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The City of 800 Languages

Ellen Jovin

Ellen Jovin is working on a long term language project. Her goal is to study as many languages of New York City as she can; she is on her nineteenth. Some of these languages include Russian, Arabic, Hindi, German, Japanese, Italian, Dutch, Mandarin, Yiddish, and Persian.

In which languages are you the most and least fluent?

I am most fluent in English. After that, Spanish, then German, then French, then Italian, then Portuguese. After that a big drop-off occurs. Least fluent would be a very long list. I have not done too well with Asian languages to date, but I remain hopeful for the future, and undaunted.

Do you find it challenging to learn a language in the US versus in the country where the language is spoken natively?

Absolutely. I spend the overwhelming majority of my days in English, teaching writing classes at businesses through my company, Syntaxis. I have to construct nearly all of my foreign-language opportunities, so practicing here requires effort. New York has many speakers of many different languages, but they are not lined up in front of you with language labels to select from as needed; you have to go out in the world and meet them! When I moved to Germany as a little kid, I learned German immediately. It was all around me. Then I left and I forgot it. And so it goes.

What approach do you take to learning a different alphabet?

I love writing. I love printing new letters. I often get a book specifically on the writing system of whatever language I am studying and do all the exercises. I also tend to copy over all the examples given, too. My language books are full of my efforts, always executed with my favorite mechanical pencil. I loved practicing writing the Japanese kana so much that I got carried away and kind of neglected the Japanese itself. I find Memrise a great tool for learning to recognize unfamiliar characters. If I were starting over, I would absolutely use it for Chinese, or Japanese, or Russian, or other alphabets, and I did use it for Persian and Arabic. It made me much more comfortable with the Arabic letters. What Memrise doesn’t give you is writing practice, but it’s a great supplementary tool.

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Japanese kana chart, courtesy of Semantic Victory.

In which languages are you able to speak most regularly with native speakers in New York City?

Spanish Spanish Spanish! There is Spanish everywhere. I speak at least a tiny bit of Spanish every day. I also volunteer for Big Apple Greeter, an organization that welcomes visitors from around the world to New York. I take around tourists who don’t speak English so that I can practice my German, Spanish, French, and Italian. I got to use a little Swedish last month, and I am taking around Brazilian tourists next month, so I need to brush up fast on my Portuguese. By the way, in the morning Central Park is filled with lost tourists, so that is another easy New York opportunity for the linguistically included. Help lost people holding maps!

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What advice do you have for people trying to learn more than one language at once?

Study one language you are learning through another. For Persian I used materials in Italian, German, and French. I find reading about one foreign language in another foreign language intensely pleasurable. Now I am studying Swedish, and I am using an Italian-based book from Assimil for that. Through Memrise I do the same thing: instead of studying a new language’s vocabulary through English, I often seek out vocabulary modules grounded in other languages I’d like to improve. Translating from German to Swedish in my head is more useful than translating from English to Swedish!

In terms of learning a language, do you think it is beneficial to speak with another non-native speaker in the language that you are studying?

I think it is beneficial, but I really don’t enjoy doing that. It does not feel natural to me. In a conversation, I prefer to default to the best common language that my conversation partner and I have. My father grew up bilingual in Spanish and English, but I rarely speak to him in Spanish, because mine is not native, and our conversation content will be richer if I can use English. My top priority is always clear communication, and my brain insists on making a beeline to the most efficient route for that.

What was your most embarrassing conversation in terms of ability?

I don’t easily get embarrassed. I can’t remember a single one right now.

What are some of your favorite new words?

I like the Swedish word “slut.” It actually means “end,” but many generations of English speakers learning Swedish must have giggled when they got to that one. I can be sophomoric with the best of them!

When I lived in Germany, I became very frustrated when Germans spoke to me in English, even after I told them I was learning German. How do you approach non-native English speakers so as not to insult them?

It’s tricky, because I hate imposing on people. It is not their job to suffer through my various stages of language-learning. But if I can determine that they are speaking English to me just to be polite and not because they can’t bear to hear me speak their language, then I will simply be blunt and ask if we can switch. This problem is one reason I adore my Big Apple Greeter volunteer gig. I specifically pick people who can’t speak English. It works out great. They are trapped with me in the foreign language!

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The Berlin Wall, from PixShark

What are you learning about different cultures through the languages you’re studying?

I am heavily into grammar and vocabulary, so I can enjoy language for language’s sake rather than as a window into another culture. However, I love learning about other cultures, and what language study does for me is minimize the feeling of distance and separation that occurs when a country’s texts are impenetrable to me. I can’t actually speak Arabic, for instance, but the fact that I have studied it and recognize the writing system and can say and write some things in it opens windows into other worlds. I really enjoy talking to native Arabic speakers, even though those conversations don’t take place in Arabic yet, and they are often encouraging of my still paltry efforts to understand their native tongue. As an American, I am very aware of negative stereotypes about our cultural insularity in the U.S. Reaching across a linguistic divide helps me reach across cultural divides as well. It is important to me to combat in words and deeds the “Ugly American” stereotype that is unfortunately so pervasive.

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What's harder than learning another language? Teaching a language comes pretty close. . . .

Ellen Jovin is the creator of the website Words & Worlds of New York, which includes a blog about her urban language-learning adventures across 19 different languages as well as hundreds of product reviews. She is a self-described grammar freak, a former freelance writer, and a founder and principal of Syntaxis, a communication skills training firm based in Manhattan. Ellen is co-organizing the Polygot Conference NYC 2015, to be held next October, and can often be found roaming the city listening to language lessons.

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