Week 24: Six Months

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 167 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 89 hours
I have reviewed 2,338 individual flashcards

You never know what to expect from a project when you start it. I am just shy of completing six months of study, and I am not sure that I thought I would work on this project for so long. At the same time, I also thought that at six months I would be rattling off Yiddish like an old pro, which I knew to be unrealistic, but hoped anyway. Perhaps the value of not knowing what you don't know is that, without a sort of supernatural optimism, we might never start any projects at all.

At the moment, I do know what I don't know, and it's a biggie: I don't know how to fashion a really good Yiddish sentence. I had meant to address this already, but I started out by buying a book of Yiddish idioms. As it turns out, most idioms are neither very good sentences nor complete ones, but I still plunged into that rabbit hole and have memorized about 100 idioms at the moment.

It's been enjoyable, and so there is value in that, because if this project every gets boring, I risk wandering away from it. And there have been a dozen or so complete sentences in the mix, so now I know how to say "go bang your head against the wall" and "he twists like a fart in a foggy soup," the latter of which is just one of a surprisingly large number of Yiddish idioms that address flatulence, such as "neither a hit nor a fart" and the intensely disturbing "go fart in your own throat."

Once I finish with the idioms, I will movie on to Yiddish homilies and proverbs, which, for the most part, are complete sentences, and will allow me to see a lot of the words I have already used in the context of a sentence. Once I have completed that project, I will move on to memorizing a Yiddish phrase book, and once done with that I will get back to Yiddish grammar, which should make a lot more sense to me.

Another problem is that I currently am struggling with a massive pile of words that I just can't memorize, for whatever reason. I have been relying on sheer route repetition and a few simple mnemonics for this project, but these words defy me. I am going to have to come up with new ways to learn these words, because at the moment I am sometimes spending an hour a day on my flashcards, and it's the same 20 or 30 words again and again.

But since I am now six months in, I think it's worthwhile to take stock of what this experience has been like for me, and what I feel I have gotten out of it.

1. I undeniable have acquired a great deal of Yiddish. I feel like there is this huge stockpile of Yiddish words in my head that I just keep adding to. Some of it I can access instantly, some of it is a little buried and I have to struggle to remember it, and a lot of it I forget and remember and forget again. But it's there, and I know it, and it show up all the time. Yiddish can be a lot more fun then English, so I tend to say "untervesh" for underwear and "gatkes" for underpants in day-to-day use, just because I like the words more. Likewise "zitzer" is a more entertaining word for rear end and "vatnz" is a more entertaining word than  "pest."

The result is that I may not be fluent in Yiddish yet, but my Yinglish has really gotten entertaining.

2. This project started as a language project, and I thought I would gain enough Yiddish to be able to engage in basic communication, but maybe I would move on to another language program, because there are other languages I am interested in.

Instead, the theme of the blog that developed over the six months I have been working on it, "Think Yiddish," has started to expand and take over. Studying Yiddish led me to reading about the Yiddish language, which led me to reading about the uses of the Yiddish language, which led me to a lot of semi-related projects about Jewish history and culture. I wouldn't say I am surprised by this -- it's how my projects tend to go -- but it has been tremendously enjoyable.

3. It's been a pretty lonely project, which is strange. After all, Yiddish is a language, and language is a way for people to connect. But I haven't pursued finding other people to speak Yiddish with, and don't know when I will do so. Instead, this has been a project I have very much been doing on my own, and I am fine with that for just now. But eventually I am going to have to explore what it means to be a Yiddish speaker, and not just a Yiddish student.

4. By my count, I will have learned a little less than 5,000 words when I reach the end of my first year of study, which does not seem so far off right now. As I understand it, 5,000 words is the active vocabulary of many native speakers who do not have a higher education. I'm also led to believe it is enough words to understand new words from context. It's also the number of words learned by "linguistically disadvantaged
' students, according to a study I read, while more advantaged students know four times as many, so 5,000 words may be enough to get by in a language, but you're still going to be using language in such a way that, if you were a native speaker, parents and teachers would be meeting to discuss their concerns about your development. So I shouldn't get too cocky.

That being said, I listened to a new Yiddish song the other night and was shocked to discover that I was able to understand an awful lot of it. I don't really have a what I call a "listeners vocabulary," which is hard to develop when you don't actually get a change to actively listen to someone speak to you live and in person. I don't have the skills that allow me to catch what's being said when I heard someone speak, because even if I recognize a lot of the words, they just exist as words, and the sentences pass by without comprehension. If I listen a few times, I can figure out what's beings said, but the first time I heard something it might as well be Greek.

Not this song, though. It probably helps that it was a children's song "Yomele Yomele" specifically, but nonetheless I was thrilled to find myself following along on first listen and largely understanding everything.

Not bad for am isolated, self-invented language program guided mostly by whimsy. You too can understand a child's song in a mere six months of an hour or two of daily study just by learning Yiddish swear words and how to tell someone to fart in his own throat.

Lessons begin today.