Feel free to ‘dabble’ in a language…? My Kazakh Project

Israel

Pianist-composer, polyglot, Hongkonger, explorer, ex-programmer, ex-author-to-be, son and brother. Discovering myself through discovering the world. Blogging my language adventures and spreading the Cantonese joy.

It’s been a while since I wrote something about my own language learning hobby, rather than my more educationally minded column. And fairly recently (around a week ago), I made a decision that might sound like a big deal or a dumb idea to many, but a small change in direction to me.

I started ‘dabbling’ in Kazakh.

That doesn’t mean much to my daily life, to be honest. Since I’ve pretty much been feeling on holiday for a year, I’ve long had a ‘main’ language I’m working on, then some others I ‘toy’ with. Before this, I was maintaining a 50-day streak in Hebrew on Duolingo. I also listened to 5 days of Glossika GSR in Lithuanian, just because I’d bought the package during a sale. In short? My other toys are going bye-bye for now.

Why Kazakh?

Before I talk about ‘dabbling’, let me reveal my reasons for trying out this language, and you’ll easily see the fun of dabbling in any language. Beware: all my reasons for learning any language are incredibly specific to myself.

  1. it uses the cyrillic script (for now), which I have learnt and find incredibly pretty.
  2. it’s a Turkic language, which is grammatically and vocabulary-wise unlike any other language I’m familiar with (i.e. mostly European languages). The closest language I “know” is Japanese – another agglutinative language.
  3. I’m actively considering travelling to Kazakhstan next summer, after recommendations from Kazakh and Swedish friends alike. It’s also a region I never knew anything about.
  4. (Although virtually the entire country is bilingual in Russian, I don’t dare (re)learn it because of interference with Polish. Believe me, I’ve tried this before and it wasn’t fun.)
  5. But of course, the most important reason of all is still the personal factor: my sweet Kazakh friend came over to Hong Kong a while ago, and I’d love to visit her country, experience her culture and simply meet up again!

After this thought came into mind, a question arose. What about my ‘focus languages’?

Is it OK to dabble?

Today I randomly logged onto Twitter, and saw a question from one of my favourite podcasters, Kerstin.


This prompted me to ponder over this question. What do you do when you suddenly get interested in a new language, despite already having one to focus on (Welsh in her case)? Even though she’s obviously the more experienced language learner, I felt like I have something to say to this.

I’ve read/seen/listened to countless articles, videos and podcasts on whether it’s a good idea to learn two or more languages at the same time. To summarise, these are the opinions I’ve seen:

  • no, because you get confused between them (especially if they’re similar)
  • no, because that means you spend less time on each, so you learn both of them more slowly
  • no, because u cant just cheat on ur babe????
http://clowergen.tumblr.com/post/144005571613/langblr-in-a-nutshell

The ‘staying true’ view aside, I can’t really disagree with these arguments. However, I don’t think learning several languages at the same time is that bad either. Or rather, I’d like to suggest the alternative of dabbling.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, dabbling in a language is basically…learning it during your off-time (from your main language), for fun. You don’t really ‘study’ it that seriously, but rather just learn about it, get through some basic materials and maybe do a bit of actual practice. Most importantly, you tell yourself that you’re still focusing on your one main language, both in terms of attitude and time. To express it pseudo-scientifically, you spend optimally 20% of your language-learning time and effort on this mini-project.

But why?

Why dabble in a language?

Let’s be honest here: learning a language isn’t easy. Particularly if you’re spending 1 or even 2 hours a day, doing your exercises and reading and whatnot. Sometimes – just sometimes – your love for it might be undermined by this seemingly endless fight, and you need a break, either from a burn-out or from imminent boredom.

When you’re in this situation, when your supposed leisure activity (unless you’re a diplomat in which case…???) starts to feel like work and stress, you can of course fall back onto your other hobbies. Or you can choose to spend time with an entirely different language, as some sort of refreshment for your brain or an escape from monotony.

That’s what I’m doing: switching between my European languages and this unique one for novelty. Or as some sort of brain games.

It’s not just about having fun though. If you’re a language enthusiast or just curious about language diversity, you can take the chance to educate yourself about a family or simply certain features different from the ones you already know. For me, Kazakh has been like an overview of Turkic, or even more generally, agglutinative languages. You might get to learn more about grammar or pronunciation in general, acquiring new concepts or sounds in the process.

Depending on your choice, you can learn to write in another script. Personally I’m enjoying it very much to practice writing in Cyrillic and developing my own handwriting style within these newfangled letters. I would’ve tried writing with my left hand, had I not stopped dabbling in Hebrew.

Pretty proud of my Cyrillic handwriting tbh it’s hardly been two days #guessthelanguage

A photo posted by Israel Lai (@israellai) on

Throwing away the assumption that you will end up furthering your knowledge in this ‘dabble-language’, learning the basics of a new language is incredibly helpful with travelling. I did this with Italian, and even if you don’t go any further than basic pleasantries, it can help you with reading local signs and names etc., especially in a new script.

Or dabbling can serve as a ‘demo’ for choosing (or not choosing) similar languages to focus on in the future.

Or you like to surprise your native speaker friends and possibly make them cry.

Or sometimes, you’re just an overly ambitious polyglot like many of us are, but you have convinced yourself to work on one language first. It’s been a while though, and you are itching to touch on some of your other loves – not really starting it, but just getting some exposure.

You can have your very own reasons, as long as…

Be careful with juggling multiple languages

It’s the age-old polyglot problem isn’t it. Time!!!!

As I mentioned before, make sure you still have a clear focus on your focus language(s) – German and Polish in my case. The 80/20 split sounds like an ideal guideline to adhere to.

To answer Kerstin’s question, my personal view would be to jump in without too much deliberation. In that case, you can thoroughly enjoy it as a ‘leisure’ language, while convincing your brain that this language isn’t stealing your focus from your main one.

Secondly, make sure your focus language is ahead of your dabbling language! It’s always dangerous to learn two languages at a similar (low) level. A non-superhuman brain usually can’t cope with a similar set of vocabulary in different languages learnt at the same time. If I learnt the numbers 1-100 in 3 different languages in one day, I’d be paying money trilingually in no time.

Last but not least, did you notice my emphasis on drastically different languages / families? It’s not just for the fun factor. It’s a safeguard to make sure that your secondary / dabbling language won’t screw with your main one. That’s what happened when I learnt Swedish without being sufficiently advanced in German: a Germanic chaos. Don’t repeat my mistake.

What am I ‘mainly’ working on then?

We’ve come to the end of August, which means, at least for most places outside Australia, we’re back to school very soon. Having just done a gap-year-ish exchange year, it’s time I started catching up with my proper academic career. And that can mean…squeezing the hard parts of the 3rd and 4th years into the same year.

As you might know, I major in music, rather than languages. Since I was planning to be a decent composer, I’d have to devote some more time to, you know, actually writing some notes. For that reason, I might be reducing my language learning time to a minimum, depending on how stressful life turns out. (Never underestimate Asia in that respect.) After all, it’s my hobby. Yes, despite running a website about it.

I’m still two months into my German Goldlist, which I don’t plan on stopping. Will I have to put my Polish to sleep? How long will this dabbling project end up lasting? We’ll see. And you’ll get to know.