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Article for the intro learner to Yiddish!

What is the furthest away?

Like all good Jewish anecdotes, this one starts with me waiting for a Bagel at a Klezmer festival. The person in front of me recounted the opening of a service in Yiddish where the Rabbi said, "Now I'll switch to English so more than just the young folks can understand me." I had a good laugh. It's true - a lot of younger people are speaking Yiddish now. But how are we learning, and is Yiddish easy?

As a linguist, and a speaker of a few languages, I'm often asked, "What is the easiest language to learn?" which is a lot like asking, "What is the furthest away?"

To answer what is the furthest away, one would need to ask (1) what one's starting and end points are; (2) what modes of transportation are available; and (3) how accessible those modes of transportation are.

Personally, I see this third issue, accessibility, as the biggest hurdle in learning a language.

Take the Romani language, for example. Grammatically, it isn't the most difficult for those who have studied Germanic and Indo-Arian languages; however, the lack of documentation and cultural divides between Roma and Gadje (non-Romani people) makes learning the language inaccessible. Additionally, the very few resources that do exist are mostly in German.

Vice versa, a language like Hungarian may be very well documented, but you may struggle with the grammar being so dissimilar to the European languages living around it, with which you might be more familiar.

Yiddish has seen an increase in materials and efforts to make the language more accessible. It is now on several language learning applications, it is now taught at 50+ universities globally, with about half of those being in the US, Klezmer festivals advertise courses, and it is the common language of countless Jewish chat rooms.

So what's out there, and what hurdles might you encounter?

Important things to know when learning Yiddish from English:

Yiddish, like English, is a Germanic language. The grammar and vocabulary have a lot in common with German, English, and many other European language families, including Romance and Slavic. Where this becomes difficult is the integration of Hebrew into the language.

Usually, when a language adopts lexical items from another, those items change to fit the grammatical structure of the borrower. Think of a word like "spaghetti." Spaghetti is plural in Italian, and in English, it never uses its Italian singular form, "spaghetto." Most would just call a single "spaghetto" a noodle.

Historically, Yiddish speakers have lived in a bilingual society with biblical Hebrew; thus, it would make less sense for a speaker who is equally fluent in both languages to use a Germanic plural structure on a Hebrew word.

Though the spelling system is mostly phonetic, you also have to learn to spell and identify Hebrew loan words, which are written in an Adjab system without vowels.

Yiddish is a language of diaspora, so there are many variations and synonyms of different linguistic origins and large differences in the pronunciation of vowels and several consonants. You might find that the person you're speaking Yiddish with speaks in a way that is unintelligible to your own.


Duolingo Yiddish

Given its popularity, Duo is likely the most accessible platform for familiarizing yourself with the language; however, I would like to cap its utility at 'familiarization.' After a 56-day streak in Russian, I feel like I can listen in on conversations enough to understand all the nouns and verbs but little to nothing about how they relate to each other to make meaning. Personally, I'm a fan of Duo as an exposure device. The gamification will keep the user playing long enough to become familiar with a number of lemma (different grammatical forms of the same word), but not so much with how or why these variations occur.

My Suggestion: Learning Yiddish with Duo requires additional study and note-taking. Keep track of new items and research their meanings and grammatical functions once you start to recognize certain patterns. Through Duo alone, your endpoint will not be fluency unless a great deal of care and practice are taken into consideration as well. It is also considerably useful to join a facebook group for Yiddish learning as a companion to the course.

Mango Languages Yiddish

Mango Languages is a paid service that can also be accessed for free using a library card. For those without a library card, the Yiddish course is free anyway! One of the strongest features of Mango Languages' Yiddish course is its grammar and cultural notes at the end of each lesson or introduction of a new concept. Learning to read written Yiddish from Mango is actually quite good as well. With an alphabet sheet in hand, one can click on words and both hear and see a phonetic spelling that includes stress patterns as well.

The most annoying thing about Mango languages is the absurd amount of repetition of vocabulary in flashcard format. Personally, I appreciate the overexposure, but it can feel a little like being in high school language classes again, where the pace is set just below the average so that the majority of users can follow along with the familiarization and introduction of new words. Unlike Duo, there are no penalties or grade keeping in Mango's Yiddish course, which can incentivize the user to quickly skip through the vocabulary study (which I did and regretted).

My suggestion: Study the alphabet alongside Mango Yiddish and monitor your own discipline with a learning routine. Mango has the advantage of being more like a class than a game.

Video Content: Yiddish Tiktok

The internet is supposed to make us closer, right? -- Yiddish Tiktok was by far one of my favorite "I'm-bored-at-home" things to come out of the early parts of the COVID pandemic. Hearing Yiddish take part in your own culture's entertainment system promotes easy integration. Consuming 'relatable content' in Yiddish adds to your daily experience rather than taking a slice out of it, as a classroom or study time might feel like for some. This is also a great way to connect with others who want to practice. Will it teach you Yiddish, though? Probably not unless you have a great deal of familiarity with the language beforehand. But it will make you enjoy learning Yiddish a whole lot more.

Chatrooms: Omegle, OmeTV, Clubhouse

Generally, internet chat rooms are great places for language exchange because you can bounce between people quickly, hear a lot of differences in dialects, and talk through a lot of topics. Many of these places, however, are not places to find Yiddish. It can be done, but you might have to wade through a lot of anti-Semites first.

Descriptive Grammars

As a linguist, I LOVE grammars, but I must note they really aren't for everyone, as the barrier to entry into using them effectively is quite high.

A grammar is kind of like an instruction manual for a language. It tells you what parts of speech a language has, lists of affixes and their meanings, possible word orders, and most anything else you can think of, but it does so using the assumption that you know what the dative case means or what a phrase head is.

To use the transportation analogy again, a descriptive grammar is the airplane of language learning methods. Like plane travel, it is the most direct route to where you want to be. But like flying a plane, the learning curve is steep, and even with a lot of training and preparation, it still requires more focus and detail than other mediums.

Suggestion: Even if you CAN read a grammar, pair it with a few other methods so the grammar doesn't devolve into a set of formulas. If you cannot read a descriptive grammar, I would open one about your native language or a language you've learned before. Follow along, study the format, and do a lot of googling for what the grammatical terms mean.

Language courses:

Just do it. The Yiddish Book Center offers online courses, and there is nothing better than an instructor who knows the different ways that people interface with new concepts. 10/10

So how should I learn Yiddish? Do all of these at the same time. Humans are language machines built to identify and integrate patterns. It is a system and a practice that require both a structural understanding and some solid hours of using the language. I encourage you to also check out free books online from the Yiddish Book Center and The Yiddish Forward, a Boston-based Yiddish newspaper that is online and publishes frequently.

Zay(t) gesund!

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