lot of Yiddish is idiomatic, and Google Translate seems fairly oblivious to Yiddish idioms, instead providing maddening literal translations of phrases like "What is your name?" and "Where are you from?" As a result, I need to just type the phrases into my cell phone myself. I do this with the aid of a program called Keyman, which makes it relatively simple to type Yiddish.

I also briefly did an experiment where I translated a Yiddish nursery rhyme and plugged it into my flash cards, but I quickly discovered that I lack both the vocabulary and the grammar to do so effectively, so that's a project I will return to when I have bolstered both. At this point, my flashcard creation consists of new vocabulary words from a themed list of 1,000 words, Yiddish sentences from "Der Yiddish Lerer" intended to teach me rudimentary vocabulary, and useful phrases from Berlitz.

I alternate between a page of each, and I have just started to see to my first sentences from them showing up when I go to study my flashcards. I have a feeling that when I have done a hundred or so sentences and know a hundred or so basic phrases, I'll feel a lot more grounded in Yiddish.

In the meanwhile, I read a book called "Born to Kvetch," which was a surprise bestseller for author Michael Wex when it debuted in 2005. The book is a tour through Yiddish words, phrases, proverbs, and slang, roughly grouped into sections based on themes -- sex, for example, gets an entire section to itself.

The book also offers an introduction to the history of Yiddish, which is necessarily condensed but nonetheless informative. I started studying this language with very little formal knowledge of it, and so I knew there were different accents, but didn't know how many or if they were mutually intelligible. I also didn't know what accent I was learning or how it differs from others. As it turns out, the accent I am learning is based on the Litvish accent. This was the dialect of Yiddish spoken by Jews in the northeastern Pale of Settlement. Literally, Litvish means Lithuanian, but in practice versions of the dialect were spoken in a variety of places, including Belarus, where my grandmother came from. The version of the accent I am learning, as well as its vocabulary and sentence structure, was codified by a group called YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, which began in 1925 in Poland and is currently in New York.

From what I understand, the Litvish dialect is seen as being somewhat dry and academic, and the YIVO version even more so. It's main competitor is called the Poylish dialect, which literally mean Polish, but as with Litvish it was spoken in a variety of places; since it is the accent favored by Hasidim, it is one of the most common in the United States. The accents are quite a bit different from each other -- almost every vowel is pronounced differently. There were other accents as well -- the accent used for Yiddish theater was the Ukrainian accent, and I have no idea what that was like.

It is easiest for me to learn YIVO Yiddish, because that's what most Yiddish instruction offers, but it also sounds like that results in a lifetime of people telling you that you are pronouncing things wrong. I'm not really sure what dialect would be the most appropriate for me, as, along with my Belorussian grandmother, I had ancestors from Romania, Poland, Russia, Moldova, and possibly Ukraine, as well as relatives in Western Europe. I can claim almost any Yiddish accent as my own. The YIVO accent is actually probably the best one for me, since YIVO is now an American institution and theirs is the accent taught to non-Hasidic American Jews, so I'll just stick with what I am learning, but with an awareness that it may be a long time before I recognize or understand the other accents.

"Born to Kvetch" is a terrifically interesting book, but also, by virtue of its structure, a terrifically limited one. I might not know Yiddish well enough to offer a real critique of the book, but I am a former yeshiva bokher, and so can spot one a mile off, and author Michael Wex has the perfume of the yeshiva all over his writing. As a result, his book is heavily informed by the culture of traditional Jewish education; Wex particularly likes to discuss Yiddish phrases that have their origins in Biblical passages or comments from the Talmud, and he details a variety of phrases that rise out of Orthodox Jewish life in Europe.

There is a larger world hinted at in his book, but never examined in as much depth. I may not be a scholar of Yiddish, but, in my time, I was a scholar of Jewish life in Europe, and I know that it was a vast, complicated, and frequently contradictory world. There were an awful lot of Jewish criminals -- a story that has mostly gone untold, probably out of embarrassment -- and they had their own cant, which makes an appearance here and there in this book. There was an enormous amount of folk superstition, and my reading of history suggests that a lot of the Judaism of Israel was folk Judaism, rather than academic Judaism. Hints of this appear as well.

Wex also presents Yiddish as a language that betrays a deep conflict with European Christianity, noting all the little potshots the language takes at Christian faith and practice. I am suspicious that this masks a more complicated story. When Yiddish turns a mocking eye toward Christianity, it often shows a surprising familiarity with the world of Christians, and of course it does. Jews may have had a unique culture and language in Europe, but they did so in a profoundly Christian world, and they interacted with Christians constantly -- even in the bedroom. I grew up with a lot of Russian Jews who were redheads, and there is a part of Russian that has 10 times as many redheads as typically appears in the population. DNA studies of Jews have shown that the average Jew has about 30 percent European ancestors, and there was one study that argued that 80 percent of the maternal ancestry of European Jews comes from European women, suggesting that the early Jews who settled Europe took European women as wives.

There is a term coined by Sigmund Freud that I always try to remember in these circumstances, the "narcissism of small differences," in which you highlight minor points of contention for the sake of minimizing how similar you are. Jews often paint a portrait of themselves as an alien people in Europe, and European people will offer a mirror reflection of that painting, but, if Jews were aliens, there were aliens who had extraordinary familiarity with their new world, and the people in it, to the point of sharing children with them. I suspect that Yiddish often deliberately magnified differences, for the same sort of reasons we still see nowadays: An attempt to battle assimilation, an attempt to highlight what is unique about Judaism, an attempt to take small differences and make them the things that define us, to help create a border around the question of what is a Jew and what isn't.

This may be especially interesting to me, because I live on that border. I am a secular, atheist Jew who was raised in the Reform tradition, but educated by Orthodox Jews. I was adopted, and my biological family is Irish Catholic, and as a result I have a blended identity -- I absolutely see myself as Jewish, but I also absolutely see myself as Irish, and I investigate and live both heritages. I went to a Jewish high school, and was a Jewish studies major in college, and so I know how firmly the ultra-religious side of Judaism tries to build fences and then fences around fences. But I also know how interesting things are when you hop over the fences, and how much authentic Judaism can be found outside spaces that the ultra-religious would circumscribe.

And so I find myself drawn to the parts of Wex's book that touch on those uncircumscribed worlds more than the parts of the book that reflect a yeshiva bokher's contained sense of the world. In fact, one of the book's central ideas -- and I think it's most interesting -- comes more from the superstitious world of folk Judaism that the stuffy world of the kheyder. Wex argues that European Jews saw themselves in a demon-crowded world, constantly surrounded by invisible monsters that would seize any opportunity to create mischief. So they developed habits to ward off these monsters, and one of those habits was to develop ways of speaking that would not invite demonic jealousy. As a result, there is an awful lot of the world that Judaism refuses to describe, instead using tortured circumlocutions to gesture at what they mean, and sometimes saying the exact opposite of what they mean just to be extra careful.

(I'll quickly note that Yiddish is not unique in this. The English word bear literally means "brown," because, for whatever reason, some of our linguistic ancestors refused to use the actual word for the animal, ursa, and just called them a color instead.)

Wex believes that this causes a culture in which irony is an essential tool, as Yiddish-speaking Jews must suss out the meaning of a phrase that refuses to be explicit, and often says exactly the reverse of what it means. And any people with irony embedded so deeply in their language are necessarily going to develop a world-class sense of humor, which the Jews famously did. The book's title, "Born to Kvetch," suggest that Jews are not merely notorious complainers, which they are, but that their complaints are often an extraordinarily ironic interaction with the world, expressing, well, almost everything. Our humor rises out of our complaints, because the complaints give us the ironic language for humor.

I think Wex is right about this. I will eventually get around to memorizing the hundreds of Yiddish phrases his book offers, but it might be a while before I do so. In the meanwhile, that insight alone has made reading the book worthwhile.


Week 5: Pidgin Yiddish

All right, first the stats:

I have now studied Yiddish for 37 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for 13 total hours
I have reviewed 429 vocabulary words

So I am about two-thirds of the way through the initial 625 words and almost halfway through the first thousand. I haven't mastered all of these new vocab words, of course. On review, I typically get about 75 percent of my answers right, although that's including 15 new vocabulary words that I am not likely to know. So the number of Yiddish words I comfortably know is, oh, maybe 320, doing some back-of-the-envelope math. Maybe a little more -- the words I know really well have been pushed to the back of the deck, so I see them infrequently.

It feels a bit like a jumble in my head. Random Yiddish words will pop up over the course of the day and I can't remember what they mean. I find myself fighting to remember the same half-dozen words, and forgetting what they are, day after day. Because the Anki flashcard system puts the words you have trouble with in front of you more often, Yiddish has started to feel like a language I am having trouble with, instead of a language I am learning. Perhaps I am unique in experiencing this, but, at the moment, the flashcard system gives a stronger illusion of failure than of success.

It doesn't help that I have this growing bank of words but no real way of using them. I know this is something that I just need to be patient about. In two weeks I will have completed my initial 625 words, and then I will start learning sentences. Earlier, even, because I started plugging in sentences pretty early on, and have something like 100 waiting in the deck for me to get to them, and in 15 days I will probably have added another hundred or so.

I don't know how useful it is for people to read about my progress in such a granulated form, but if you're like me, it might be worth noting that in your first month of studying using this process, you're going to feel like you're learning a lot very quickly, which is exciting, and in your second month you're going to feel like you have no idea what to do with what you're learning, which is confusing. Were I to do this again, I would probably alternate new vocabulary words with sentences from a phrase book, just so that I had a very basic ability to communicate, instead of a growing number of words I don't know how to use.

I should say, though, that sentences are starting to form in my head. I don't know that they are good Yiddish -- they probably aren't -- but they are a sort of pidgin. Additionally, my reading skills continue to develop apace -- but for new Yiddish words, which I must still sound out, I am able to read fairly quickly. And I find myself understanding a lot more. I'd say that I am able to figure out, oh, maybe 20 or 25 percent of the Jewish Forward headlines that I read, which is sometimes enough to suss out what the story is about.

I know that five weeks is a very short time, and I know it will seem even more compressed to anyone reading this, because in just five posts I have gone from speaking almost no Yiddish to knowing roughly 1/16 the total number of words used in the King James Bible (there are about 8,000 total words used there, ignoring proper nouns.) But nothing ever feels fast when you're doing it, especially projects that take months and then years, especially when you're at the start and know how much you have yet to do.

This is especially true if you are impatient, and I am impatient.


Week 4: The aunt has a knife

Last night I completed creating the flashcards for my first 625 words. The process is time consuming, but has gotten to be sort of meditative. When I get bored, I'll make a few flashcards. When I can't get to sleep, or wake up early, I'll make a few flashcards.

It will be at least another month until I have learned all these flashcards, or even seen them all. I've worked my way through 324 flashcards, so only about half as many as I have created. You sort of get obsessed with these statistics, like baseball fans, and the Anki flashcard system offers a lot of statistics. According to the flashcard program, I am now 30 days into studying the cards, and have spent an average of 20.8 minutes a day studying the cards for a total of 623 minutes.

I don't really know what to do with any of these facts. You sort of want to graph them in order to predict your language development, to know where you are in the process. I did discover that I was accidentally only learning 10 new words per day, so I upped it to 15. It doesn't seem like that many, but when you consider that you constantly have to revisit cards, and that each new word equals two cards (you're quizzed on both the front and the back of the card), it means that the number of cards I must review daily has jumped quite a bit. But I felt like I was learning Yiddish slowly, and now I feel it's going at a comfortable pace.

So, it's a week later and about 100 new words. I'm approaching the minimum number of words an average 3-year-old speaks (about 500), and we know how chatty 3-year-olds can be. I don't feel especially chatty, but I find myself able to construct some very basic sentences, albeit with terrible grammar, I am sure. I have reached the point where I can see things in the world and point at them and name them, like children do. It doesn't feel like much, but I've only been at this for a month, which is considerably less time than it takes children to get to this point.

At least I can always congratulate myself for doing things faster than a 3-year-old.

I will say that my additional 100 words has had a noticeable effect. When I listen to spoken Yiddish, words are starting to pop out that I recognize, and there have been a few instances where I have found myself following an entire sentence or two. It's still mostly gobbledygook to me, but it isn't the gormless gobbledygook of a few weeks ago. The shapes of sentences are starting to feel like they make sense to me, in that even if I don't know the specifics of a sentence, it feels as though I am hearing nouns verb other nouns, and adverbs adverbing away, and finding places where numbers have attached themselves to words, and that sort of thing. That's about all I can do with Hebrew, and I studied that language for most of the first half of my life -- daily for more than five years.

In about another month I will have completed all these cards, and I am already preparing for going forward from there. I am creating the next collection of flashcards from two sources. The first is the Berlitz phrase book I mentioned a week or two ago -- although it started to be useless without the accompanying PDF, and so I managed to track one of those down. You may not be able to have very sophisticated conversations from what you find in a phrase book, but it is important to be able to say hello, goodbye, where you come from, and that you would appreciate the vegetable medley rather than the steak.

Additionally, these basic phrases contain a lot of words that are otherwise hard to represent on flashcards. Wiktionary lists the top 600 Yiddish words culled from Yiddish publications, and the first 10 are these, translated:
  1. The (feminine form)
  2. And
  3. From
  4. In
  5. The (masculine form)
  6. A
  7. Says
  8. Is
  9. Itself
  10. The (accusative)
These are mostly very hard to put on flashcards where a word is represented by an image, rather than a direct translation, and, besides, just knowing zeyr means, approximately, "itself" gives no indication how it's used.

So, as I mentioned last week, I just create flashcards with the complete sentence on one side and the sentence with a word dropped out on the other. One side might read "He wants a drink," and the other side will read "He wants __ drink," and I have to learn that "a" is the word that fits into that spot.

The idea is that our brains have a strong intuitive grasp of sentence construction. If we've memorized a few examples, we can extrapolate other examples, and so even if we don't necessarily know that "from" is a preposition used to indicate time or location, we do know it's the word that gets stuck in this sentence "___ Here to Eternity."

But common phrases are often idiosyncratic and often aren't even complete sentences. So I am supplementing this by creating flashcards from my favorite Yiddish instruction book, H.E. Goldin's "The Yiddish Teacher," available as a PDF from Archive.org, thanks to the Yiddish Book Center.

This is the book I used when I started learning Yiddish, and I love it, because it is hard to escape the feeling that Goldin was preparing Yiddish speakers to participate in a German expressionist film. One of the first flashcards I created from his lessons is "The aunt has a knife," and it's just going to get weirder. But his sentences are short and well-constructed, and so, putting aside the considerable entertainment offered by Goldin's deranged sentence construction, the book should teach me some basic grammar.