On being a polyglot – an interview with Jared Gimbel

February 15, 2017
On being a polyglot – an interview with Jared Gimbel

This week, Tomedes was delighted to have the opportunity to interview polyglot Jared Gimbel about all things language-related. 

1.    Which languages are you currently studying?

I’m working on Tajik, Welsh and some Scottish Gaelic currently. Various languages that I’m improving in my spare time (ones that I don’t use at work) include Icelandic, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) and some Polish and Russian on the side. Between my work as a teacher of Germanic/Nordic languages and English, I feel a bit overwhelmed. Despite that, I think the key is to, at the very least, always do something to bring yourself closer to a level you can be proud of by learning something one bit at a time.

2.    How are you studying (college, evening course, self-study, etc.)?

My smartphone time on the New York City subway is spent strictly with language learning material, and if I have to stand up then I have language learning audio (from Routledge), as well as music in various languages that I’ve learned to fluency but need to maintain.

At home I’ll read books out loud as well as use an array of desktop programs. I’ll sometimes poke around Wikipedia or crowdin.com to look at how translations into and from these languages are formed.

And for maintaining a lot of languages, I use comical material on YouTube when I need to wind down, not to mention reading online forums and discussion boards. 

Music plays an essential role in all of my language learning processes.

3.    Why have you chosen to study those languages in particular?

In 2017 I brought it upon myself to study Tajik (sometimes referred to by those in the know as “Tajiki”, despite the fact that Google Translate calls it “Tajik.” (Tajiks = people, Tajiki = language.) My father visited Iran and Afghanistan as a traveller and one memento he kept was a Dari coke bottle, which he still displays in his valuable cabinet. Given that he visited before the USSR broke up, Tajikistan was not even independent at that point, nor could he enter it.

I’d had a fascination with smaller languages ever since I fell in love with Greenlandic, even though I wouldn’t describe myself as fluent (though I can get around the country as a tourist without lapsing into English or Danish). My fascination with Greenland outpaced any affection that I had with more politically powerful languages I had studied and have since attained levels of mastery (such as the languages of mainland Scandinavia). 

Tajikistan was a place I had wondered about ever since adolescence, and in the age of the internet I can finally sate that curiosity I’ve had for so long, however “illogical” others may deem it.

Concerning Welsh, that too has been a dream of mine to learn since adolescence. The revival efforts are truly a light for language enthusiasts all over the world, and there are so many pieces of it present in Anglo-American culture in general that I don’t go a day without thinking about it. With the other Celtic languages, it is more or less the same, despite the fact that Breton is to France what the other five Celtic nations are to the UK. 

4.    How do you plan to use the languages once you have mastered them?

Tajik is linguistically fascinating because it combines a lot of elements I have seen throughout the Indo-European family tree and also has French and Russian colonial influence. What’s more, I find some uncanny similarities to Hebrew, as well as the fact that Tajik uses Arabic and Turkic phrases in much the same way that Yiddish uses Hebrew and Aramaic phrases. 

The Central Asian languages in general, despite not having global support the same way many national languages of Europe have, are a wonder to learn because of the sheer number of free movies in these languages that can be found online. My Tajik isn’t good enough yet, but it seems that I’m in for some charm as well as, sometimes, low production values (which certainly doesn’t exclude charm at all).

Concerning Welsh, I’m curious to engage with online communities of learners and artists the same way that I have with the other Celtic languages. One of my previous language experiments, with Welsh’s little-brother (and formerly dead language), Cornish, led me to the fantastic “Radyo an Gernewegva” podcast, which treated me to Monty Python and Star Trek in the Cornish Language, not to mention lots of smile-inducing original programming. 

Scottish Gaelic I still have to investigate. It differs a lot from Irish (which I have studied previously) and once I write a blogpost on that topic I’ll be using it for music as well as for poking around the internet to see how it is used nowadays!

5.    Which languages do you speak already and how did you learn them?

My native language is English and the first languages I learned to fluency were Yiddish, Norwegian and Swedish. Despite the fact that I had learned Spanish and Russian in high school I still haven’t “fallen for them” the same way I have for less commonly studied languages (although I did have a very intense Russian phase in college).

The Yiddish programming in the United States, not to mention Yiddish-speaking friend groups across the globe, handed me not only fluency but a community in which all of the members are united with an enviable passion. 

Norwegian started with me having lived in Scandinavia, being enchanted by the Oslo dialect’s musical rhythm at first, and then ended with me binge-watching anime and other cartoons in Norwegian and savouring contemporary Norwegian popular music and TV, both heavily influenced by Anglophone culture in general.

Swedish I struggled with a lot when I was living in Stockholm, but I pulled through because I’m Swedish-American on my mother’s side, and somebody was going to have to read the letters from my deceased family members. I became addicted to the culture and way of thinking and when I returned to the US I found myself genuinely changed, even to the point of my accent!

It was in Stockholm that someone told me that it was possible to learn a language to fluency as an adult. Once the lie that I was fed throughout my life (that you could only learn languages fluently as a child) became dispelled, I became addicted to discovering many cultures of the world and haven’t stopped since.

Danish, German, Hebrew and Finnish followed suit, using the same procedures that I used with Norwegian.

I sometimes feel comfortable with Spanish but I speak like I’m from Galicia thanks to my time in Poland (in which I was living with students from Spain). And while I did speak some Polish when I lived in Krakow, I feel that I can speak it proficiently but not to a level I would like. Icelandic and Polish are the two European languages with which I have struggled the most. 

With the Celtic languages I used primarily book-learning methods, which resulted in me getting burned out often. Now, thankfully, I can speak Irish, Breton and Cornish to varying degrees of proficiency and I would call myself fluent in these tongues on most days. 

On the flipside are the Pidgin/Creole English languages of the South Pacific, Tok Pisin (of Papua New Guinea), Bislama (of Vanuatu) and Pijin (of the Solomon Islands). To learn these, I used phrasebooks at first and then applied liberal dosages of radio and music. The fact that there are many, MANY variants of these languages (depending on the native language of the speaker) made this journey both easier and harder. But especially in the case of the Solomon Islands Pijin, English influence is very, very prevalent.

I learned French as a child and I can read it well but my speaking ability is positively pathetic and, at least right now, I’m okay with that.

Lastly, my overall favourite language is Greenlandic, which I can understand and read with relative ease on my best days. The host of the longest words in the world, Greenlandic has some of the most sublime music I have ever listened to in any language, songs that have had me crying in public when I first heard them! 

Right now I’m working on a video game set in contemporary Greenland, set for release this year or next year, so the fact that I’ve researched this culture in detail really, REALLY paid off!

6.    Why do you feel that speaking multiple languages is important in our society?

Especially in the United States I sense that fear of the foreign can still reign supreme, sometimes even among people who vehemently deny it. 

On my bad days, while I am grateful for what this country has given me, I see the US as a place that was founded on the basis of stomping other people’s cultures out (Native Americans, African-Americans, European-Americans, etc.)

We will have to learn to trust each other as humans and the best way to do that is to realize that, while you can’t change your genes or your heritage, you can change your understanding of another place or culture…and the best way to do that is through foreign language learning.

What’s more, I see a lot of Americans without an understanding of their roots and once I began to learn my ancestral languages, even to small degrees, the various quirks and habits of my family members suddenly seemed to make a lot more sense (such as the fact that my father reads the Hebrew prayers in a Hungarian accent, even though he didn’t know this until I told him).

I see only a handful of obstacles to everywhere being a multilingual heaven: 

(1)    the idea that a lot of people think that polyglottery is not only useless but impossible; 
(2)    the perception that languages are only good if they bring about some economic benefit (who knows how many times I’ve been told that learning something like Cornish or Bislama is a waste of my time? No, it isn’t! No language is a waste of your time! Ever!); and 
(3)    the idea that you can only learn a language if you are in regular contact with speakers of it (also not true! It may help but it isn’t necessary as long as there are do-it-yourself exercises). 

I have a dream in which the whole world not only realizes that they can become multilingual but also deems it worthwhile. Actually, part of me thinks that most of the world is already that way…but the rest of the world should catch up!

7.    What first sparked your interest in language learning?

I blame a huge board book of maps of the world that my parents gave me as a small child, ones which depicted maps of the continents with brilliant illustrations and memorable colors. If I recall correctly, it was called “It’s a Big, Big World,” or something of that nature…but as I grew older, I realized that I only had one life to experience the many shades of humanity.

The fact that I was frequently told that learning a language to fluency as an adult is impossible killed my dream, but I still dabbled in a lot of languages, knowing that even if I couldn’t learn them well enough I could still learn a lot of them a little bit. 

Then when I found out that was wrong (thanks to the help of my many blogger friends), I started focusing on Yiddish and Norwegian with such extraordinary intensity that I regularly get mistaken for a native in both! 

Aside from that I’m very much a non-conformist, one who always looks for adventures in the least likely places, someone who doesn’t really like group identity any more than he has to.

To that end, I’ve looked for music and entertainment in the many other subcultures I’ve encountered and I am thankful for that choice and opportunity every hour of every day.

8.    Do you plan to study any other languages in the future? If so, which ones and why?

It is entirely likely that I may choose to forget some of the languages I mentioned above in the future, and if I feel too overwhelmed, I may have to. I’ve done that already with Estonian, Faroese and Northern Sami, not to mention a few I’ve learned a little bit of, including Mandarin, Japanese and Upper Sorbian.

But even if that does come to happen, I’ll replace them with new ones.

Hungarian and the English Creole (Krio) of Sierra Leone have been on my list for far too long, I have family connections to them both (my father’s family is from Hungary and my parents worked in Sierra Leone before I was born). 

What’s more, I’m curious to dabble not only in Farsi and Dari after I’m content with Tajik, but to also try out the various languages of India (both Indo-Aryan and Dravidian) and the languages of Central Asia as well. Native African languages (especially from Southern Africa) and languages of the South Pacific may be on my more distant radar, but my language choices are all based on factors I can’t predict. 

Also, if I were to learn an Arabic dialect I would probably pick Iraqi or Moroccan. Can’t say why, though, perhaps because I’ve had fascination with both since I was a pre-teen.

9.    Do you think that machines will ever be able to translate languages as well as humans can?

Not a question I get very often in polyglot circles, but I’m glad you asked that!

For most of the languages on the planet, forget it. At this point in machine translation, a lot of it depends on the translation community, which favours the most powerful languages on the planet and those closest to them. 

And then there are languages that machine translation hasn’t even touched (such as Greenlandic or the Pidgin languages of Melanesia mentioned above). 

But about being able to translate French, German, etc. very well with machine translation, I’m still sceptical by virtue of the fact that cultural contexts cannot render things like pop culture references or puns accurately. Unless, of course, I’ve underestimated the Google translation community…of which I am a member! 

10.    What more can we/should we do to encourage young people to learn multiple languages?

The first thing you can do is actually convince them that it is possible. 

The second thing you can do is tell them that “bad with languages” is a myth (there are some who get angry at me when I tell them this!), and that while some may have advantages, a lot of the difficulties can be worked through. And by worked I mean WORKED.

One thing to realize is that the journey never stops, not even for your native language(s). 

Another thing I’ve said to so many of my students, as well as to people I meet at language exchanges, is that “broken Irish is better than clever English” (“Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste, ná Béarla cliste”).  Your small victories are always to be celebrated.

Another thing not to do is, if you are a native English speaker, compare your progress in other languages with that of foreigners who have learned English. They’ve been actively encouraged to do so throughout their whole lives. You may have been actively discouraged to learn languages throughout your whole life. But that discouragement will make the reward all the sweeter.

And the best thing you can do to acquire fluency is to make a language not just something to study, but something to love. 

Find something fun you can do in that language. Don’t choose a language because of a supposed money benefit or due to peer pressure. Pick one that will cause you to see the human experience as more of a kaleidoscope than you already see it. Think about what you enjoy doing and how languages can make you enjoy more of the same! Or even how they may lead to other hobbies you’ve always dreamed of!

The advice of “just start earlier” seriously misses the point.

I think saying that starting earlier is the best thing actually serves to discourage people (and we do NOT need any more discouragement in the world!). Yes, it can endow an advantage, but also knowing that a mini-citizenship of any country on earth is within your reach is far more fulfilling. 

And in 2017 and beyond, you can collect as many of those citizenships as you want!

Huge thanks to Jared for taking the time to share is knowledge and views. 

Do you have an interesting linguistic story to tell? If so, why not contact us today for an interview? 


By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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