Week 51: The Audio Recording

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 340 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 207 hours
I have reviewed 3,971 individual flashcards

This is the last official blog post from my first year of studying Yiddish, and I am glad to say it coincides with my finally completing a specific project. I had two goals in mind for the end of this year -- the first, to have studied 4,000 individual Yiddish flashcards, will be done in the next two or three days, before the clock ticks midnight and Baby New Year chases the wretched 2016 out the door for good.

The second was to complete an audio program in Yiddish. I have been calling this a Berlitz Program, but I don't know it's that; I just know Charles Berlitz introduces it and it seems to follow the contours and use many of the same words as Charles Berlitz's program, which I owned many years ago.

But this audio program is credited to a group called LANGUAGE/30, and I don't have the interest to chase down their actual relationship to Berlitz. The audio recording sounds relatively new, but, who knows, it might be the very same audio I listened to in my early 20s.

At the start of this project, I had thought I would plow my way through a bunch of Yiddish programs and report back on all of them. This was, of course, the ravings of an ignoramus, as I had no idea how long t actually would take to learn anything.

This program, for instance, is about an hour of audio and a vocabulary of, I don't know, 600 words? That seemed like something I could get through in a few months, maybe.

But I wanted to listen to the audio often enough that I would just remember everything on it, and that took between two and three weeks per lesson. Each lesson is just a few minutes long. So it didn't take a few months. It took a year.

But I am done with it now, mostly. The last few lessons are dialogues and proverbs, and I have not mastered those, so I will probably continue to listen for a few more weeks. But everything in it has been converted to a flashcard, and memorizing dialogue from audio is very different than memorizing individual words, so I am not going to be too insistent that I have it entirely memorized. I can understand what is being said and have a good idea how to respond, and that is enough for now.

The course is extremely rudimentary, and sort of your typical language course. It's mostly a series of word lists based around themes: Things you find in the kitchen, rooms in a house, etc. I can't honestly say how useful it would be for someone trying to learn spoken Yiddish, as I don't think it is important to start out learning a lot of word lists, but instead to learn the type of language required to ask what something is called and to learn circumlocutions and descriptive words. It is less important to learn the individual Yiddish words for coffee, juice, tea, and beer than it is to learn to say something like "What do you call the cold drink made from the orange fruit?" This does not teach that -- at least not overtly.

But, then, I'm not doing that either. Much of my years has been spent memorizing words that I want to know, regardless of how useful they are in the real world. I learned the word for diabetes this week -- Tzukerkrank, or "sugar sick." I'll probably never need it, but I like to know it. What an interesting word!

The audio was extremely useful in one way, though -- it is helpful to hear people actually speak Yiddish. There are two speakers on this audio cassette, a male and a female, and the male speaker often uses the singsong of the Yeshiva, which is fun to hear, but also important. It's impossible to get the music of a spoken language, its prosody, from written material. You have to hear it spoken, and for that in particular the audio program was valuable.

Since this is to be the last entry for my first year of the program (the actual end of the first year is next week, but I will simply mark that with a party), let me do a little list of what I have accomplished this year, or will have by January 1:

1. Studied 4,000 individual flashcards
2. Studied flashcards for 207 hours; additional studies double or triple that
3. Wrote 139 blog entires
4. Saw and write about five Yiddish movies
5. Read and wrote about five books on the subject of Yiddish
6. Did five or six interviews with people involved with the world of Yiddish
7. Wrote about my Yiddish studies for Tablet and In geveb
8. Wrote about the Yiddish history of Omaha for Omaha Magazine
9. Found work editing a Jewish newspaper in Minneapolis
10. Wrote a play set on the margins of Yiddish performance

I think there were other specific accomplishments, but that's enough. There were, for example, a number of mini-projects I completed, learning Yiddish curse words and words for alcohol and the like, but I need not get so granular. All told, a pretty decent year for a guy who is faking his way through a self-invented program in studying a language he can't use.

At the risk of being a little long-winded, let me also summarize what I have learned this year as a result of this program:

1. Yiddish language programs tend to treat Yiddish as a vernacular language, with a focus on teaching students how to be more or less fluent in the language. This ignores the degree to which Yiddish is a post-vernacular language -- that is to say, how many uses the Jewish community has for Yiddish besides using it as a vernacular.

2. Popular Yiddish books tend to focus on one post-vernacular use of Yiddish: The use of individual words and phrases as a signifier of Jewishness, as an in-group language.

3. There are a lot of other post-vernacular uses of Yiddish that neither have the support of institutional educational programs or popular language books. 

4. One of these post-vernacular uses, which I have had to invent for myself, is simply studying the language as a hobby, and learning whatever interests you and entertains you. It is entirely possible to study Yiddish for a year, have found tremendous pleasure and value in doing so, written about the subject for respected publications, developed relationships in the Yiddish world, and never had a conversation in Yiddish. I did.

5. The Jewish community, in general and in an official way, does not have a lot of interest in Yiddish. But there are pockets of fanatical interest, and certain projects (like the web series "YidLife Crisis") can find a lot of support.

6. There is widespread general ignorance about Yiddish, with a lot of people having some very basic misconceptions about the language. An example: Yiddish is almost inevitably referred to as a "dying language," but there are about three million people who speak the language, including quickly growing communities of Haredi Jews who use Yiddish as their primary language. By comparison, there a little more than 1 million speakers of Irish in the world, and that's despite it being one of the official languages of Ireland and taught in their schools. Three million speakers puts Yiddish on the UNESCO list of "endangered" languages, but hardly dying. Irish is on that list as "definitely endangered," but we're nothing like the Nebraska Winnebago language, which has only 250 speakers, or the Bung language, which has only three speakers.

7. I had originally called this project "cell phone Yiddish" and wanted to create the program entirely out of online resources, but that proved to be impossible. And that's a shame. If Google Translate was better at genders and understood Yiddish grammar, I believe it would be possible for the language to survive the loss of all living members, because between the number of books available digitally through the Yiddish Book Center and the various audio recordings available, a dedicated learner should be able to piece it together, at least as well as modern Hebrew speakers were able to reinvent Hebrew.

That's all for 2016! See you in 2017, and may the next year be as marvelous as this year was miserable.