Time to get started again!

Time to get started again!

What do you do when language-learning stalls?

I’m trying to get back to work–language work. Other than my brief Portuguese stint, I haven’t done much language-learning this summer. My heart calls out for more languages!

I’m not getting enough from just the feeling of loving languages. A feeling won’t help me get connected with others, won’t give me the rush of new words and sounds and ideas coming through my mouth. Love is an action, isn’t it?

Two obstacles stand in the way of taking the action. First, I’ve always had a tough time measuring progress in my solo language study. Immersion is helpful because I use my language whenever I can without needing to count. Classes are helpful because someone else sets the benchmarks. Studying on my own, though, forces me to keep myself accountable. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what to look for to measure my progress.

(Can I get some advice on how to set benchmarks on language-learning? What works for you?)

Second, committing to a language proves difficult for me. I started Farsi a couple years ago, I started Somali when I moved here, last winter I took some Oromo, and I began Portuguese this summer. My main philosophy with language is learn whatever you can now. This works best when you find yourself someplace, like Portugal. If you mainly learn on line, you can start anywhere.

Without accountability or commitment, I made no progress. Even worse, I noticed I’m forgetting my Farsi and Somali and Oromo because I’m not actively learning any of them.

I’m acting now to overcome these obstacles. I made a commitment to learn Somali now. It’s very practical in the Twin Cities, and I know that many readers of my blog are interested in Somali.

While I’m not good at accountability, I have to try. I found a textbook on line for Somali (one of two books readily available). It has 20 chapters, which are only 6-9 pages long. I decided to read through and learn the vocabulary at the rate of 2 chapters/week. I created a reading schedule for myself for which day I should be done with each chapter.

After that, I have a series of dialogues that I created with some Somali friends, all having to do with work and lunch. I will learn those, and I will try to write up some grammar notes that might be helpful for me and maybe even others. I also can get a hold of “the other” widely-available Somali textbook, Colloquial Somali.

Those media will keep me busy through the end of the year. In the meantime, I hope to run into some Somalis–either on accident or on purpose. I hope also to learn more regularly from some people around town or over Skype, probably by December.

As long as I’m working, I’ll make progress, and my love will bloom again.

How is your language-study going? Continuing to go strong? How do you keep it going?

Stalled in the doldrums? What happened? How do you restart?

Can I get some advice on how to set benchmarks on language-learning? What works for you?

Photo credit: Sebastian Mary / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’m writing this on the plane back from a one-week work trip to Lisbon, Portugal. Though I stayed busy with day-to-day business, I wanted to connect more with my Portuguese colleagues, so I spent a couple hours per day learning Portuguese. The first four of my five days I scheduled 90-minute Portuguese lessons with a different teacher each day.

I had a couple of challenges. Before I left I tried to learn some Portuguese, but the sites and podcasts I found in the US were 90% Brazilian, and I was hoping to focus on European Portuguese. Also, it was surprisingly difficult to find Portuguese teachers. I tried unsuccessfully through Facebook and Twitter, and hunted for a long time just by searching on the Internet. Eventually I found some–and here’s how. One of them I found through a Google search, and the other three I found through www.findmyfavoriteteacher.com.

Each lesson was very helpful. The combination of four teachers offered me a great way to meet people and do what I love, as four different personalities shaped the language in their contexts. All four of them asked me about my specific goals to guide their planning, and I told all of them I want to speak and understand. So we focused on conversation. I am grateful to all four of these teachers for taking the time to help me learn.

I would like to give a shout-out to all my teachers. If you find yourself in Lisbon, I recommend that you look up at least a couple of them, according to the styles that fit your personality and needs.

Monday: Frederico

BI+CA at the Lx Factory, home of Language Cafe

BI+CA at the Lx Factory, home of Language Cafe

Frederico is the head of “Language Cafe” in Lisbon, which is a business that brings together learners of multiple languages into practice groups. For a few Euros, anyone is welcome to join a conversation session. There weren’t any sessions on while I was in Lisbon, unfortunately. Federico found out about the Language Cafe idea when he spent a couple years in Edinburgh, Scotland.

We met where the group meets, at a cool cafe called BI+CA, which is located in the funky Lisbon arts complex, the Lx Factory.

Since I am a beginner with strong preferences for speaking, Frederico let me do much off the talking. He asked me a lot of questions. If I needed help following or if I needed a Portuguese word, we would speak very briefly in English. In the end, I was surprised to find that we spoke 90% in Portuguese at my very first lesson.

Frederico helped me tremendously to jump start my conversation skills. If only I could have participated in Language Cafe, too!

Tuesday: Carmo

Park of Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques (Wikimedia Commons)

Park of Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques (Wikimedia Commons)

A budding private Portuguese teacher at Portuguese Lessons Lisboa (on Facebook here, and website is here). Carmo is currently studying for her Masters in Cinematography. She got started teaching Portuguese by developing methods to improve her Italian boyfriend’s Portuguese. She normally teaches out of her home office, but we met in a wonderful cafe in the park Jardim da Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques.

Perhaps because she is a visual artist, she employed a more visual approach. She began with explaining Portuguese orthography, as the writing system can be unintuitive because it is not perfectly phonetic. Since I already have experience in French and Spanish, this was really helpful. (One of my Spanish-speaking colleagues photocopied my notes because they explained this tough part of the Portuguese language for him.) After about 30 minutes of orthography, we moved to more conversation. She kept up by writing out the vocabulary on a sheet, and when I realized I forgot to take that paper with me, she kindly typed it up and sent me the word list.

Carmo allowed me to read and pronounce a lot better than I could have without her.

Wednesday: Filipa

Filipa at the library of the Academy of Fine Arts

Filipa at the library of the Academy of Fine Arts

I got to meet Filipa on her home turf, in the library at the Academy of Fine Arts in the gorgeous Baixa neighborhood. She is studying for her Doctorate in Fine Arts Education, and she works for the Portuguese Ministry of Education and teaches teacher training. She also works on language education, and can be reached by email at filiparodrigao ‘at’ hotmail.com.

Filipa is very interested in the history and culture of Portugal, and loves to tell wonderful stories. It seems by the third day my conversation skills had improved, because Filipa and I had a fascinating conversation. She recounted in a very clear way about Portuguese history from the medieval period. I hadn’t realized that Portugal had been largely independent from the Arabs and from Spain. Filipa also told me about the history of Jews in Portugal, where many converted to Christianity during the Inquisition. She also introduced me to the 19th century poet, Fernando Pessoa. I look forward to reading himI loved learning more about the country as my language improved.

Filipa told great stories and taught me culture along with language.

Thursday: Claudia

On the way to Claudia's

On the way to Claudia’s

Meeting with Claudia led me to a more residential neighborhood, off the beaten tourist path. In addition to teaching Portuguese to foreigners through Portuguese4You, she works freelance as a proofreader, and previously as a writer. She has taught people from all over the world who have come to work in Lisbon.

Our conversation got pretty deep. We talked about the effects of the internet on democratization of writing, religion, biblical stories, and the biblical themes in the Nobel Prize-winning author of Portugal, José Saramago. In this lesson we spoke a bit more English than in my other lessons, which helped get through some of the deeper subjects.

During the last 10 minutes, Claudia showed her professional experience as a teacher and an editor by zeroing in precisely on my weaknesses. She said that I understand and make myself understood. I don’t know the verb conjugations well, for example. In addition, my speech is disjointed; one idea comes and then another, but the connection is not always clear. She recommended that I work on some grammar in order to practice forming more complex sentences, for which she suggested the textbook, Gramatica Ativa.

Claudia offered deep conversation about writing and literature, and demonstrated a keen eye for the needs of her students.

The result

Here’s how it ended up by the end of the week. I can understand conversations about general topics at a moderate speed (so I have time to visualize the words). In addition to these lessons, I spent some time reading through a tourist guide to Portuguese a little each day, in addition to the lessons.

Since I speak French fluently, and I speak passable Spanish, Portuguese came pretty easily. By the end of the first lesson, I could carry a conversation in passable Portuguese. I still end up adlibbing the tenses.

Now I can add Portuguese to my list of languages! I’m thankful to all my teachers who got me here. Their patience and kindness and intelligence gave me a great gift. Now I want to read some Saramago…

Have you had experiences with private teachers? What do you find makes a good one?


How do you connect when he's playing hard to get? Dialogues!

How do you connect when he’s playing hard to get? Dialogues!

As I’ve mentioned before, I love rare languages. From Swiss German to Oromo, their exoticness and unique characteristics draw me in. They’re like the strong, silent types of language: cute, mysterious, captivating. They do their own thing, and you need effort to work your way into their heart.

Since I recently started learning a little Portuguese for work, the difficulty of breaking into the rare set became acute. With Portuguese, I immediately found broad vocabulary exercises and podcasts on-line, all geared towards non-native speakers. Portuguese is unique in that its two main dialects, Brazilian and European, both attract large numbers of learners. I found materials for both dialects.

This situation brought into focus the main problems I have with rare languages, namely, a dearth of materials for non-native speakers. These rare languages assume you’re native or not interested (true, for most of the population).

I need help from my readers! What can you suggest I do? Here are the roadblocks I’ve run into, as well as the stop-gap measures I’ve employed.

  1. Graded readings. I have no problem finding greetings in almost every language. Then I find newspaper articles and podcasts aimed at native speakers. I can’t find anything in between that would move into the intermediate realm.
  2. Real speech. Without something like Pimsleur, I can’t find anything in these languages that approaches normal conversation, but with a vocabulary and pace designed for beginners. Texts and podcasts that one finds are generally monologues, often journalistic (eg, the news).
  3. Teachers. I try to find teachers of these languages. Granted, I prefer people who live where I live, but that’s nearly impossible to find. The nature of these languages signifies that few people have little interest in learning them. Hence, professional teachers with experience, methods, and training pretty much do not exist.
  4. Grammar. If I take what texts I can find, often articles, I need some sort of grammar to “extract” the words out of them. I understand that grammar gets poo-pooed by polyglots, as it can be dreary. When you’re trying to understand if this word is a verb or a noun, or if it really is the word you think with a couple of letters attached, grammar really comes in handy. Is it a noun in the dative? an irregular plural? Is this a verb, but in the reflexive? a verb used as a noun? Where’s the subject?
  5. Dictionaries. Ok, I guess this is probably the word. So what does it mean? Without a decent dictionary, I’m working a second-hand jigsaw puzzle. I’ll assume I’ll get 90% of the puzzle, but I’ll never see the complete picture. I depend on the kindness of crowdsourced translators and free dictionary apps.

Basically, I get stuck at a very basic level. This is where I stand on several of my languages. The book How to Learn Any Language (see my post about this book here) says to just work through a newspaper. It assumes that you can find a decent grammar and dictionary, though. I want to memorize vocabulary, but I need a way to cement the vocabulary to break through to the next level. And I have nothing.

As a result, I’ve had to come up with some of my own methods and resources, and the most effective method I’ve found is creating dialogues in the language, with an English parallel. I need a native speaker, who has a decent command of another language that I know. I’ve started using this method, but I need to develop it more. Let me know what you think!

  1. Graded readings. Since I’m writing these dialogues, I can make them at whatever level I want. I can talk about the present or the past, address a man or a woman, use the vocabulary I think is most important for me.
  2. Real speech. I chose dialogues because I want something resembling speech. It doesn’t have to be natives chatting and joking, but a very basic dialogue that can get me through a situation in a fun and gracious way.
  3. Teachers. The method doesn’t require a teacher, just a native speaker. I write out the dialogue in English, and then have the native speaker translate into their language. When I have them read through it, they tend to streamline it towards the natural form of their language, rather than some stilted, word-for-word translation. That offers cool constructions and vocabulary that come in handy.
  4. Grammar. With actual sentences from real speech, I have examples of the language in its “natural habitat.” The grammatical structures are real. Building grammar from the ground up is guaranteed to be clear and understandable when I’ve already decided that the sentences are useful. I can also test grammatical structures with my native speaker.
  5. Dictionaries. The native speaker can give the correct translation for the textual and cultural context. For example, “to cook” may be translated differently, but if we’re talking about our lunches and who cooked them, maybe I should say “prepared.” In another example, I asked my Somali friend how to say, “How’s your wife?” He looked at me funny and said, “You should ask, ‘How’s your family?’ Otherwise, they’ll ask you, ‘Why are you wondering about my wife?'” The best dictionaries won’t tell you these sorts of things.

Now I’ve explained why I base my rare-language learning around dialogues. They allow me to overcome several of the roadblocks I’ve encountered.

I already understand that this might not be the best way. First, they assume a native speaker. Second, I haven’t gotten past a really beginner phase with any of these languages, so I can’t guage how far it would get me in the long run.

Have you had to invent your own methods for learning languages? What have you come up with? Anyone interested in trying out the method I outlined and letting me know how it goes? Any suggestions?

I appreciate your help!
Photo credit: NeilGHamilton / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


Your choice of language: what does it say about who you want to connect with?

Your choice of language: what does it say about who you want to connect with?

Just recently a friend turned me on to the fantastic multilingual video of “Let it Go,” the hit song from the Disney movie “Frozen,” and as a polyglot sucker for pop music I’ve been indulging my love of languages and emotional music. This video smoothly blends 25 languages into one, seamless video.

I thought I was excited, until I found that the song was translated in its entirety into 42 languages, as reported here. So I started listening to whole versions of the song, and many of them have subtitles. Heavenly! (I love the Serbian version a lot!)

This polyglot effort coming from a US corporation reminded me of the somewhat controversial Coke ad during the 2014 Super Bowl, “America is Beautiful,” where young girls sing, “America the Beautiful,” in seven different languages. I wrote about it previously here.

The choice of languages for each song makes a statement about who each corporation is trying to connect with, where their heart is. From this choice, we see that Disney inclines towards Europe and her descendants, while Coke attempts to unify Americans of all stripes.

The languages

The song “Let it Go” focuses heavily on European languages in the 25 language version of the song. Of the 25 languages, 19 of them were European, and I include Latin American Spanish and Canadian French as European languages. All of the Germanic languages were represented except Icelandic, and only Romanian was missing from the Romance languages. The other six come from East and Southeast Asia. No languages from the Middle East or Central or South Asia–not to mention Polynesia or the Americas–were included. The different languages definitely cast a “pale” hue.

The Coca-Cola ad, in contrast, displayed a broader diversity in the languages chosen, but seemed pointed at an American audience. The statistics on the most common US languages come from the 2009 US Census survey. The commercial included seven languages, but you can find two more versions (Mandarin and Arabic) if you dig deeper. Note that these languages are among some of the most widely spoken in the US.

  • English-1st most widely spoken;
  • Spanish-2nd most widely spoken;
  • Tagalog-4th most widely spoken;
  • French-5th most widely spoken (Senegalese variety is represented in the commercial);
  • Hindi-15th most widely spoken (but many speakers of other Indian languages also know Hindi, so speakers may be more);
  • Chinese (didn’t make the final cut)-3rd most widely spoken.

The other languages, Keres and Hebrew, require further explanation. Keres is a Native American language spoken by some of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest US. Hence it is exclusively an American language. I can’t explain why the commercial would use Hebrew. Maybe it was used to counterbalance Arabic, and Arabic didn’t make the final cut. Another reason might have been to cover more geography; no other Middle Eastern language made it into the commercial.

Why pick these languages?

The contrasts between the two videos struck me, because the Coca-Cola ad covered more geography in seven languages than “Frozen” did in 25. Only the Coca-Cola ad included languages native to the Americas, the Middle East, and South Asia, though “Frozen” covered East Asia, but not Coke. Moreover, Coke nailed American languages better than “Frozen.” “Frozen” covered Europe completely, from Catalan to Swedish.

Each song connected with a particular audience. Coke spoke to Americans of all walks of life, not only with the song chosen, but with the languages it was sung in. It represented the wide corners of the world from which those Americans came. Moreover, they picked speakers of every race and complexion, especially with the delightful choice of an African French speaker. “Frozen” spoke to lovers of Disney all over the world. It saturated Europe and the major European languages of the Americas. The Asian languages came from the richest markets of the region.

By seeking to speak to Americans from all over, Coke continued its brand of togetherness, teaching the “world to sing.” People from all over the world are united in the US and by Coca-Cola. They also managed to make a statement about the international breadth of American identity and origins (and so angered many Americans in the process–see links below). “Frozen” meticulously addressed every people in their own context, although the context seemed to be selected by economics: Europeans and East Asians tend to be richer.

I believe that the Coke ad made an interesting statement about Americans, transcending the stereotype of “English only.” “Frozen” was less compelling, trying to speak to every niche in Europe while ignoring whole continents.

What did you notice in the multilingual “Frozen” song? Did it remind you of anything besides the “America is Beautiful” ad? What other corporate multilingual effort have you noticed?

What does your choice of languages say about you? Where is your heart?

Photo credit: @boetter / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


No interest? No motivation? What motivates you?

No interest? No motivation? What motivates you?

Anyone who decides to learn a language can do it. It doesn’t take special skills–99% perspiration, to paraphrase Thomas Edison. Deciding to learn a language and staying with it are entirely different, because motivation does not always come easily.

What about people who don’t want to learn languages? I know such people exist, as I see them at my work and in my house. What could motivate them? Is it self-centered even to try to motivate them to do something we love, that makes us polyglots better people, if they don’t love it?

A blog post about why people don’t learn languages inspired me. In this post, an anonymous commenter replied to this post, “Unlearning Linguistic Laziness.” The commenter was defending monolinguals, objecting specifically to characterizing monolinguals as lazy Americans. Some people just don’t want to learn languages, and that’s ok. I agree that polyglots can be smug, but I think we need to offer more ways for monolinguals to become polyglots.

Here are the main points the commenter made about monolinguals. I have re-ordered them to make a larger point.

  1. There is no necessity or interest to learn a language for many people;
  2. Polyglots shame monolinguals;
  3. Monolinguals (mistakenly) believe one needs talent to learn languages (one actually just needs dedication);
  4. Monolinguals come from many nations; it is not an American phenomenon;
  5. People in other countries often don’t allow you to practice a language besides English;
  6. Countries with lower population density are more monolingual.

I believe that it’s worth addressing all these points.

First, I also agree that many people perceive no need or interest in learning languages. They are not motivated to learn. For example, they see that they can live and do their job without a second language. I believe that they can be motivated, nevertheless. I don’t mean to persuade them against their will. Love and curiosity of others can motivate those who do not see an economic or other “practical” need.

Second, polyglots can end up shaming monolinguals. We polyglots compete with others and ourselves over how many languages we speak. This can turn into “smack” talk sometimes, which is ok in the right context. Outside of the polyglot community, though, smack talk won’t motivate people who don’t perceive a need or interest. It is more inspiring to speak about our language-love as an expression of love and curiosity for others.

Third, monolinguals should know that talent is not a deciding factor in learning languages–dedication is. I listened to an episode of the Actual Fluency Podcast this morning, and the guest described how you can speak a language when you know about 1000 words, and then you’ll get to the next level at about 10,000 words. Compared to this time-consuming task of memorizing words, the grammar is pretty simple. Memorizing through repetition is the key to learning a language. Just memorize! Every brain is set up to memorize whatever details it is motivated to learn–dedication is the sine qua non to learn the most important parts of language.

Fourth, monolinguality can happen in a lot of places, but it’s not evenly distributed. My experience tells me that residents of certain places gravitate towards monolinguality. For example, the majority of French and Russians I’ve met are monolingual. In many places, however, monolinguality is rare. I have not met a monolingual Dutch or Ukrainian person, for example. I’ve met tons of multilingual Americans, too, especially since we enjoy so many immigrants. (I discussed this phenomenon in this post.) Societies seem to tend naturally towards multilingual or monolingual.

Fifth, I’ve personally confronted the difficulty in getting native speakers to allow a native English speaker to practice their language. This happened to me most often in naturally multilingual countries, namely, Morocco, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and even Germany. I loved Syria because everyone responded in Arabic, unlike Lebanon and Morocco. To be honest, I had to draw a lot of motivation out to confront this challenge; I had to be determined to learn their language. I had to explain my desire to practice, work out a deal where we would take turns, or find other people to talk to. One can feel ashamed to speak a language badly to someone who speaks your language well, but I have to stick to my motivation.

Sixth, I’m not sure if multilinguality and population density relate proportionally. On the one hand, densely populated countries like India and Singapore show natural multilinguality. On the other hand, the pre-European Americas show evidence of multilinguality. (See this post and this post about multilinguality in early colonial North America.) I could see, however, that even in monolingual societies big cities draw immigrants, who will tend to be multilingual. So even though England and France, for example, tend to be monolingual, London and Paris have for a long time enjoyed many multilingual people. New York City and Los Angeles show the same tendency.

After looking at all of these, I see even more clearly that motivation decides whether you learn a language or not. You dedicate yourself to what you’re motivated to do. The question is then how to get motivated. Motivation can begin from outside or from inside. External motivation, such as multilingual people in your society or economic needs, can prompt you to learn a language. Internal motivation spurs you on through love or curiosity. Without external motivation, one depends entirely on internal, and that can be shut down through shame from other polyglots or native speakers who won’t let you speak.

How do we keep up internal motivation? Read my blog! Loving language is all about love of language. By loving language itself, by loving the speakers of language, by loving who you are becoming thanks to your language (smarter, more curious, more connected), you have all the motivation you need.

What motivates you to learn languages? When did you decide you were dedicated? Are you not dedicated? When does motivation wane? What do you do then?


My Swiss aunt (left) and my mom (right)

My best teacher! My Swiss aunt (left), next to my mom

In my love of languages, something always calls to me from the realm of the rare or unexpected, so for my visit to distant relatives in Switzerland I wanted to learn the local language of Swiss German, or as they say there, “Schwyzertüütsch.” While Switzerland declared four languages to be official, Swiss German is the most widely spoken. Nevertheless, materials are difficult to find, as I discussed previously here.

This language does not have standard grammar or even spelling, and it differs significantly from one area of Switzerland to another, even though the country is a bit smaller than the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire. For example, I played a bit of a Swiss podcast for a relative and asked what dialect the narrator spoke. “Maybe Zürich with a little bit of Lucerne,” he guessed. Even though these two cities lie only 50 km apart, they each bear unique, identifiable characteristics.

After my week in Switzerland, I successfully learned a bit of Schwyzertüütsch, and lessons on how to tackle a rare language. The lessons I learned can help you when you’re trying to learn a less-commonly learned language.


Considering my one week scale, I consider my intensive Swiss experience a success. Employing my Swiss greetings and pleasantries, I delighted people by opening conversations in Schwyzertüütsch. By the end, I could create understandable sentences, although they were often a peculiar mix of dialects I had learned previously. When I would talk to a cashier, I sounded by no means Swiss, so I was asked, “Schwyzertüütsch oder (or) Hochdeutsch?” to see what dialect I preferred.

I was surprised to find that I could definitely hear the difference between dialects. Our first stop was Basel, and then to the surrounding area (near Siisach). Immediately I heard the difference between how the city pronounced “k” in the expected way, while the surrounding area pronounced it more roughly as a “x”. So “thank you” (“Danke”) sounded different between the two. When I went south to Berner Oberland, I heard how the “l” sound became a “w”. For some reason, my own speech took on some of the Bern sound.

So for a week, I considered my foray into Schwyzertüütsch successful thanks to my new ability to make basic sentences and my more sophisticated ear.

My situation

Let me describe my initial situation as I took on the task of Schwyzertüütsch. While I say I wanted to “learn” this language, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I’ve been studying German since I was about 14, and have a decent level of Standard German, or “Hochdeutsch.” Moreover, I spent a decent amount of time in southern Germany, near Stuttgart, where I picked up some of the Swabian dialect, or “Schwäbisch.” Swabian resembles Swiss German in some ways.

In addition to these advantages, I had some learning disadvantages, too. On the trip, I was with my mom and oldest daughter, who are both monolingual English speakers. They both know me well, and understand that I will be learning languages at all times. Nevertheless, out of practicality and politeness, I was not able to speak German the entire time.

Most helpful resources

The most helpful resources I found were the basic vocabulary lists and verb conjugations, as I tended to use them every time I opened my mouth. If I forgot, though, some words came out Swabian. Some of the grammar points were helpful, but I didn’t use them as much, as I leaned on Hochdeutsch grammar when I got into a pinch. I liked the podcasts I found, but I didn’t use them as much as I could have in preparing to go. That would have taken more concentrated study than I managed to do.

My older relatives were especially helpful. When I would ask them how to say something in Schwyzertüütsch, they would simply answer. For example, Margerite, an 80-year-old aunt of mine and fluent in English, not only would answer, but she would wait until I said it correctly. She even corrected my Schwyzertüütsch, for which I was very grateful. And she made it look fun. Younger people tended to say in English, “In Schwyzertüütsch?” a little incredulously.

The lack of materials–even in Switzerland itself–made my quest difficult. I only found one decent, affordable grammar after I returned from Switzerland. In Switzerland, most of TV and 99% of all writing is in Hochdeutsch, so I had to talk to people as my only reliable source of information about the language.

In spite of a general lack of materials, I found the most basic resources surprisingly helpful, and the older Swiss folks were especially fantastic.

Lessons learned for next time

I learned a few things about delving into a rarely learned language if I were to do it again (I hope this is not just hypothetical).

  1. Take more advantage of audio and video materials. I would find a few minutes per day to focus on these materials to internalize the language better beforehand, rather than simply refer to tables and lists all the time.
  2. Speak more while there. It would have been nice to speak even more when I had the chance. Sometimes I chickened out when I felt rushed or tired. I’d like to find and take more opportunities to speak.
  3. Find resources at home or on line. I didn’t spend so much effort to find a conversation partner either in my city or on line. More speaking ahead of time would have given me a head-start to make quicker headway once I arrived.
  4. Spend more time there. This would surely be the most enjoyable technique!

I made some good progress and enjoyed spending time with speakers of Schwyzertüütsch. I think these techniques will help me with this language–as well as other rare languages.

Are these helpful lessons for you, too? What are the most helpful resources for learning the language you’re studying?

How much can I learn the language of this isolated land?

How much can I learn the isolated language of this land?

Grüetzi! Lately I’m experimenting with Swiss German because I’m going to Switzerland to stay in the German-speaking area. About two-thirds of Switzerland speaks German as their first language. However, they speak a unique dialect, or, more accurately, a diverse family of dialects. I’ve been having a hard time because the internet does not offer a lot of resources, and I could not find any native speaker resources where I live and work.

Delving into other communities

I love to find out about how other people think and live. When I was in high school, I had a fascination for other religions and cultures. I enjoyed going to different places of worship, and meeting people from other countries–as shy as I was–brought me joy. By the end of high school, I decided that I wanted to go overseas as a foreign exchange student to France; moreover, I would leave my WASPy Denver suburb for college, to study at a majority Jewish university on the East Coast of the US. In the university decision, I explicitly stated that I wanted a “cultural experience.” When I came to study in Ukraine during college, I took it to the next level: I wanted to become as Ukrainian as I could. Moving out of my familiar atmosphere, how long could I immerse myself? Like a porpise, I could never be a fish, but how long could I stay under water?

Soon I learned that I could be understood as long as I could speak a language that others understood, but I could only understand if I spoke the language others spoke. If I wanted to experience intimacy among them, I had to use the language that they thought in, that they spoke with their loved ones. A version of the language would not suffice; I needed the exact language, no matter what its relationship with the standard dialect.

Hard to find materials

Needless to say, it’s not always easy to find materials in every language and dialect. For most people, communication–making oneself understood–is the goal. The majority language serves well. For example, if you go to Morocco, you can usually be understood in English or French. You can stretch to be understood by more people if you learn one of the major Arabic dialects, such as Literary Standard (Fusha), Egyptian, or Levantine. But where to do you turn if you want understand, and so want to learn Moroccan dialect, or even Marrakech dialect? or Tashelhit Berber, an unrelated language spoken in the High Atlas Mountains?

Now you understand my problem in trying to learn Swiss German, or Schwytzertüütsch. The Swiss are famously isolated, as well as multilingual. On the one hand, everyone speaks at least German and French, and probably English, and maybe Italian. Making yourself understood is easy. On the other hand, Switzerland’s isolation preserved many rare dialects of languages. When one linguist set out to study Swiss German, another responded, “Which valley?” Hundreds of significant local variations exist in this portion of this tiny country. Even German spoken in Zürich sounds significantly different from the dialect of Lucerne, 50 kilometers away.

The problem is two-fold. First, resources are very hard to come by. Second, I imagine that the Swiss aren’t used to having foreigners want to learn Swiss German, so how helpful will they be?


In spite of the fact that Swiss German is not usually written and does not have a standard written language, I’ve made progress on the first problem. On-line I’ve found some word lists and verb conjugations for major verbs. Here are the modal verbs, for example.

Inf Inf 1pres 2pres pl.pres subj. cond.
NHG können chöne cha chasch chönd chönn chönt
NHG mögen möge mag magsch möge mög möcht
NHG müssen müese mues, muen muesch müend mües müesst
NHG wollen wele wott, will wotsch wänd well wett
NHG sollen söle söll sölisch söled söll sött
NHG dürfen türffe türff türfsch türffed türffi türft


There are also YouTube videos that help, although they usually just teach your greetings. Since my daughter doesn’t know any German at all, these videos helped me teach her greetings in Schwytzertüütsch. One channel, Maryangel24, offers to go in a little deeper to teach you about food, cursing, and others.

Even better, I found a great site that has podcasts for learners of Swiss German. Someone reads a simple story for about 10-15 minutes in Swiss German, although the variety depends on the speaker. The text is written in Standard German (Hochdeutsch), and there are explanations of some of the unusual vocabulary. Fortunately for me, I know Standard German; if I didn’t this resource would be less helpful.

Will the Swiss help me?

I will see how it goes for the second problem. I have three questions I’ll be paying attention to during this experiment:

  1. Will the Swiss allow me to speak broken Schwytzertüütsch?
  2. Will they get frustrated–or offer to do me a “favor”–and choose to speak English instead?
  3. If I ask how to say something, will they give me the Swiss or Standard word?

To be honest, maybe it’s annoying–maybe even intrusive–to try to speak and think like a local, even prying into the intimate language of these people. As I said, I will see how it goes.

How deep can I go?

With such a lack of materials I don’t know how deeply I can go into the language of the local people. I have my materials that I put together, plus what I learned from YouTube and podcasts.

Next I’ll just need to see how it goes with the people I’m trying to speak with. Will they try to keep me out or welcome?

Have you tried to go deeply into another language? another country? How did it go?



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