"It's a smart choice to focus on the sounds." Interview with Nina Bohmstein, speech therapist and Yiddish studentRead Now
Last week, I spoke with Nina Bohmstein, a speech therapist who is also one of my Yiddish students. (We're reading Harry Potter in Yiddish!)
Her biggest advice for Yiddish students? Pay attention to Yiddish phonetics.
Watch the video here, or scroll down for a written transcript. Then take a stab at reading some of my own phonics-based Yiddish poems! Pay attention to the different vowels, and how they combine with consonants to form repeating patterns ("ײַן", "–ייגעלע", "–ייט–", etc.). And if you'd like information on private lessons or classes, feel free to contact me, Shuli Elisheva, at CreativeShuli@gmail.com. :-)
Nina Bohmstein: Hi! My name is Nina Bohmstein, and I'm taking some Yiddish lessons with Shuli, and I'm learning Yiddish.
Shuli Elisheva: Why did you want to learn Yiddish?
Nina Bohmstein: I think I had it in my head for a while I'd be interested in learning Yiddish, because my mom's first language is Yiddish, and obviously as an Ashkenazi Jew, I know it's the heritage and stuff. But I think it especially intrigued me because it's my mom's first language and she decided not to teach it to me. And eventually, I was looking for a hobby, and I signed up for a class with the Workers Circle. It was an online Yiddish class. The teacher was using the Yiddish Pop website, and basically it was sort of a cute, fun way to start learning some vocabulary, and then I just kept going with it.
I did leave out one important thing, which is that I'm a speech therapist. So, another reason that I was interested in pursuing Yiddish is, I do think it could potentially help my career once I achieve a certain level of conversational fluency, because I can absolutely become bilingually-certified and pick up some more work that way.
Shuli Elisheva: What struggles do you face while learning Yiddish?
Nina Bohmstein: Biggest struggles... um... I mean, I think the biggest struggle is to keep pushing. A lot of people who have my background – my background is that I'm modern Orthodox, I went to Jewish day schools, and we learned Hebrew. I even went to a school that was "Ivrit b'Ivrit" (Hebrew in Hebrew), and it's not that they didn't want to teach Hebrew or even that they were teaching it poorly, but the approach is still more focused on liturgical Hebrew and the religion. And modern Hebrew, as much as they want to teach that to you, they're not getting the students immersed in it in quite the right way. And so, you can wind up really studying Hebrew for 12 years, and obviously you're proficient at davening (praying), and studying chumash, or mishna, or gemorah, if that's what you're doing, but you're not speaking modern Hebrew. So, I think when you have that experience behind you, you start believing in myths that it's hard to learn another language, or you can't learn another language. So I think that overcoming that is a bit of a struggle.
But also, one thing that I noticed in the other direction that I think was interesting with starting Yiddish at this stage in my life, post becoming a speech therapist, is that I have now a background in speech sounds and phonetics. And the way young children learn languages, they're obviously paying attention to speech sounds and vocabulary, and the grammar is being learned less consciously. And obviously, that's a closer, better way to learning language. I think it's a better way to learn language. I think if you take less emphasis off grammar, it's better for you for learning language, because grammar is the thing that, I guess, is the scariest. And I think focusing on the speech sounds was a good thing to focus on, because it's more of a fun aspect of the language. So I think it was a smart choice to focus in on the sounds.
Shuli Elisheva: What advice do you have for learning Yiddish?
Nina Bohmstein: So I actually would recommend that learners pay attention to some of the sound differences. There's a finite number of sounds in every single language. Yiddish doesn't have a whole lot of sounds. It's not really a difficult language to learn its sounds. It's just, if you pay attention to the subtle differences in sounds... I mean, I guess it's more on the educators than the learners to point out some of those things about the Yiddish sound system, so that it's a little more fun, like, "here's how you really want to say that word," you know? It'll just add to that fun aspect of the language.
Shuli Elisheva: How is learning yiddish giving your life more meaning?
Nina Bohmstein: I think because, for many years, Ashkenazic Jews, for almost 1,000 years, spoke exclusively in Yiddish, I think there's a lot of Jewish ideas that are embedded in the language and unique Jewish ways of communicating that are connected to the religion itself that are lost when you're speaking another language. Those expressions and that way of thinking and speaking didn't move over into English and didn't necessarily move into modern Hebrew, either, though obviously Yiddish did influence both languages a little bit. So I think some of that way of life is lost if the language is not passed on. So I do think it's very important to try to pass on the language. Especially in the religious Jewish community, I think it'd be nice if there was more of an interest, because there is a big interest in Yiddish in the secular Jewish world, and I think using it to connect with religious Judaism is also very valuable, because I think it's nice if you can read the parsha in Yiddish, or something in that. I think that's a nice thing to do, and it's another unique way to experience Jewish ideas and Jewish ways of thinking just from reading a religious text.
Are you ready to take Nina's advice, and infuse your learning with attention to sound patterns? Try reading some of my own phonics-based Yiddish poems! Pay attention to the different vowels, and how they combine with consonants to form repeating patterns ("ײַן", "–ייגעלע", "–ייט–", etc.). And if you'd like information on private lessons or classes, feel free to contact me, Shuli Elisheva, at CreativeShuli@gmail.com. :-)
College classes teach us BORING vocab.
You know, words like... "train station," "spoon," and "cow."
But did you know there's a whole fantasy literature in Yiddish?
Mermaids, werewolves, fire-breathing dragons, vampires, unicorns, spells, potions... we've got it all! So why not learn it???
Here are 36 fantasy words to get you started, followed by a list of recommended readings.
Recommended Fantasy Books Originally Written in Yiddish:
Yiddish Translations of Fantasy Literature from Other Languages
OK, can I just be totally honest with you?
So many people admire my language-learning abilities.
"Oh," they say, "you're so TALENTED." "You're so LUCKY." "I could never learn languages the way you do."
And yes, it's true. There is such a thing as natural talent, and I am so incredibly grateful for and humbled by my talent in learning languages.
But I'll never forget that night in New York, about 5 or 6 years ago, when I was sitting at our dining room table bawling my eyes out. Seriously. I had been sitting there trying to translate a Yiddish newspaper article for my PhD research, and it was taking me HOURS. I had to look up nearly every word. I was stymied by non-standard spellings. And then there were the idiomatic expressions, the quixotic variations of sentence structure and grammar that made me feel like I was staring at a brick wall. Honestly, it was soul-crushing.
I remember crying out of frustration. If the article had been in English, I'd have read it in a minute. Instead, I was sitting there for hours and hours.
My wife tried to console me. "Just think how much better your Yiddish is now than it was 5 years ago! And just think how much better your Yiddish will become because you put in the grueling effort to translate this article!"
She was right. My Yiddish is so much better now because of all those hours I spent crying over nearly-indecipherable texts, looking up word after word in the dictionary and crunching my brain over unfamiliar idioms.
But when people admire my talent, do they realize just how many hours I spent crying out of frustration because language learning is just SO FRUSTRATINGLY HARD?
I remember my first summer at Yidish Vokh, a weeklong retreat/conference/camp/school for people of all ages, where there's really only one guiding rule: for an entire week, everyone only speaks Yiddish. I barely spoke that week. My Yiddish wasn't bad, really, but I simply couldn't express myself the ways that I wanted to. I went to workshops and lectures where I understand maybe 10% of what was said. I hung out with people who'd ask me questions or make jokes or philosophize on probably-very-interesting topics, of which I understand maybe 10% because of the language barrier.
"Soul crushing" – that's really the word, you know? I was a PhD student at the time. I'd like to think I was fairly smart. And yet, there I was, unable to have more than a basic conversation with the people around me, not even able to understand most of the words they were saying.
Talent is real. Talent exists.
But even for the talented, language learning is hard.
So how have I succeeded in learning Yiddish to such a high degree?
Talent is probably part of it. No, talent is certainly part of it. I can't deny the privilege that my natural abilities have given me.
But talent alone isn't enough.
What enabled me to achieve such a high level of fluency is OBSESSION.
I was – and am – obsessed with Yiddish.
It was obsession that drove me, as an advanced beginner, to read novel after novel by looking up nearly every single word in the dictionary – an absolutely painstaking process.
It was obsession that inspired me to attend weeklong immersive retreats, summer after summer, where I was barely able to speak or understand.
It was obsession that encouraged me through those long, loooooooong hours spent crying over Yiddish newspaper articles for my research.
It was obsession that sparked my curiosity, to the extent that I'd read Yiddish dictionaries for fun and lie in bed wondering about Yiddish etymology.
It was obsession that gave me the conviction to raise my child in Yiddish, a language that I had only begun to learn a few years prior.
And it's my obsession with Yiddish that has helped me to maintain my commitment to raising our child in Yiddish, even when I don't know such basic expressions as "tuck in your shirt" or "stop picking your nose."
Obsession. Passion. Commitment. Purpose.
These are what enable us to achieve high levels of language learning.
Because the truth of the matter is this:
If you're obsessed, and passionate, and committed, and driven by purpose, then lack of talent will never, ever stop you. And if you haven't got all that, then pure talent alone will only get you so far.
Talent helps. But it isn't a gatekeeper, nor is it a guarantor of success.
Obsession. Passion. Commitment. Purpose.
That's what truly matters.
❤️ Shuli Elisheva
Do you want to learn Yiddish online?
If so, then this post is for you! ❤️
It's not by any means comprehensive, but it should give you a fair amount to begin with. And if it leaves you wanting more, sign up for my weekly blog updates or follow me on Facebook / Twitter! In the coming months, I'll be writing about some fantastic online resources for Yiddish learners, including music, podcasts, cartoons, ebooks, comedy, Facebook groups, Twitter flame wars, and more. But in the meantime, here's what to start with!
Step 1: Subscribe to a Dictionary
By far, the two best online Yiddish dictionaries are:
Despite the titles, both dictionaries are searchable in both directions, from Yiddish to English and English to Yiddish. However, there are significant differences in orientation:
Both dictionaries require a paid subscription:
Personally? I subscribe to both. I find that these two dictionaries complement each other, such that words not found in one are typically found in the other. But for a beginner, either one alone would make a fine choice.
If you're looking for a free online dictionary, try this or this. Neither of these is as comprehensive or detailed as the subscription dictionaries, but hey - you get what you pay for! And if all you need is something basic, then these free options are a reasonable alternative.
Step 2: Learn the Alphabet
The Yiddish alphabet (the alef-beys) is almost identical to the Hebrew alphabet, but there are some minor differences that make it unique. Yiddish spelling rules are also significantly different than those for Hebrew. So even if you know Hebrew – or even especially if you know Hebrew – you should spend time learning the Yiddish alphabet.
The Yiddish Book Center put out some fabulous free resources for learning the alef-beys, including an interactive alphabet chart, an alphabet video, helpful guides to letters that either look alike or sound alike, reading practice with accompanying audio recordings, and more.
Step 3: Watch Cartoons and Play Computer Games
Yiddish Pop is a fantastic, FREE website for learning beginner Yiddish in a totally immersive environment. Each level is divided into 5 lessons. Each lesson includes an animated cartoon, an animated vocabulary lesson, an animated grammar lesson, a computer game, flashcards, writing activities, and more. And it's free! And adorable!
Click here for a quick video tour in English to help you get started.
Step 4: Read Some Poetry
Over on my Ko-Fi page, I've posted some of my own Yiddish poems, which I wrote specifically for beginners. Each poem focuses on a particular vowel sound. For example, one poem contains almost exclusively words with an "ay" sound (mayn, dayn, zayn...) Another features words with an "ey" sound (eygele, beygele, feygele...). With the help of a dictionary, you shouldn't have any trouble understanding these simple, playful poems!
Step 5: Take an Online Class or Work With a Tutor
Several institutions offer regular Yiddish classes online, including the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America, the Workmen's Circle, and YIVO.
If you prefer to work one-on-one with a private teacher, I would be delighted to talk with you about my tutoring services. I have worked with a wide range of students, from total beginners to native speakers. I believe in a student-first approach, tailoring each lesson to the specific goals, interests, personality, and learning style of each individual student. Feel free to contact me for a free consultation, and if you don't feel that I'm the right fit for you, I'll gladly refer you to someone else.
Step 6: Subscribe to This Blog and Follow Me On Social Media!
Hi! I'm Shuli Elisheva, a Yiddish poet, composer, and teacher based in Providence, Rhode Island.
In the coming months, I'll be blogging about some fantastic online resources for Yiddish learners, including music, podcasts, cartoons, ebooks, comedy, Facebook groups, Twitter flame wars, and more.
I'll also be sharing some of my own experiences learning Yiddish, including some rather embarrassing moments that I'm sure many a Yiddish student can well relate to!
And finally, I'll be posting regular vocab and grammar lessons, including "50 Ways to Say 'Laugh' in Yiddish," "Adventures in Yiddish Verb Aspects," "How (and Why!) to Talk About Mermaids and Werewolves in Yiddish," and so much more.
Sign up below for my e-mail list, and/or follow me on Facebook and Twitter, to be sure you never miss my weekly blog posts!
❤️ Shuli Elisheva