Week 42: Improbable Results

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 284 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 169 hours
I have reviewed 3,426 individual flashcards

My schedule has been entirely catawampus the past week. It's hard to move to a new state, immediately start a new job, live out of suitcases in your mother's guest room, look for an apartment, and take care of a dog, all while desperately revisiting your favorite locations and snapping photos of yourself in front of local monuments. It's a lot to do, and I have been exhausted and felt a little sick the entire time. It will be weeks until this is all settled, and months until I have really found a routine.

So Yiddish has likewise been cata and likewise been wampus, with me studying when I can, and making new flashcards when I can. As a result, I have mostly stuck to the easiest thing for me to do, which is enter new vocab words out of a dictionary I own, This is probably for the best as well -- as I mentioned before my move, I was starting to get overwhelmed trying to learn complete sentences, and my study time had started to spike past an hour of work per day.

It's become quite easy for me to learn individual words, for the most part -- there are always a few that stubborn refuse to get learned, and just show up again and again in my flashcards, forever unmemorized. But there is a certain logic to language, with words constructed out of other words, and once you have learned a few thousand, a lot of new words seem like they are just variations of words you already know.

I do feel that I must start learning Yiddish grammar in earnest soon. I can construct approximations of Yiddish sentences by swapping out words in sentences I already know, but it's limiting, and since a majority of the sentences I have learned are Yiddish idioms or proverbs or curses, they don't necessarily reflect how language is typically spoken. However, that must wait until I am more settled. And I like to complete one project before moving on to another, and I have several projects going all at once now: I am still working my way through a Berlitz audio series, although I am nearly finished with that; I add in a few Yiddish curses every few days; I am memorizing a Yiddish phrasebook, although I have mostly suspended that project until I at least have my own apartment; and I am adding new words from a Yiddish dictionary.

Regarding the dictionary, I would estimate that I add three-quarters or more words from each page, and I am already up to words that start with S, so I will probably have worked my way through the entire dictionary in a month or so. I will then go through and plug in words that I skipped, a few per day, until I have literally added the entire dictionary to my flashcards.

Once I finish with one of these projects, I'll start work on memorizing an entire Yiddish grammar book. I started this project with some bad advice from one of those "learn an entire language in 30 days" courses, which suggested that our brains just automagically decode and make use of the rules of grammar, and I have found this not to be the case at all: Not only do I not generally understand how a sentence is constructed in Yiddish, I don't even know why sometimes we say "nit" and sometimes "nisht," when both mean "not." (I just checked; apparently it is a pronunciation difference and has nothing to do with grammar, which I would never have figured out on my own.)

Learning grammar is, of course, one of the steps toward fluency, and it's one I haven't been in any hurry to do because I both think it is impossible for me to become fluent doing this project and because fluency is not especially interesting to me. I will write more about this soon, but suffice it to say that when you don't care about fluency, it lets you study Yiddish in entirely different ways, and those way are valid and enjoyable.

But here's the thing: I actually do want to be fluent. I can't help myself. As fun as it may be to groan out a Yiddish homily at just the right moment ("A cat can also look at a king" he said, and everybody nodded, agreeing.), I also want to be able to have long, effortless, perfect conversations in Yiddish. I know it can't be done, but I want to do it anyway, and so I will occasionally work toward that goal.

There is nothing wrong with trying impossible things. It's how you get improbable results.