You are Hereby Promised a Video

The 20th was my birthday, and the coming month on the morrow means that I’ll be preparing for my MA examination. With all things said, this blog and, above all, the language enthusiasm is far from forgotten!

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A game of mine was recently released, referred to by a fan as “Dungeons and Dragons for Linguistic Nerds”. While on the whole accurate, there is a lot more to see for yourself, here.

The game’s name itself came about while I was studying the Finnish Language, at my grandmother’s house in Milwaukee, no less, where I was sketching what would become the Flanders Adventure.

Plans, plans, plans, I’ll be brief:

(1) I will be releasing a Polyglot Video! But this one will have fewer languages than what I can manage at my fullest. Why?

(2) The video itself will be Languages of the Nordic Countries, with eventual plans for me to create collections of spoken languages (featuring yours truly) grouped by region or shared heritage.

(3) The next theme for the video afterwards has already been chosen! But, BUT! Given as this Nordic Languages one took me YEARS, I don’t know how long the next one will take me.

(4) But, you may ask, HOW ON EARTH WILL YOU LEARN ALL THE LANGUAGES OF THE WORLD?

Well, the key is learning. Not maintaining. So after the video is released, I will drop some of them for other ones. My mind has limits, and I doubt I’m the only one.

I’ve already written a lot on the Nordic Languages themselves, but I’ll be writing on some others in due time.

Until then, I’ll be working to give you a polyglot video that showcases the languages and is also entertaining, while not being too long either.

Here’s an idea for something you can do right now: you can close this window and begin going about learning the language you’ve always dreamed of. The most important thing is that it is a language that you deeply want…

…here’s to your journey!

No, Americans are Not “Worse” or “Better” at Languages Than Anybody Else

While there are some certain realities that cannot be denied (that every member of my extended family that is still living, with the exception of myself, is a monoglot), it has little to do with reality and more to do with attitude.

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Austin, TX, home to speakers of Spanish, Japanese, Upper Sorbian and Northern Sami, among others

Think about it. If you were raised with everyone telling you that learning a language is a waste of time, hopeless beyond a certain age, and that “everyone speaks your language anyways”…why would you expect very stellar results?

Let’s say, for the purposes of a thought experiment, that all the countries on earth, instead of the 190+ there are in reality, are the current and former members of the Danish “Common Kingdom” (Dan. “Rigsfællesskabet”). So in this world, the only countries that exist are Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m not mentioning Norway and Sweden here, that is taking the exercise a bit too far and possibly extending into controversy).

As you well know, Danes do visit and have employment opportunities on Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and in both places Danish is the second-most common language after West Greenlandic and Faroese respectively. In Iceland, Danish is still learned commonly as a foreign language after English.

In the real world, while there is some interest among Danish-speakers in learning Greenlandic and Faroese, the majority does go with the idea that “they speak Danish anyways, why bother” , not unlike what some English speakers do in the real world with where their language is commonly spoken (most of the developed world, more or less).

In this thought exercise, in which the English language does not exist, who do the “worst” language learners actually become?

The point you should take is this:

No one nationality is better or worse at learning languages than any other. But some nations do have better or worse ATTITUDES at learning languages than others.

It has little to do with age of beginning education either. The Netherlands, very high English proficiency indeed, does start its English language nearly later than any other country in the EU (I regret not remembering nor writing down the source). The earliest is Belgium (3 years, if I recall correctly).

But there is no correlation between age and English proficiency or proficiency in any other languages.

Often I read articles about how wonderful the Luxembourgers / South Africans / Nigerians / Scandinavians / Dutch are at “linguistic ability, and then sometimes I feel pain. Why did I have to be born into this nation?

But at a certain point, I realized, especially coming from the Northeastern U.S., that I had advantages in picking up languages that people from these countries and others do not.

  1. English may be everywhere in certain countries, but in many American Cities, nearly EVERY major language is everywhere.

In Heidelberg, I struggled to find speakers of official EU languages of smaller countries. In New York City, I once encountered two Faroese speakers over the course of a single weekend! (P.S. that was NOT the Polyglot Conference).

Furthermore, the neighborhoods of many American cities are known for being, to some degree, ethnically divided, with regional languages dominating alongside English. Yes, this does exist to a degree in many other developed countries, but given as the United States still remains the world’s most popular immigration destination, you can imagine the variety you can help yourself to!

This is the U.S.’s hidden treasure that it has lying out in the open. But will you take it?

  1. American English has its accents taken from the various countries from which its immigrants came. You probably have a variety of foreign accent without knowing it.

 

This is somewhat self-explanatory. Upon returning from Germany to the U.S., I noticed exactly how many American accents owed themselves to German. I also noticed significant Slavic strands (especially Polish) as well as Scandinavian strands among American accents in general. Sometimes I could even tell what an American’s ancestry was based on listening to their voice, and you’d be surprised how right I was!

As a result of this, you’ve been exposed to a plethora of voices that you somehow need to convert into the many accents of the world. Again, the fact that so many immigrate and have immigrated to the U.S. can make this a boon.

  1. American English has a colloquial speech taken from words and colloquialisms from all of the immigrant languages.

“Long time no see”, “you hear?” as a question, and “this here book” all started out as immigrant mistakes, and then they became fossilized in correct, although slang, English. In literally EVERY language I have studied, I have seen an influence that the language has played in English, or, alternatively, that English has influenced it. (This holds true even for minority and/or smaller languages!!!)

As a teacher of languages myself, I make a point of showing how much of the target language a person knows already, without extensive effort. I point out the various connections between that target language and English.

If you ever hear me do it during a lesson, your conception of “Americans are bad with languages” will be banished forever to the hinterlands, never to be heard from again.

For learning a language as an American, it is merely connecting the various familiarities you already have from certain popular culture phenomena or slang expressions and then you have a stable base in a language upon which you can grow fluency.

4, No American I have met has ever decried any language as “useless”.

You’d be surprised how often I get in some countries a “why would you want to learn that?” response. You’d be surprise how, when I used to speak English in some countries, there would be those that put down the local language as useless (hint: if you speak the local language well, or even not so well, no one will ever say anything bad about it! On either side!)

Americans, thanks to a general open-mindedness but also a very friendly demeanor, NEVER judge you on your language choices. Furthermore, they are never skeptical about the idea of a polyglot (some people, especially in Europe, see the idea of learning lots of language an extraordinary waste of time. I heartily disagree because the skills between languages are more transferable than you may think, especially within the same families and sub-families!).

You’ll encounter learners of the rarest languages at American polyglot gatherings (as I’ve seen last week) and you won’t hear any scorn among them. In fact, scorn will be heavily discouraged! In fact, more often than not, a rare language is seen as a thing of extraordinary pride. True, when I was in Germany and Iceland, there were those that marveled about the fact that I could understand Greenlandic (which I then forgot and am now learning again!), but the awe shown is only a fraction of the praise that Americans, polyglots or not, will shower upon you for your efforts and commitments.

You are really encouraged to pursue your dreams in this country. Language learning should be no exception.

And the only thing holding America back from being the greatest multilingual powerhouse the world has ever seen is an attitude, paid for by pseudoscience and fear.

Get rid of that, and a wonderful, new ultra-omniglot United States will come into being, unlike any other country that ever existed!

Overmorrow is Coming

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For nearly a month I’ve neglected a lot of my blogs, but this is in part due to holidays, my game design, and also quite a lot of study.

This weekend marks two important events for me. For one, the Polyglot Conference, in which I and many others will meet in person many of the authors and luminaries who inspired us to go on our many language journeys.

Second, October 10th and 11th marks four years to the day that I began my three years abroad right after college, which began in Krakow and then ended up in too many other places to count. Alas, I seem to have forgotten all but the most basic Polish, but another task will soon come to me before this academic year is out, one that will require me to re-learn a lot of it!

Through the study of a lot of my languages, I’ve had to re-evaluate some of them both down and up in the past month (The Celtic Languages I was a lot weaker in than I thought, and  the Finnic languages were stronger).

In the past month, I also made the difficult decision to drop Greenlandic from my repertoire for the time being, although it is truly impossible to forget a language entirely. Given how much I have already devoted to Greenlandic already, it seems that this is merely a pause.

But I also remember that Icelandic and Danish I first struggled with a lot at first, and then, upon becoming more hearty a “language hacker”, I wasn’t nearly intimidated by them.

The past few weeks have been replete with virtually non-stop study, putting my work for my game and even my MA final examination on hold (I was told by my MA examiners that I should use my language abilities in my reading list, but there is only so much you can do with a something like Icelandic in a final exam about Jewish History).

I do not say this lightly: there were also times in which I was absolutely frozen and unable to continue with studying, perhaps worried that, despite the endless hours I had thrown into lots of languages, that I somehow “wasn’t good enough”.

But above all, language learning is not a contest. Not particularly a sport, either. It isn’t an issue of who speaks language X the best being the winner, it isn’t about who speaks the most languages being the winner, it is a process of exploration, in the same way that hiking really isn’t a competitive sport.

To make this point, my biggest shame in my language learning experience, followed by my biggest mirth.

Heidelberg, Germany. February 2014. I was asked to give a “Referat” (something like a class presentation / teaching the class for one day). Obviously, the class was held in German, but I remember using so much Yiddish, Hebrew and English in between (the topic was Jewish studies) that one of the co-teachers actually shook her head in despair, wondering how a “stupid American” ever made it into this program to begin with.

That semester was actually quite replete with similar incidents like that, my journey through the German language, more than that of any other, being one of “tripping and falling”. The fact that I had Yiddish and Scandinavian languages under my belt at that point didn’t help much—I thought that my truest attempts at “High German” would always be tainted.

But as it turns out, in the last few months (June – July) my fears evaporated. Sometimes I still think of that semester and cringe. But I suppose I would cringe even more had I chosen to try even less than I did.

Now the biggest pride:

April 2015, Ben-Gurion Airport. On the way back from Israel, visiting my family members, with my Anglophone parents on the way back to the U.S. Given as I am the spokesman, the security staff, without my knowledge, puts me in the line for people who have Israeli passports (he mistook me for one of his own, and Israelis have possibly the most refined American-radars on the planet, blame Birthright).

Upon reaching the security staff at the end of the line, we were told that we should be in the line for foreign passports and that we had no business being in that line whatsoever.

And then of course there is the honorable mention of passing as a local in a place rumored by some to be the hardest to get the locals to speak to you in the local language.

Well, whatever becomes of this conference, it will definitely be fun, no doubt!

Looking forward to meeting my fellow hikers,

Jared

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Polyglot Conference Excitement, Plans and Hopes

After getting back from Iceland (and even before that), I got into a series of tangles that was more dangerous than Hercules’ Hydra. Luckily, the end of result of these tangles was that I published a game, which you can look at and/or purchase here.

(And for those of you wondering, there will be a future installment of “Kaverini” that will serve primarily as a language showcase. Oh, and social commentary too)

Ever since I registered for the Polyglot conference back in June, I had decided to build up a collection with very few new additions so that I could feel confident and secure that I belonged with the “best of the best” in the language-learning world.

For those of you unaware, this is the first time the Polyglot Conference has entered the Western Hemisphere. The conference will be held in October 10-11, and one of my friends from the New York Polyglot Bar scene (Alex Vera) will be presenting on third-culture identities. He is a personality whose lecture you will feel guilty about missing.

So in the coming days, I’ll have a series of posts, inspired by others that I’ve seen, about the essential lessons about learning and life I got from each of my language journeys.

You know what? I’m just gonna go for it right now. And consider this my list of languages that I will use for the conference.

 

English: The journey to acquiring my native language was, nonetheless, a journey. It was different because it took a lot longer but it was the same because it involved the same methods of learning words, for the most part.

When I was a child, I obviously learn the “core vocabulary” from talking to my parents and family members (the 300 words that most commonly appear in a language), but when it came to more complicated words (like “complicated”), I usually learned them from VHS home videos, and it always helped that whenever I encountered a word that I did not know, I asked either of my parents.

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The Lesson: having exposure, in any form, is everything. And even if you don’t understand everything, guides, in any form, will help you. Human ones are obviously the best.

German: Along with Spanish and Hebrew, this was the one language that I felt I “tripped and fell” with the most. I had learned Yiddish to a significant degree beforehand, but what happened as a result was that I had a lot of gaps in my German vocabulary.

Namely, whenever “loshn-koydeshdike verter”  (words from the Holy Tongue), would be used in Yiddish, I blanked on the German equivalent. Lots of words indicating time relations in Yiddish come from Hebrew. Permanently is “l’doyres” (literally, “to / for generations”), during is “be’es” (literally, “in the time [of])

And then there were times that I had to give presentations in class, in German, in front of native speakers, and I slipped up terribly, often having to substitute Yiddish or English words for words I didn’t grasp. And my self-consciousness discouraged me from using German in all social situations, when I very well could have (well, in most).

There was a time that I used a Yiddish word, “landsmanshaft” (namely, the togetherness felt by people who live in the same place), and one of my friends told me (kindly) not to use in in German because some people associate it with Nazism (!)

I felt utterly ashamed at not having tried hard, but I was also struggling with many other things aside from culture shock and not also to mention a fair amount of discouragement from learning from some people, and from my own doubts.

But in the last few months, I found out that a lot of the fear of judgment was just imaginary. I began to buy lots of German-language books for learning other languages. And that was the magic trick that, perhaps long overdue, sealed my journey to fluency.

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The Lesson: Books are important. Reading is important. And never, ever, ever give up.

Yiddish: The first language I thought that I genuinely got good at, the only time I recently struggle with it was when I was asked to explain a development of a video game I was then working on (and am still working on) and just…could not…

But the reason that I got good at it was because of the Yiddish Farm summer program, in which English was banned in an informal capacity.

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The Lesson: Shut out your native language = progress

Norwegian: There were few times I fell for a language as hard as I did for Norwegians. My Swedish friends all loved the sounds and the rhythms of the Oslo dialect, and there were many other fluent English speakers that said that it was very easy to get to grips with, not also to mention quite useful. (The amount of Norwegian-related requests and jobs on the market is surprisingly shocking to anyone who expects it to be “useless”. It has probably been the most solicited of my language services).

I had trouble with all of the languages I learned, but surprisingly, I had the least with Norwegian. Supportive native speakers, an accent that was very similar to that of British English, and enough learning materials to choke on.

But what really helped me the most was my enthusiasm, which made effort effortless.

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The Lesson: If you “fall in love” with a language, act immediately, and act passionately!

Danish: A sheer mention of this language will strike fear in the heart of a Swedish-learner. I know, because I’ve seen it happen many times. The swallowed letters, the glottal stops, the plethora of vowel sounds (but not a plethora of vowel-letters).

Put it shortly, I could read Danish, I could understand it (but that took a LONG time, and a LOT of hours of TV to do so), but at several points I consigned myself to the fact that I would never manage to have any active usage of it. Especially when spoken.

But thanks largely to the amount of exposure which I had, not only from the TV but also from the product labels in Sweden, I realized that I had a lot more power in the language than I thought I did. I remember having my first few conversations, and my thoughts all throughout was, “I thought I would never get here…ever since the beginning…”

And so it was.

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The Lesson: It’s always impossible until you actually do it. Therefore, true impossibility in regards to language learning = nil.

Swedish – Oh Lord. My first exposure to Swedish was shortly after my maternal grandmother died, leaving behind, among other things, letters from my ancestors written in Swedish.

At that time, I was gearing up for a work opportunity in Stockholm. So my goal was twofold: (1) complete the work and (2) learn Swedish, if for nothing but the letters.

There were those Swedes who were VERY supportive of my efforts, and others (a minority, I should add) who deemed it to be a waste of time.

Even in the United States, my results were mixed. Some were just barely impressed, others were positively infatuated. I was told that I spoke like an American, a German, a Finn, and like a long-time resident of Stockholm. All throughout the same journey.

But all the time, I kept on making progress, regardless of what anyone told me or how anyone reacted. The fact that it was more “difficult” for me to impress Swedes than those of many other nationalities actually added to my motivation!

And at some point, I thought that the importance for myself (being a fourth-generation Swedish American) outweighed any criticism I may receive.

And another thing? The better you get, the less skepticism you’ll encounter, and the chances of people forcing English upon you will reduce to nothing!

I should also add that without the helpful folks at the Heidelberger Sprachcafe, it is likely that I would have forgotten the language altogether!

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The Lesson: Don’t worry about not impressing people or discouragement. Just get better. If you just keep on going, you’ll get good enough to impress everyone. Eventually.

Dutch – The first thing that I bring up about my Dutch journeys is this: In 2013, when I visited the Netherlands and Belgium for the first time, I had a fair (although not really fluent) Dutch under my belt (I really didn’t get that until earlier this year).

But in the Netherlands, I did get a lot of people responding in English, but in Belgium, I didn’t. Outside of the country, however, I got the opposite: I got Dutch people responding in Dutch but Belgians responding in English.

After a significant amount of practice (which is always easier written than done…imagine no English media for weeks on end…), the responding in English problem just…disappeared…

It occurred to me after my Icelandic venture exactly what I did wrong.

The biggest problem you are having in getting people to respond in the language?

STOP SOUNDING LIKE A LEARNER.

I remember when I ordered in Dutch for one of the first times that I emphasized every single word a bit too much. When I offered it quite quickly and without hesitation (without. Emphasizing. Every. Single. Word. Like. This), then I didn’t have to worry about being responded to in English.

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The Lesson: Learn to stop sounding like a learner. Varies from language to language, but you want to sound composed, and “like you know what you are doing?” And speak in complete sentences as often as possible! I cannot stress that last bit enough!

 

Finnish – A funny story during my stay in Helsinki. I ordered a shot of Vodka, in Finnish, using the English name for the flavor (it didn’t have the Finnish name on the menu), and I got responded to in English.

Less than five minutes later, I ordered a beer, without a word of English, and he responded to me in Finnish, as though I weren’t even the same person!

Another thing I accidentally did was I overdid the “don’t say words unless you have to” thing, because some English guidebooks told me I was in the “land of the Silent Finn” (an image that can be disproved if you ever heard FinnAir stewardesses talking amongst themselves for more than a minute).

When I toned it down to not saying anything, I got answered in English, because that was taken as a sign that I didn’t know what I was doing / saying.

Your ability to say something (or your inability to say something) will indicate whether using the local language on you is a safe move. Give enough signs to show that it is, and you’ll never worry about being answered in English again!

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The Lesson: Regardless of what other components may be present, the biggest thing that ensures whether or not you get answered in the local language as opposed to English is your choice of words, your delivery, and, in some cases your behavior.

Hebrew:

This lesson is one that is tied up with both Ancient Hebrew and Yiddish.

There are lots of words that mean one thing in Ancient Hebrew and another in Modern, and, even more jarringly, a word that has two different meanings in both Modern Hebrew and Yiddish.

“Agala”? Hebrew for “Vehicle”. Spell it the same way in Yiddish, “Agole?” A hearse!

And most of the other examples that I can think of are not suitable for a family blog.

But from between the two Hebrews, “Teyva” is a box in Modern Hebrew. In Ancient Hebrew, it also refers to…the Ark…as in Noah’s Ark.

The idea of Noah’s Ark being a cardboard box. Now that’s something.

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The Lesson: When a word gets taken from one language to another, it takes on another identity, that is separate from the one it has in another language.

Northern Sami: One time at Scandinavia House NYC, I went to a Sami Theater presentation and I actually encountered a player from one of my favorite TV shows. Upon conducting what was my first-ever conversation in Northern Sami, I got stared at by a lot of the audience, as though I were a celebrity!

I was told afterwards, “I just love the sounds of that language…” and just one compliment after another…

And this was for a language that sometimes I got told was a useless endeavor!

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The Lesson: Learn Somebody’s Language, Become Somebody’s Hero. True Story.

French Unlike many other polyglots, I have to admit that my command of French is very sub-par indeed. But hopefully, thanks to its similarities with English and the endless possibilities to use it, I’ll get conversational by the time October rolls around.

Back in July 2014 I committed to learning both French and Faroese. I became fluent in one and I became just barely capable to speak another. Interestingly, my ability to read French is quite good, but when it comes to a Polyglot conference that sadly doesn’t count for much.

I did not pour hours into French (either learning it or getting exposure) the way I did with other languages. But given the relative lack of progress, I’m glad to say that I know at least something and can say some things and have a good accent, too.

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The Lesson: Something is better than nothing.

Spanish – I messed up with this language more than any other. Fact. I had trouble making myself understood to some, I had problems using correct grammar, I certainly had problems communicating with native speakers. Part of this may be due to the fact that, as an American, I realize that many other like me have attempted to learn Spanish to fluency and didn’t hit anywhere near the mark.

But I will play no blame-game of the sort.

Thanks largely to high school but also living in New York City and my experiences with “hispanohablantes” in Poland, I realized that I couldn’t erase my progress completely with this language. Even if I tried. Which is one reason why, however poorly I may speak this language now, it will come back in October with a vengeance!

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The Lesson: You never truly forget a language. At least, you always remember something.

Greenlandic – Trying to navigate this language was like trying to navigate a dungeon controlled by a maniac. Always another trap, always another thing to look out for, but some sense of logicality present overall…

The only real problem I have with Greenlandic grammar (maligned by many, even in Greenland, as being extraordinarily difficult) is choosing what order to stack suffixes, but even that only becomes a minor issue that can largely be sidestepped. I’ve written enough on Greenlandic as is. I can’t spend too much of this blog post to write more on it.

I found vocabulary throughout my Greenlandic journey more difficult to process than for any other language.

Despite all of the shortcomings, and the fact that sometimes I worried about whether my abilities were good enough, I carried on.

I cannot say that I speak Greenlandic absolutely perfect. But I could have very well folded at any point. Good thing I didn’t.

kalaallit nunaat

The Lesson: Above all, focus on what you do have. That which you don’t have will come.

Irish – I deemed this my hardest language of the bunch a significant amount of times. But after getting used to its significantly, the pronunciation, the orthography, the clash of dialects, and, of course, the grammar, sometimes I wonder why I even thought it was hard to begin with.

I see a lot of words in common with the Romance languages, a pronunciation system that, with lots and lots of practice, actually comes to make sense and, in short, nothing that I should be afraid of.

Oh, and also a lot of English words that Irish-speakers tend to throw into their speech. But this is also the case with about half of the languages on this list.

eire

The Lesson: It doesn’t seem so hard when you’ve done it. Then you wonder why you were so scared.

 

Faroese – I learned Faroese pronunciation through songs and, to a lesser degree, my German-Language Faroese book. There are lots and lots of beautiful songs written in the language and ones that will no doubt enchant all of you as well.

But looking back, this was a journey that I would have ended as soon as I started it if it were not for the new songs that I would otherwise have no clue existed. And with each language on this list, my collection of songs keeps on growing.

foroyar

The Lesson: Media in a Language is an all-around good: It keeps you motivated, it helps you learn, and it helps you maintain the language.

Cornish – Ah, the comments I got about this one. “Don’t just five people speak it?” “Why bother if only a few hundred know it?”

Sometimes I found myself affected. But then I kept in mind that Cornish is being heavily promoted in Cornwall and is basically a free ticket to employment if you know it well.

I’m not very good with Cornish right now, in fact, it is without a doubt my weakest language, but if I were stronger I would end this with the words “who’s laughing now?”

kernow

The Lesson: Don’t let others tell you what is a useful language and what isn’t.

Tok Pisin – I made quick progress in Tok Pisin because I would use it with my family members (some of which now “hate” the language quite passionately…ah, what can I do…). My family members, all of which (sadly) speak only English (and many have convinced themselves that this will always be the case), could understand the basic ideas of Pidgin English phrases, so I used this to get quick practice.

I couldn’t do this with too many of the other languages on this list.

I made sprints in learning this language, a lot less so because it resembled English and had simple grammar and more so because I actually used it more often than many others.

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The Lesson: Use your skills at all possible times for maximum improvement.

Breton – This is a funny one. I remember having my first conversation in Breton over the summer. I actually went to an event in Brooklyn, but I misunderstood the brochure—I thought it was going to be a Breton Conversation Hour. Instead, it was Breton for absolute beginners.

I show up, but I had limiting speaking practice at this point .While speaking to the teacher, there was one key point that I knew from when before I even spoke my first word of the language…namely…

In Breton, you should (in general) ALWAYS accent the penultimate syllable!

It was shocked how much effort I put into learning lots of phrases on the train, but when it came to the flow of conversation…I was put off by the simplest detail!

Nevertheless, the teacher was pleased. Not only that, but the teacher was late, which meant that I had to teach the class for a bit until she showed up!

breizh

The Lesson: The small things you don’t notice can count for a lot.

Icelandic – I told the entire story here. I’m not really repeating it. TL;DR: the Internet told me that I would never get answered in Icelandic if I used the local language. The Internet, for one out of many times, was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, the amount of times I got answered in English I could count on my fingers. And all of them were at the hotel.

island

The Lesson: Don’t believe language-learner horror stories.

Icelandic, Iceland and I

Here’s a tip: with the exception of a select amount of polyglot blogs (the likes of which you are now reading, don’t expect any encouragement for your language-learning project from the Internet.

Especially when your target language conjures questions along the lines of “everyone there speaks English”.

In the case of Icelandic, which I began studying this past November, and then dropped it on and off until about July or so, in which it became a good fixture, this was particularly marked.

Iceland, or so the likes of Yahoo Answers and their ilk noted, was THE HARDEST PLACE ON EARTH to get people to speak their local language to you. There were horror stories shared of students studying in Iceland who wore shirts and buttons saying “speak Icelandic to me”, because otherwise, if you messed up with your grammar, you would stand the ghost of a chance, getting the dreaded “response in English”.

Wait, wait, wait! This story has a very happy ending. Keep reading until the end of the post!

I figured, “y’know what? I’m just going to try anyhow…”

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A self-diagnosis of my Icelandic abilities prior to my trip: Grammar quite good, quite good control of core vocabulary, having an educated conversation? Forget about it. Simple phrases? Good as ever.

In short, perhaps “somewhere between proficient and fluent” worked.

So I had my expectations set up for me. As much as I distrusted (and continue to distrust) the Internet, I knew that I was in for a challenge for language tourism in Iceland. But that doesn’t mean trying is out of the question!

I remember thinking as I was schlepping my bags to the car, ready to head to the airport, “if I get can keep people answering in Icelandic, then that means that I will NEVER be able to worry about being answered in English anywhere EVER AGAIN, and that my language confidence will go to into space and never get down from there!”

What Happened in Iceland

The most important thing to remember is that I was travelling with three monoglot English speakers (members of my family). I often get asked, both by people within and without the polyglot club, if my family members are also as interested in languages as I.

The short answer: no. The long answer: not in the least, and actually some of them believe that it is useless and/or hopeless, while still respecting and admiring me.

I let my parents handle a lot of the business on their own accord (I have enough times when I’m the boss of my own circle as is).

So we meet the taxi driver to take us to the airport, and I say, in Icelandic, “pleased to meet you” (“gaman að hitta þig”) After which she responds in English, I respond nervously, “…did I get that right?”

“Yes, it seems that you’ve been practicing”. In English. Although with a smile…

“Oy vey”, I thought, “they’re right…”

All throughout the hotel, people only responded to my pleasantries in English, I have to admit: while sleeping, I thought that I was in for an awful ride and that I would suffer a permanent blow to my language confidence from which I would never recover.

Well…just keep trying…

The Next Chapter

After getting up at 15:00 local time we go to a restaurant nearby. My family orders in English. Quickly having rehearsed some vocabulary from looking at the Icelandic menu, I order in Iceland, and I ask the waiter if he has Jólabjór. For those unaware, this is a seasonal beer that comes out at around Christmastime, changing the label and the name every single year, as well as the flavor.

And the waiter, much to my elation, responds to me personally in Icelandic, in the presence of my English-speaking family members.

He returns to the kitchen, and then comes out to clarify my order (whether or not I want sauce on my sandwich.) And this time…in…Icelandic! Again!

At this point, I think to myself, “I wonder how long I can keep this up for…”

Chapter 3

Scene: Tourist office in Reykjavik.

My parents are booking a tour, and there is an ice cream parlor right underneath the travel agent’s office.

They’re gonna be tied up for a while. So my parents tell me that, if I want to, I can get some ice cream.

I order the ice cream (chocolate and oreo in a cone), in flawless Icelandic, without a word of English between the server and myself. I pay with the credit card. No slip-ups.

Thereafter…

The tour involved the Icelandic tour guide speaking mostly in English. I did not have enough Icelandic to speak at length with him, but I did try to use it whenever possible, such as telling him I was ready or that I had a problem.

He told my parents behind my back that my Icelandic was “surprisingly good”.

And after that, the reality was, with the exception of the hotel staff and the one time that another tour guide (of another group) told me not to get too close to Eyjafjallajökull, (or “E15”, as the Icelandically challenged have called it….

I DID NOT GET ANSWERED IN ENGLISH A SINGLE TIME!

Jared Language Missions: 1

Internet Pessimism: 0.1

Conclusion:

We went back to that first restaurant one time, and the waitresses, without any English at all, asked me how I learned my Icelandic and in how long.

They brought out the entire staff of the restaurant to marvel at what the Internet and my conviction hath wrought.

I hadn’t been happier during my entire language life as I was during that moment.

Giving credit where credit is due, I think that if it were not for this little gem, which I discovered in the German language “Isländisch Wort für Wort” (Icelandic Word by Word) language guide, then this happy ending wouldn’t have come about:

die islander

Translation: The Icelanders speak quickly and slur often, that is to say, the letters (…) fall out now and then. So, for example, the sentence … (meaning “that must be somewhere”) is spoken like…

This simple piece of advice was not addressed at all in any other book that I had read! And it possibly turned out to be essential.

Thinking back to when I tried to speak Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgium, one thing I did too often was pronounce each word individually, making me sound like a learner. With Icelandic, I was told never to do that, which made me sound natural!

And one last piece!

Celebrities often visit Iceland. It is one place where presidents of the United States and famous actors are treated like everyone else. Icelanders tend to not give too much thought to any type of celebrity culture, which is one reason these famous people turn to Iceland time and again to escape the stress of their recognition.

If I were president of the US, then they wouldn’t have brought out the entire restaurant staff to show me off. But given had a firm grasp of Icelandic (however far away from ideal that might be right now), I was treated like a hero in their eyes.

A tourist of the highest order.

A friend of Iceland.

I intend that this friendship continue for much longer than this trip did.

2015-08-18 12.26.00

“It is Never Too Late”: How Successful Language Learners Engage the Question of Age

Between the area where Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic intersect, there is an area called “Lausitz” (in German) which is also the home of the Sorbian / Wendish peoples, who speak not one but two Slavic minority languages in Germany (“Upper Sorbian” and “Lower Sorbian”).

(For those curious: the name is “Łužica” in Upper Sorbian and “Łužyca” in Lower Sorbian)

In one of my first exposures to this minority culture, there was a montage (on one of the Sorbian cultural websites or so) of various Sorbian people saying in the Sorbian Languages, German that it is “never too late”.

This is the attitude that any learner requires and should attain.

By contrast, many of my American friends (including members of my own family) believe that the only true way to have gotten good at a language was merely to “start earlier”.

If only it were that simple…because if that were the true solution, it would have been implemented already by everyone to maximum effect!

This should be said: Anglophones are not the only ones that learn languages in school and then forget how to use them completely…I’ve seen people make confessions of this sort everywhere I have been. Even those fluent in a number of languages in the double-digits!

STA_4339

The idea that childhood usage = adult usage can be refuted by noting the case of the Kindertransport, Jewish children adopted by other families from Nazi Germany, many of whom forgot to use German entirely. I’ve even encountered people in my age demographic who have forgotten their native language completely as well!

Well, then…you may say…certainly starting earlier means that you speak with a perfect accent, right…? Right?

That may be the case, but also ask anyone who has worked with accent training for singers and accents…

Once you learn how to position your mouth and tongue accordingly, you can imitate any sound on the planet, regardless of what you may have heard about your mouth taking its shape at age 10 (or so) and refusing to morph any further (or learn any new sounds).

These positions can be learned. And there is one thing I tell anyone who says that he or she is “not a language person”:

If you can imitate a voice, you can do any accent.

I’ve heard countless young people imitate their co-workers and peers on the streets of Manhattan. Certainly they have no excuse as far as the accent is concerned.

There is one argument that I will concede to the “earlier = better” crowd. In a way, it makes the racking up of hours in your target language easier. Learning a language isn’t exactly about early exposure nor is it about courses taken. It is the amount of hours plugged into the task.

Here’s the good news for you folks reading this on the internet:

Thanks to the Web, your chances to get your hours for your target language are extraordinarily common, more than your parents certainly would have ever had it when they were your age.

There are many reasons that people that undertake language projects don’t reach their goals. Having started too late in life isn’t a serious issue. The list of serious issues will come in another article (and I hope that language teachers especially will be reading it).

To conclude, there is one thing…ONE mindset, that American society will need to adopt it ever it seeks to overcome its reputation as notoriously monolingual…and it most definitely is capable of it…

Learn from the Sorbs, and repeat after me…and them:

It is Never Too Late!

P.S. Ah, I found that video!

Why Greenlandic is Easy

Today is a special day on multiple accounts! The Summer Solstice, Midsummer, American Father’s Day, last and certainly not least, the National Day of Greenland!

Thanks largely to having to prepare a project for publication in Autumn I left this blog unchanged (although not alone!) for about a month (it would be exactly a month tomorrow, if not for this post).

I was wondering what I could do to honor Greenland Day. More songs? I got plenty of them from the blog’s birthday back in May. Describe the language and my journey with it? I have a feeling that I’ve already done that.

Well…while thinking about it yesterday, I remember that one Norwegian linguist (Rolf Theil) actually described the Greenlandic Language as the “hardest to learn in the world”.

His rationale: lots and lots of suffixes. Part of me doesn’t blame him, I have a printout of the complete lists of Greenlandic suffixes in my living room, there are about 300 for verbs and 100 for adjectives.

But I was never one for discouragement anyhow, so this post is your antidote.

I told my friends for a long time that Greenlandic was the most difficult language I ever struggled with. I really have to say that…it is no longer true. I have found Irish far worse, although I have found both very beautiful experiences and languages and very worthwhile indeed, despite what others may want to tell you.

Anyhow, let’s get through it…

2015-03-05 13.54.21

Alphabet: The alphabet used for Greenlandic, unlike that of the Canadian aboriginal languages, is the one that you are currently reading this in. The special letters found in Danish (æøå) also surface but only in Danish loanwords, which appear more often than you might think at first glance.

A sausage is pølsi, beef is bøffi, and in Copenhagen is Københavnimi, sometimes written København-imi.

You don’t need to learn a new system of writing. Case closed.

Pronunciation: Minus the Danish and (very few) English words, pronunciation in Greenlandic is very predictable although there are a few things to consider (this isn’t as straightforward as Finnish or Esperanto).

There are a total of three vowels: a, i, and u. e and o also exist, but as mutations of I and u respectively. Furthermore, all of these vowels can be doubled. The primary trick to remember is that “a” (not “aa”) is pronounced as a short a sound. So “tassa” (this) is pronounced like English “dessa”, with the syllables having a hint of rhyme)

T is pronounced as in English, but when it comes before an I, it shifts to a “tz” sound.

The letters “i” and combinations with it like “it” that come at the end of words are not pronounced like “ee” but instead with a short I sound (like English “bit”) that is significantly weaker than in English (say “I’ll be back in a bit” quickly and note how you pronounce the last word. Like that).

And then some tricky combinations: “l” is pronounced a bit like “dl”, with the “d” very slightly. With all of these rules in mind, see if you can pronounce the word “silami” (“outside”, or, more literally, “in the weather”).

“See-lamb-meh”

Oh, did I owe you some more tricky combinations? “rr” is pronounced as a very rolled r (imagine a very stereotypical French rolling of the r”. “ll” is pronounced the same as in Welsh (I’ll demonstrate it shortly).

And then the “q” sound. The Inuktitut / Canadian Aboriginal Syllabary notes this sound as a simple “rk” sound, but you want to pronounce this at the back of the throat.

If doubled, as in “qq”, this means that it is stronger. Note that the combination of “qar” means that the “a” loses its short pronunciation, so that it rhymes with “car”.

“-qar” is very important. It means “to have” or, in some cases, “to be present” (inoqarpa? = is someone there? [Lit. Person.have.3d-sin-question?). But when you change it to “qanngilaq” (inoqanngilaq = there is no one there), the “a” is pronounced like a short a again, like “rang” in English).

I can’t explain the ll sound to those who haven’t heard it

Now, with all of those in mind, your turn:

The first words of this song (courtesy of “Sussat!”) are “Asaneruleraluttuinarsinnaarpasippakkimmi­ illit” (Note: the “mmi is pronounced as an “ee” because the following syllable is an “I”. But note: “ee-ll-it”. Note the “ll” sound.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzFt6knmZBY

With all of that in mind, your turn:

“Tikilluaritsi!” (Welcome, all of you!)

Good J

The Logic Component: There’s this thing in some Indo-European Languages in which “logic” isn’t particularly followed most of the time, and people are surprised when the navigate outside of the family, expecting to find awfully difficult words, and then they encounter simpler rules (take Greenlandic, Finnish or Turkish for example) and then they wonder why anyone is crazy enough to call Spanish an easy language to learn.

I’m currently learning a handful of computer languages right now as a part of my job (and yes, I will write a comparison between human language learning and computer language learning!) and the constructing of commands gave me flashbacks to when I was struggling with Greenlandic.

Let’s start with a simple suffix: “-gooq”, meaning “it has been said”, or “somebody else said”.

“Qanoq?” = How?

+gooq

=

“Qanorooq? = “What did he/she say?

Two things:

  • Q + G = R. There are other combinations that alter endings as such but I can’t introduce them all here.
  • “Qanorooq”, if you looked on google.gl already, is the name of a Greenlandic news show. Good name, don’t you think?

And just like mathematics, Greenlandic follows these rules upon getting more complicated:

Kiilumut 40 kroneqarpoq. Pissaviuk?

One Kilo costs 40 Danish Crowns. Do you want it?

Kiilu+mut = Kilo (Danish import) + mut (ablative, more lik “for” or “through”, and other uses I don’t want to get into).

40 = Let’s go on record here and say that in Greenlandic, all numbers higher than 12 are all Danish. Two-for-one!

Krone = Danish word for a crown. Pronounce like English word “groan” + “eh”

Qar + poq = qar (see above) + poq (3rd person singular verb ending).

Pi + ssa + vi + uk = Something / take something + future + you (question) (Full form is “vit”) + it.

Plurals: Yiddish has a lot of ways of forming the plurals, the Germanic languages in general do tend to have a plethora.

Greenlandic is not Esperanto (as regular as you can get), but it does have only 10 plural constructions, some of which only exists for a handful of words. All of them, however, have a t at the end. Examples: Ateq (name) = aqqit (names) erneq (son) = ernerit (sons) inuk (person) = inuit (people).

Yes, the word “Inuit” literally means “people”.

Acquiring vocabulary: You have to be smart about this! You should NOT be memorizing long formulates to begin with. You should be learning the small bits first, and from these bits you should be putting your own words together.

I think Theil and many others (including myself) tried at first by memorizing lots and lots of BIG words. But imagine if you tried to learn a language using only sentences rather than individual vocabulary? That wouldn’t go over too well.

You need a balance, on the side of smaller things.

 

Wrapping Up: Every time I look at a Greenlandic/Danish or Greenlandic/English vocabulary list, I am struck by how, in Greenlandic, everything makes extraordinary sense! Take English “food”. The Greenlandic equivalent? Inuussutissat. If you recognized “inuk” in there, good. It means, very roughly, “something people use to let themselves keep going into the future”. I could give more examples, but this I’ve given you too much already.

kalaallit nunaat

Pilluarit! Apuulluarna! (Congratulations! May you come to reach your destination/goal!)