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How I Learned Albanian Without Classes or a Teacher
Recently, I’ve gotten many emails from many non-Albanian speakers. They ask me how I learned Albanian because they want to learn it too. Whenever they say things like that, I’m always kind of taken aback. “I speak Albanian?” I guess I do. Sometimes, I forget to give myself credit for it. Before the summer of 2012 – before the Dominican Republic – I had never heard a word of Albanian in my life. In fact, I didn’t even know it was a language.
Attitude is everything
My attitude going into learning Albanian was the most crucial factor of my success. I didn’t make excuses. I had no access to classes or a teacher, but it didn’t make me hesitate to start learning. I was determined to learn it – no matter how frustrating it was or how long it took. Also, I knew a little secret going into it. After over 18 years of language classes, studying a total of 9 languages and having countless teachers and professors, I’ve realized I’m the only one who can teach myself a language. Teachers only guide you. You discover each language by yourself, just as you did your native one. Never count on others alone to teach you what you want to learn. Seek the information for yourself.
When I’m learning a language, I try to equally focus on the four basic skills: reading, writing listening and speaking. For me, memorizing phrase books or listening to CDs with isolated phrases is useless. I find that learning a language the “old school” way is the only way to learn it for real. This means I read language books, do grammar exercises, check myself, listen to language CDs, watch Albanian TV, listen to Albanian music, talk to Albanian people and write in Albanian as much as I can. I have never bought an Albanian phrasebook or CD program like this one.
A big factor for me was that I acted like learning Albanian was life or death. I was going to learn it no matter what. If you’re just kind of like, “Oh yeah, Albanian would be super cool to learn.”, then I suggest you don’t do it. You won’t be happy. If you’re determined and motivated, it only takes self-discipline to learn Albanian (or any language for that matter).
Here’s exactly what I did
First I downloaded this weird app called 50 languages. I set it on Albanian and played around with it a bit. It had a ton of phrases on it and they were written out and then spoken. It would say the English, then the Albanian twice (once slowly and once a bit quicker). Then I found a way to download all the mp3s and put them on my iPhone. I listened to those recordings a lot at first. But they were boring and rather useless so I decided to keep searching.
I looked around for free materials and was able to find a little bit. First of all, there is almost always a Wikipedia page for every language. Omniglot is one of my favorite sites for beginning a new language because they have helpful little phrases and give you an idea of the language. I read their page a few times to familiarize myself with the basics of the Albanian language. Then to understand the linguistics behind it, I found the University of Texas at Austin’s Linguistic Research Center page about Albanian and also read the material they had related to courses in it.
Then I decided to work on grammar so I looked around on Amazon for some books. The only ones that seemed like the ones you’d use in an actual class at school were the Discovering Albanian series by Linda Mëniku. Like I said, I was just wasting my time listening to phrases off of the 50 languages tracks. It’s just rote memorization and they don’t teach you grammar. You can’t figure out how to form your own sentences with that. When I learn a new language, I always begin with books that make me fill out stuff – you know, with a pencil and your hand – the old fashioned way. And on top of that, with Albanian, I challenged myself even more, supplementing the textbook that had exercises in it with a workbook. I know from teaching and learning languages that practice makes perfect. Practice until you practically puke.
The Discovering Albanian books offered extra CDs, so I bought them too. They simply demonstrated pronunciation by reading all the vocabulary and reading passages out loud. Those were crucial for me in terms of understanding how to pronounce Albanian. So, with the Discovering Albanian books that covered the grammar, some basic reading, and writing, and the CDs covering listening, I still needed to work on speaking. But with who? At the time, I didn’t have any Albanian friends in Atlanta. So I talked to my dog and cat in it instead. That got old quick. I needed contact with native speakers and exposure to “real Albanian”, not the textbook Albanian.
Exposure to “Real Albanian”
I read the news on Top Channel, Gazeta Dielli, Lajme.org, Balkan Web and Gazeta Shqip. Then to make sure I had understood it, I read everything that they published about Albania on Balkan Insight in English.
In doing that, I ended up needing to translate a lot of stuff. Since Google translate wasn’t always on point, I bought a this dictionary. Then I also rounded out my collection of books with 541 Albanian verbs. In my experience, these verb books are crucial to understanding the morphology of the verbs. I have 9 of those books, one for each language I’ve studied.
In terms of speaking, I haven’t had a lot of practice because most Albanians speak to me in English, but in Michigan and in Albania, I definitely learned a lot about how to speak. I think that is my weakest skill, but it improved fast overseas because of the solid foundation of grammar knowledge that I had built up before going there.
One thing that I did to improve my listening comprehension before going to Albania was listening to basic pop songs, looking up the lyrics on Tekste Shqip, translating them on Google translate or with my study materials and then singing along to the songs. I had to go back and re-look-up many songs, words, phrases, etc. I never could remember what they were saying the first time. The best source of Albanian culture for me was TV. I found this awesome website where I could watch many Albanian TV channels, switch back and forth between them easily and even watch foreign movies with Albanian subtitles, all of which were extremely helpful.
For those of you who want to know which celebrities I learned the most Albanian from, I would say that Sinan Hoxha and Alban Skenderaj’s songs were the most helpful. I desperately tried to understand my favorite Albanian singer, Tuna, but her dialect made it impossible for me to learn. Google translate didn’t know anything she was saying and I didn’t either! I followed all those people on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I also followed a lot of rappers. Through my contacts in Michigan, I was told about Aferdita Dreshaj and began to follow her in Instagram and Twitter. What her fans wrote was super helpful for me to learn.
When people that I followed on social media would comment, I would do my best to understand them. But usually 90% of the words they used would render something completely nonsensical in Google translate. I didn’t give up. I would read the comments below to see if I could put the caption in context. Sometimes it was really obvious like when they put a photo of a beach with the caption, “plazh”. Sometimes I had no clue was was going on like when they would omit or change vowels, saying things like “ton” and “konga” when I knew those words as “tonë” and “këngë”. On top of that, Albanians, just like English speakers, have SMS abbreviations. I had to learn them. “Flm” was “Falemindmerit” and “Sps” was “S’ka perse”. It got so frustrating at times, I would cry. I felt so left out because I couldn’t understand what my friends were joking about on Facebook.
I searched the internet for information about other dialects of Albanian. It seemed like all the people I was following spoke, Gheg, not Tosk, which was the dialect I had been learning. I found very little, other than some outdated PDFs and a few Wikipedia articles. I finally came across a chapter of Chris Hughes’ book, “Gegnishtja e sotme – A course in modern Geg Albanian“, but I had trouble finding out where to purchase his book. I actually ended up contacting Mr. Hughes personally through email. He arranged to send me the book from England and I paid him with PayPal in British pounds. That book has been helpful in putting some things into context for me, but it seems much more appropriate for Kosovo than for the dialect of Gheg that I experienced in Montenegro. Nevertheless it is a decent book and literally the only one I could find.
The last thing is that I also labeled the entire house, almost every object had a little note on it with the word for it in Albanian. I started writing the grocery list on the whiteboard in our kitchen in Albanian. Because of the labeling and because he’s brilliant, my husband picked up the nouns and started making the list in Albanian too :-).
The Final Push
By the time I got to Albania, I had a good base of Albanian grammar and vocabulary, but absolutely no self-confidence when speaking. There was where I pushed myself the absolute hardest. Before I went to the Balkans, studying Albanian had been relatively painless, but when I was there, it was the most difficult part of my language acquisition. I did it until I was completely brain-dead and pushed myself to the point of tears many times.
The things that I did in Albania that helped me achieve a lot of language proficiency quickly was that I:
- Tried to be brave and not let Bora always speak for us.
- Tried to speak in Albanian any time someone didn’t speak English, and not use Bora (or someone else) as a translator unless absolutely necessary.
- Looked at street signs, made sure I understood every word, when I didn’t, wrote it down, then looked it up.
- Eavesdropped at coffee shops and in the streets.
- Purposely declined invitations to events that I knew were going to be all English-speaking.
- Purposely accepted more plans with people who did not speak English.
- Spoke to Bora in Albanian when we were alone (which was very unnatural).
- Try to eat as “Albanian” as possible, so we could discuss food and ingredients in Albanian.
To be perfectly honest, this is not a science. People want more mystery in language learning; they want to think that it’s harder than it is – rather than admit they are just lazy. My husband lovingly says that I have many talents and can do a lot of difficult things, but language learning isn’t one of them. He told me “I see no difficulty in what you do, just a large amount of resilience to frustration and monotony”. It all boils down to being completely obsessed with the culture, language and being willing to immerse yourself in in every day. I didn’t learn Albanian because I’m smart or “good at languages”. I learned it because I’m stubborn. And you can too.
I’m still working on it and each day I learn new words. I would say I’m not even close to fluent, but I can carry on a basic conversation and I’m proud of that.
Below are some videos of me speaking Albanian at some point or another. You can see my progress by the dates the videos were uploaded.