Week 35: Some notes
Published on Thursday, September 08, 2016 By Max Sparber
I have studied Yiddish for 237 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 135 hours
I have reviewed 2,889 individual flashcards
I don't know that I have much to say about my self-education this week, except that it is hard to study when you are on vacation in Minnesota, although I managed to do so every day except the one when I was on the road until very late in the evening
I will also make a brief note about "Say It in Yiddish," the book I am currently studying from: Some of the sentences are fairly long. I don't have a sample sentence in front of me, so I will invent an example: "I would like to have a seat at the front of the airplane/train/subway/bus." These can be a bit hard to learn, and when I find myself getting backed up in my learning, where there is a pile-up of words or sentences that I am struggling with, I stop adding new sentences to focus on the old ones. I have already had to do this a few times with this book.
I want to take a moment to jot down some notes based on my experiences so far, in case anybody wants to try something similar:
1. The process I use to create flashcards is a bit cumbersome. I will usually look to Google Translate first, but Google Translate's Yiddish skills are lacking. So I then need to cut and paste Google's faulty translation into an app called Keyman to correct it. The Keyman app is occasionally glitchy -- it constantly tries to resize my text to the smallest size possible, so must be resized.
Worse still, sometimes it gets in a mood where it refuses to convert the Hebrew letters from their final form to their regular form, which it is supposed to do automatically. For those of you who don't know what I am talking about, Hebrew has five letters which look different when they appear at the end of a word, some of which have been used or not used in Yiddish, depending on the era and the mood of the writer, apparently. However, I have found that the solution to this in Keyman is just to type the letter again, which will force the first version to convert into a non-final form, and then you can just erase the second letter.
I don't know if this is true of Keyman in general, or is just a failing of an add-on I download called Yiddish Pasekh, but as far as I can tell the add-on hasn't been updated since 2009, so I think we can expect this glitch to remain.
2. One of the books on language acquisition I read at the start of this program had a recommendation regarding flashcards: It recommended using images for the English translation, rather than simply typing out the English. This is supposed to help you start making direct use of foreign words. Let's say you see a beach, and because you associate images of a beach with the Yiddish word, plazshe, you will just remember the Yiddish and not have to make an intermediate step of thinking "beach, let's see, what is beach in Yiddish."
I don't know whether this is true or not. I never remember the Yiddish word for beach, and, despite using an image on my flashcard, I still make the intermediary step of thinking of the English word. Nonetheless, I enjoy looking at pictures more than I do written words, especially when I locate fun images for the word I am learning, so I use images, as recommended.
But there are a lot of words that just don't translate well into photographs. At first, I did the best I could, and would just remember, oh, this picture of a hilarious dog is actually the image for the Yiddish word for an animal's mouth, which is pisk. And that worked for maybe the first thousand flashcards and maybe the first six months. But now there are too many flashcards for me to remember what a vague image is supposed to represent, and I don't review some words for months or longer, so I forget what I meant by certain images, and some flashcards are for entire phrases, and that isn't easy to represent with images.
So I have been adding words to my flashcards, especially for words that can't really be represented by images. I've tried to find a middle ground, though: Usually I locate images of the word I am trying to remember.
3. It's a bad idea early on to learn a lot of synonyms for the same word. It's impossible to know how or when to use the different versions and you wind up getting confused when looking at flashcards which image links to which version. It's even worse if you try to memorize a bunch of words that use the same basic root. There is probably some memorization trick to simplify this, but, honestly, I just want to repeat the text of a flashcard a few times a learn a word and not have to resort to a variety of mnemonics depending on what I am learning.
The only thing I am really willing to do is to change a card if I find it impossible to learn. I will select another image, or additional images, and if I have no idea how to pronounce a word (sometimes Yiddish is pronounced quite a bit differently than it is written), I will jot down a transliteration of the pronunciation.
4. I forget everything. It took me a long time to be okay with this, in part because the Anki flashcard program keeps an ongoing tally of how well you remember something, and it was frustrating to see my score getting worse and worse week after week. It's frustrating to have a word you know very well and then suddenly forget what it is.
But this is the process of learning. It happens to me in English as well. I forgot what the word was for mnemonics when I was writing a few paragraphs ago and spent a minute or two looking it up before I suddenly remembered it.
It helps that I have now been through this process of forgetting and remembering in Yiddish many times, and so I see how much faster I am at relearning words and sentences that gave me endless trouble previously. Something I spent literally days on a few months ago I now remember after only a couple of repetitions.
I've come away from this with a newly rediscovered respect for just how long it takes to learn something. I have been a self-educator my entire life, but have never tackled something as awesomely complex as a language, which requires daily work, every day, for just years and years and years. In a few days, I will have been studying Yiddish for three quarters of a year, and have barely learned enough vocabulary to communicate concrete, basic sentences, much less the sort of complicated abstractions that language is capable of.
I keep running up against the question of how to keep the subject interesting for me, especially as I am a hobbyist working mostly in isolation. And I find myself butting up against the issue of waning interest, especially as my studying becomes increasingly time consuming while the actual usefulness of what I learn rapidly diminishes. The first 1,000 words of Yiddish are exciting, because they are such workhorses that you discover yourself understanding far more Yiddish than you expected. The second thousand are fun, because you're selecting a lot of fun words. But by the time you've learned 3,000 words, there's a lot of quotidian language that doesn't show up all that often, a lot of synonyms, a lot of specialized language that may not have much practical value.
I'm not terribly concerned, though. If there is one thing I have a talent for, it is amusing myself, and so there will always be another Yiddish project I can come up with that will give me pleasure and contribute incrementally to my understanding of the language. If you're a hobbyist, you have to know how to make your hobby fun.
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