This is my first week at the Rapid Innovation Group and I come to the company from an unlikely background. Having studied English, literature, languages, and medieval studies from undergrad through a PhD, I have often been asked in sneering tones, “What are you going to do with that?” Along with everyone else, I would have myself doubted that I would go on to found an online language-training business and start working for a hi-tech consultancy, but such is life.
With no actual training in business, I have been thinking a lot about “transferable skills” in my first few days at RIG. The concept is not as popular in my home country of America as it is here in the UK, and I’ve known many to dismiss the notion of transferable skills as a wishy-washy theory that has no validity in actual practice. But after less than a week at RIG, I find myself performing tasks that I have spent years training to execute swiftly and cleanly. Thank goodness I’m a medievalist.
First and perhaps most obvious is the skill of research. Knowing what questions to ask can be as important as the desired information itself. Being familiar with both the methodologies and tools of research, as well as frameworks for organizing and structuring information, data, and even thought saves time, energy, and therefore also money. Tracing the manuscript origins of a West Saxon copy of an Old English poem with an Anglian original requires a remarkably similar process to determining the potential marketing direction of a burgeoning startup. I’ve heard reported that Joseph Strayer, a prominent medieval historian who worked for the CIA, claimed that medievalists made excellent operatives because they were accustomed to making informed decisions on the basis of limited evidence. I see his point.
Most striking to me, however, is the importance of language. This includes nuanced ability to craft the English language, the ability to analyse someone else’s language, and the ability to speak other languages. When impressions count and arguments need to be made forcefully and quickly, language must be clear, clean, and to the point in order to have the desired effect. Understanding the subtleties of language allows one to perceive metamessages—whether consciously or unconsciously created—in the language of another party; this skill can be critical for assessing the tone, interest, or desires of a client, customer, or partner.
The importance of knowing other languages also cannot be undervalued. On the research front, knowledge of multiple languages allows one to gauge more quickly and accurately cultural values and sentiments held in other countries. Will this product find a market in Germany? What are South American newspapers reporting about this technology and its impact? These are hard questions to answer without knowing languages. Even more important is the ability to cross over into another’s culture via language; by eliminating this barrier, one eliminates many hurdles on the way to successful business. In my own experience, America is such a diverse country that no matter from where someone actually comes, I think of him or her as “American” so long as he or she speaks fluent American English. The fluency of language eliminates disconnects and makes it easy for me to feel “at home.” The same is true in developing relationships in non-English-speaking countries.
I’ve always held the notion of transferable skills in high regard, but I did not expect to be using so much of my academic training right from the start. From my limited perspective, there are few backgrounds I could see as more useful for business than one involving detailed study of language and literature, and I am thankful for my training as a medievalist. “What will you do with medieval studies?” It seems quite logical to respond, “Start a business, then help develop hi-tech startups, of course!”
One thing I have been thinking about a lot lately is the notion of questioning: questioning experts, questioning authority, and questioning people in general. And what I have seen is that most people tend to confuse genuine “questioning” with some form of insult or challenge designed to provoke a response.
Extremes often help illustrate things. Consider approaching an Olympic runner and saying, “Hey man, you’re all talk, I bet I could out run you any day. You say you’re fast, but prove it.” The runner would be completely justified in ignoring you. Annoyed though he might be, he need not actually prove anything to you—he’s already proved himself through known standards, and justifying his speed to every moron who wants a demonstration will run this man into the ground.
It seems absurd to behave in such a “questioning” manner, yet I see it all the time. The truth of the matter is, when it comes to ability, we are NOT equal. Nor should we be. Someone who has spent years developing a skill that others do not have deserves respect and admiration for that skill. And it’s our duty to recognize the training that went into obtaining that skill, rather than simply assuming comparable ability.
For years, I have watched people come to my mother to seek her advice. She is the wisest person I’ve ever met, not because she was born that way, but because she has devoted her entire life to an internal practice that allows her to listen on a level far beyond the bounds of physicality or circumstance. People come to her for that very reason, yet many—even occasionally those who have sought her advice for years—will pick and choose what they want to hear. People want her to “prove” her abilities, but like the runner, she already has. Those who have studied with her for more than a few months can attest: follow her advice exactly, things turn out well; ignore even part of her advice, things turn out badly. It’s never personal. Her advice is not her advice, but rather what is best for the individual to whom she gives that advice. People tend not to understand that her ability to listen internally means that “opinion” is not involved at all.
Yet it infuriates me when I see people assume that they could do the same thing as she: “She just sits in a room and gives advice; I could do that.” No, ignoramus, you could not.
I’ve been experiencing some of the same uneducated provoking lately to “prove” my abilities in language. Three graduate degrees from top institutions in language-related fields would seem to be proof enough that I could teach a course in linguistics. But for many, it doesn’t seem to be enough, and they write me “questions” that are not questions at all, but rather provocations: “You talk too much, I bet you can’t even speak five languages.”
It’s a waste of time to respond to such uneducated and discourteous remarks. I will always answer questions that demonstrate the respect that one should routinely show a stranger (much less an expert), but I have no intention of wasting my time with ill-worded provocations from people who clearly do not understand the value of education. They could not get much out of Linguisticator anyways, as it would probably be over their heads.
Back in the fall, my plans were derailed by a number of visa issues in Europe. This pushed me in several new directions as I looked for employment options. I have recently accepted an internship in London with a small consulting company and am very excited to be working for them this summer. But I have also started a new business that answers at last the question: what could I, a medievalist, offer the world?
This was the big question. What skills do I have of value to other people? The easiest answer was my gift with languages, but there was a slight glitch: I don’t speak Arabic, fluent Mandarin, or Pashto. Most of the languages I know are dead or not widely spoken. There is no great need for these languages from an employment perspective. It seemed my greatest asset was likewise useless.
But as I wrestled with this problem and had (sometimes heated) discussions with my family and friends, it at last became clear that my ability to learn languages was itself a skill. Sure, I may not yet speak the languages most sought after by military and business companies, but I can learn a language about as quickly as one can. And that skill is not something I was born with—it’s something I learned through studying linguistics and more than 20 languages.
So I’ve started Linguisticator, a service designed to teach people how to learn languages. There are tons of language resources out there, but more and more these resources seek to avoid central issues of language’s inherent complexities. A lot of language resources have little faith in a customer’s intelligence, I feel. The result is that people study a language for years only to reach a mediocre level at best. Language is a complex…organism, shall we say? But if it is broken down into its component parts, its complexity resolves into a wonderful clarity. That’s what my courses are designed to do.
Problem solved, right? Not exactly. I have a more or less unique product—the only comparable course I’ve seen is one offered for the US military—but how to get it out there? Many people have looked at my site and asked, “What languages are you teaching?” There is no precedent for such a course as this, so people assume I’m teaching specific languages. But I’m really teaching methods that will enable one to learn any language at record speed. Explaining this has been one challenge of communication.
The courses are the culmination of years of experience, and are something I wish had been available to me many years ago. Where do I go to tell people about this service? How do I get people to try something new? It’s a challenge, and I know it will take time. I struggle with impatience, I struggle with the risk of starting something so new. Yet I’ve had a ton of fun putting it all together. I like my website design and my new business cards are pretty flair; and nothing has been more fun than writing the actual courses. I’ve solidified the method for myself, and at the very least, I now have a more articulated process for tackling new languages myself.
Linguisticator will take time, patience, and a lot of work to build. It’s a larger challenge than many of the others I’ve worked on, but it’s a labor of love and I can only look forward to the fruit it will yield as I share one of my greatest passions with other people interested in language.
Icelandic is not the easiest language to learn. Its difficulty arises from two main factors: a complicated grammatical system, and a limited pool of resources. In order to speak correctly, the student of Icelandic will need to spend several weeks drilling grammatical paradigms; and even if the student has a good basic command of the language, it will be difficult to find Icelanders who will speak only Icelandic without switching to English. Almost all Icelanders speak English, and they tend to be proud of it. When foreigners come, they enjoy showing off their abilities in English and they want to use the opportunity to practice their English, particularly with Americans and Brits. Despite the difficulties, however, there are a number of resources to help you in learning the language, and with perseverance you can become fluent.
Icelandic is a Germanic language. It is related to the other Germanic languages: German, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, and most closely, Faroese. Because the literary tradition of Icelandic began in the Middle Ages, the language has remained relatively stable for the last 800 years. This means that Icelandic preserves more inflection than the other Germanic languages.
Inflection is a system by which grammatical function is marked by the shape of a word. We see inflection in English pronouns: for example, the pronouns he, him, and his. “He” indicates the subject, “him” indicates an object, and “his” indicates the possessive. In Icelandic, the system of inflection is rather complicated. There are, for instance, 18 distinct ways of saying the number one, depending on the case and the grammatical gender.
The best way to learn Icelandic grammar is just to buckle down and drill it. Actively memorize all the grammatical paradigms. Trying to do it all at once, however, can be overwhelming, so I recommend taking 15-20 minutes a day just to work on grammar. Over a few weeks, this time will really add up into something meaningful.
In contrast to Spanish or Chinese, there are not many resources for learning Icelandic. Getting a hold of the few resources there are can be difficult, and sometimes expensive. What follows is a list of the main resources for learning Icelandic and a review of each of these resources.
Teach Yourself Icelandic – A good place to start, but not a particularly thorough resources. Make sure to get the audio CD’s along with the book. This is one of the weaker books in the Teach Yourself series in my opinion, but it is one of the more readily available resources.
Learning Icelandic – This book and tape combo is used for the beginning level of the summer intensive course in Icelandic in Reykjavik at the University of Iceland. It is quite basic in scope, and is mostly a bunch of phrases and dialogues with pictures. It’s light on grammar, but the audio materials are good.
Colloquial Icelandic– Probably the best book and CD combo available for Icelandic. There are some errors in the book, so watch out, but on the whole it is excellent. The dialogues can get complicated quickly, so this is probably not the best place to start; work up to it through the other two books mentioned above. The grammar summary at the end of this book is really handy.
Icelandic – This is an older book by Stefán Einarsson. It’s a great resource for grammar and has a good reader as well. It can be quite technical, and some of the language is a bit archaic. Also, there are no audio files. Nonetheless, it’s a classic and I’m a big fan.
Icelandic online – This is the online course hosted by the University of Iceland and serves as the prerequisite for the summer course. When I tried it a few years ago, I was not a fan, but I believe they have improved it since then.
Websites – You can get the news at mbl.is and watch TV or listen to radio in Icelandic at ruv.is.
Kid’s Books – If you can get a hold of children’s books in Icelandic (nearly impossible in the US, but a bit easier in the UK) they can be a good way to practice and build vocabulary. I scored a Harry Potter at a used bookstore in Reykjavik along with several other children’s books, and they’ve been good to me.
Dictionaries – Dictionaries are really expensive, and there is no satisfactory English-Icelandic/Icelandic-English Dictionary. You can get them separately, but that’s the only way. Other dictionaries include:
• A pocket dictionary that goes in both directions by Arnold R. Taylor, but it’s pretty weak.
• The glossary at the end of Einarsson’s Icelandic can serve as a basic dictionary.
• If you go to Iceland, there is a picture dictionary you can buy there called Stóra Mynd Orðabókin, “The Big Picture Dictionary.” It’s really expensive, but it has detailed pictures of all manner of objects labeled in five languages: Icelandic, English, German, French, and Spanish.
• A good Icelandic-Icelandic dictionary will run you about $130.
• You can find an Icelandic-English dictionary online at: