What Good Does a Forgotten Language Do?

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Milwaukee, WI

Everywhere I have been I have encountered people who learned a language to a certain degree and then forgot it. This occurred with languages learned in adulthood as well as those learned in childhood at any stage.

Forgetting a language, in my opinion, seems to pose a bit of a “half-life” scenario, in which knowledge not sustained tends to decrease over time by “halves”.

I have a handful of languages that I have forgotten and cannot form sentences in. French, which I learned as a child, slight amounts of Japanese, Chinese, and also having majored in Classics in college gave me Classical Greek and Latin, both of which have fallen out of use in favor of…ummm…other languages that I would rather devote my time to.

Estonian and Polish have also gone that way for me, although of the forgotten languages that I have, these ones are definitely the strongest (and I didn’t really feel strong in Polish at any point, despite having lived in the country…shame, shame, shame on me…)

Well, good news for those of you who have forgotten languages: there are still some benefits to be had with having learned it.

For one, there are friends made with any language journey that takes place in a public setting. Even in a private setting, there are songs and stories and cultural tidbits that are encountered. Even if the entire language fades, many of these remain, and you would be surprised about how much you may be capable of remembering.

There is a certain discipline that comes with the experience as well, and it is worth to glimpse a culture, however weakly.

I remember one time in the Heidelberg Sprachcafe in which I encountered a Spanish-speaker who had a good friend from Finland and then proceeded to give me basic phrases in Finnish with a very heavily intoned Spanish accent. I was amused and delighted, and you have the power to amuse and delight people just the same with whatever knowledge you may have left.

With a culture also comes a set of texts that you may have been able to read at one point, but can no longer. Even if you can’t read the text any more, the morals of the stories stay with you, as some may some obscure details about the language contained within the texts.

This may also manifest in the form of song lyrics or a tune of a certain song that became popular in your group or study session. Even when I had forgotten virtually all of the Russian that I knew, I did have certain tunes spring to mind from Kino, Mumij Troll, or the Cheburashka short films. With my steadily weakening Estonian, I still have Ott Lepland on my hard drive and those tunes don’t go away as easily!

Learning patterns and discipline and grammar in any form is helpful skill-building. In my Classical Greek classes, I remembered a lot of grammatical terms that became helpful when learning live languages further down the road. They helped me think about these languages more easily.

The fact is, it is a well-known fact that most students in foreign language classes tend to forget the languages due to disuse. But there is a reason that these classes exist to begin with! And you should realize that if you undertook this journey in the past, you still have something of that journey.

And if you undertake this journey in the future, remember that, should you forget it all, you will still have pieces as well.

And those pieces will glitter brightly. More than you think…

“I Read an Article That Said…”

Too often do I encounter people who bring to me scientific “proofs” that it is impossible to learn a language beyond a certain age / impossible to learn X amount of languages / impossible to get a native-like accent beyond a certain age.

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This frustrates me to no end, because these studies only act to discourage people from even trying. And even when people  do try, if these studies are taken seriously by people, then the learners will be holding themselves back, and severely so.

A few days ago I was told by someone that it was impossible for the brain to learn more than nine languages. The fact is that there are people with human brains who can process 9+ languages, and I have seen and heard it happen (with people other than myself, obviously), so obviously such an idea holds no weight because demonstrable phenomena in the real world disprove it.

In both my other blog and this one, I find myself in constant struggle with forces from mass media that serve no other purpose aside to shut doors on people’s dreams.

I myself had thought that I would never be a true polyglot because I believed those studies at one point. Now I don’t believe them and neither should you.

Among people who have spent time in countries other than the United States, the idea that learning a language is impossible beyond a certain age is just simply not believed. All who are reading this (or have the ability to read this) should take a similar stance.

Among scientific literature journals, there are lots of opinions to be found that can prove almost anything. Earlier this year I found a quote from a Norwegian linguist that said that Greenlandic was the world’s hardest language (on account of the dizzying amount of suffixes, or so he says).

Actually having studied Greenlandic, I find many words in the language to make more sense than equivalents in a Germanic language like English or Danish, and this is precisely because of the suffix system that was derided as being “impossible” in the study.

What am I trying to say here?

There will be some teachers that will open doors for you, and there will be others that will close doors for you.

Too often in the United States do I see that doors are being closed for language learners.

My job is to open them to you.

Will you come in?

Cornish: Corny People? Cornland?

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Up until half a year ago, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Cornish Language, although after that point I found out that it was one of several languages in Europe (Livonian and Manx Gaelic also come to mind) that had passed to the point of extinction and had been revived).

No doubt my adventures on Crowdin, that have come to a temporary halt as a result of examinations and final papers, had spurred me into curiosity, which tends to attack me and bring me in odd directions in the most unpredictable of ways.

Chances are that you might not know what Cornish is, either, so allow me to explain.

About 1,000 years ago, if you were to look at a map of Britain (the Island that has England, Scotland and Wales on it, minus the minor Islands claimed by these countries), you’ll notice that Wales is not conquered by the English, and there is a comparatively small area below (a little peninsula that stretches out in the southwest of England) that wasn’t under English control either.

That is Cornwall, bordering Devon to the east, and it is one of the six Celtic Nations (the others being the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany [in France, below Cornwall]).

Cornwall (Kernow, as it is referred to in Cornish), had its own language that was in the same Celtic sub-family as Welsh and Breton (the language of Brittany).

One time before almost anyone alive on this planet now was even born, the last native Cornish speaker died, although in more modern times, the language was revived from texts (some have drawn a comparison to Modern Hebrew, which has had a lot of mythology surrounding it already).

And now the question comes, “how many people speak it?”

Perfectly, as in native? A few hundred, although there are many thousands more with a proficient command of a language, hell-bent on being warriors for the Cornish Language, like so many other movements for endangered languages.

I am reminded of this point of a Welsh proverb that says that a nation without a language is like a language without a soul, exactly the sort of mentality required for a linguistic revival of any sort.

So, here it comes. Cornish is my next language project, likely to replace Estonian on my list.

And here is another thing: there is a very specific reason that I am undertaking this Cornish Language project, and I cannot reveal it to you yet. But rest assured that it will be quite exciting indeed, if it materializes!

I’ll write more on the specifics of the Cornish Language in another post.

In the meanwhile, here is how some of my other projects are going:

  • I have mastered Greenlandic grammar. Two gargantuan tasks stand from fluency: (1) a mastery of every single suffix (the only comprehensive lists that exist are in Danish, and are resting in my DropBox account) and (2) a mastery of all essential vocabulary.

 

  • I’m still tied up with Icelandic and Faroese grammar and I’m self-conscious about both. Lord Forbid I actually have to look at tables and recite things out loud! Suffice it to say that I have a “carrot” for learning Icelandic that I will have to reveal at a later date, so I’ll use that as ample motivation…vocabulary with both is close enough to the other Germanic Languages that I’m not too intimidated by it.

 

  • On the other hand, Finnish and Northern Sami…well, if I don’t regularly maintain these then I’m going to forget both of them. There is a very real danger of this happening if I am poorly disciplined.

 

  • Portuguese has gotten a lot worse, Spanish a lot better, and Dutch a LOT I put it all up to living in New York City.

 

  • Swedish is in danger of slipping.

 

  • I really should be writing a paper that involves reading texts in German Gothic script. The good thing? That I’m almost done with it…

 

  • At least I don’t have to worry about my Hebrew exam anymore. Reflections on that course later, now that it is complete.

 

In the meantime, take the time to close the computer and get excited about something!

Where in the World are the Faroe Islands?

Upon mentioning anything about the Faroese Language, I always expect to get asked, “where is that spoken?” Upon mentioning the Faroe Islands, I expect to get asked, “where are they?”

My go-to answer, before we go any further: a group of 18 islands (17 of which have people living on them), which are located roughly between the North of Scotland and Iceland. They have their own postage stamps and are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark but are self-governing and have their own language (Faroese) although knowledge of Danish is also common there (as is knowledge of English in some circles).

Here they are:

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Most people in the United States (and a good deal of folk elsewhere) that I have spoken to have absolutely no idea where they are. This is why I thought I would write this post in my own words and develop my own introduction to the culture and image of the Faroe Islands, and why such things became a hobby of mine.

Disclaimer: as of the time of writing, I have not visited the Faroe Islands, although one day I definitely hope to.

Wherever you are on the islands, you are no further than five kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean.

I will use this point to drive into the various images that the Faroe Islands has when abroad. One of these is sports.

There are about 47,000 people who live on the Faroe Islands, even though there are more people than these who have knowledge of Faroese (mostly in Denmark).

The Faroe Islands have a football (soccer?) team that is internationally recognized and, as such, represents the country at large-scale events like the World Cup and the Euro Tournament. Given their relative size to many of the other countries of Europe, you can imagine the sort of things that are said both by the Faroese and their opponents whenever the Faroese National Team wins a game.

One of my friends in Germany told me that the Faroese National Team is not composed of professional players, but rather people from other professions that choose to undertake the sport as a hobby. Not only that, but soccer balls are weighted to avoid the likelihood that they will be kicked into the Atlantic Ocean.

Another thing that the Faroe Islands is stereotypically known for is rainy weather, and a guidebook I read yesterday in the Columbia Bookstore advised that visiting the Faroe Islands at any other time than summer was ill-advised unless you are a “meditative” type.

Because the islands themselves are not suitable for farmland, although are suitable for grazing sheep, the traditional food of the Faroe Islands has been consistent largely of sheep, birds, pilot whale meat, rhubarbs, and other slight fauna capable of growing in such an area. (Side note: the coat of arms of the Faroe Islands actually depicts a sheep).

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When I bring up the whale thing, I usually get asked in disbelief…

“They…eat…WHALES?!!?”

Which brings up to another popular image of Faroese Culture, the Grindadráp, or the hunting of pilot whales, which is what the Islands are best known for in some circles. (Do not put that word into Google Images unless you have a strong stomach! You have been warned…I’m serious!)

For those of you who would prefer a less graphic introduction to this side of the culture, I redirect you to this cartoon, courtesy of Scandinavia and the World.

I’m glad we are away from that topic.

The islands are also known for being quite heavily Christian, with many Faroese language textbooks teaching the primary source text about how Saint Ólav converted the Faroe Islands to Christendom. The national holiday of the Faroe Islands themselves is Ólavsøka, a two-day National Holiday (July 28th and 29th) named in his honor. There is also a beer associated with this festival as well.

Everything on the islands is closed on these days. I remember one time I brought this up in a conversation, and I was asked, “how many things are there that would be closed? Three stores and one church?”

On a side note, the Lonely Planet guide mentioned something about homosexuality being legal on the islands but that discriminating against them isn’t against the law. Moving on…

Lastly, before I go into the language and some of the history, I should mention the fact that the Faroe Islands, in circles where they are known, are renowned for a noteworthy beauty worthy of a fairy-tale land and untouched by hordes of tourists. (I’m certain that the fact that it rains very often in the Faroe Islands could very well be a cause!)

Now, I have already written a bit on the Faroese Language here. As an introduction for those of you who might not click on it: Faroese is related to Icelandic but is quite distant in terms of its pronunciation and is not mutually intelligible (except sometimes on paper).

The grammar is of noteworthy difficulty and the pronunciation takes time getting used to. If you know another Germanic Language (especially a Scandinavian one), then Faroese will become a lot easier to come to grips with and the secrets of pronunciation of the other Scandinavian Languages won’t be secret anymore (the “g” before front vowels in Faroese [e.g. “I” or “E”] is pronounced like an English “j”, and in Swedish it is pronounced as an English y but with a hint of the Faroese “g”. This is just one example).

And this is the flag:

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It was recognized by Winston Churchill during World War II (he was the first to recognize the flag internationally) as a result of Denmark falling to Nazi Germany and the Faroe Islands (along with Greenland and Iceland) being occupied by Allied soldiers. Flying the Danish flag wasn’t acceptable any longer and so the “Merkið” (as this flag is called) became the substitute and stuck until the day. April 25 (note: Denmark fell to Nazi Germany on the 9th) is thereby “Faroese Flag Day”.

The Faroe Islands also has a broadcasting service that is only in Faroese, and you can see it here.

And allow me to sate the likes of you with some music. It may remind you of some Scottish music and points, and I am reminded of what TV Tropes said about the genetic makeup of those who inhabit the islands: the majority of the female genes are Scottish and the majority of the male genes are Norse. Draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, are you going to close the page or are you going to treat yourself to beautiful songs you’ve probably never heard before?

Here you are:

Vit síggjast!(See ya!)

 OH…I will announce the new language in the next post! It has fewer native speakers than any other native language I have studied to date. This is your clue.

Cold Words: Planning for 2014’s Last Few Weeks

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In a matter of weeks the Gregorian Year that marked the birth of this blog will give way to another year that is hopefully very different in only the best of ways.

Looking back, this was the year where my long-desired transformation to genuine polyglot was complete (during May until July, mostly). The Polyglot Bars in New York City have cemented my confidence in some languages and pointing out noteworthy weaknesses in some of my others.

Monday marks the final day of classes at my school (despite the fact that I have one more class on Thursday). One of my final papers will actually require me to read a German book written in Gothic script, which will be an adventure that may deserve a post in its own right.

As far as my languages go, I will remember 2014 as:

  • The year that I struggled with “That Awful German Language” up until my last few weeks in Heidelberg. And even then, I reached my truest confidence when having left the German-speaking zone altogether (possibly because I wasn’t too afraid of being judged as a foreigner in New York City…)
  • The year that I cemented my skills with the Danish Language as a result of excessive immersion and realizing that native speakers were not judgmental of me as I would have imagined them to be.
  • The year that I achieved acute reading skills in both Danish and Norwegian, although I slipped with Swedish near the end of the year and it is in danger of slipping further.
  • The year that I hardened my command of Finnic Languages (Finnish mostly, but Estonian and Northern Sami deserve a mention).
  • The year of Greenlandic, a language that changed the way I see everything.
  • The year in which my skills with Slavic Languages practically died off altogether.
  • The year in which I noticed my proficiencies with Romance Languages slide into mediocrity.
  • The first year in which I genuinely felt proud of the conversations I was having and the results I was achieving with these languages.
  • The year in which my fear of being judged has begun to vanish, although it is still there.
  • The year that I had to reckon with the fact that I really do like understudied languages more. A lot more. So much so that I can’t bring myself to study “popular languages” with the same energy.

There is a little bit of time left in 2014. Here are my language goals, which I hope to achieve with gusto as soon as the school year leaves and I am left to my own devices:

  • It seems that I am forgetting Estonian at a noteworthy pace (just allotting time to other things), and as a result I should embrace a new language with great fervor. I’ve already chosen which one and the next post will be on it.

 

  • I am now capable of reading most things on Kringvarp Føroya (the Faroe Islands’ Broadcasting service), and, unlike KNR (the Greenlandic Equivalent), it isn’t translated into Danish. I do have problems with understanding spoken Faroese though, although fluency is within reach! If I focus enough, I feel as though I can have it…but I’ll definitely need to review the grammar and listen to a lot of songs and stories for children!

 

  • Attend the Polyglot Bar NYC on this coming Tuesday and think about my progress (or lack thereof) about Spanish and Portuguese realistically. Is just throwing TV at the problem the answer?

 

Here are my priorities for these next few weeks, in descending order of importance:

 

  • Maintaining my strongest languages with media immersion, especially the weakest in that category.
  • Duolingo and Memrise routines
  • Mystery Language Introduction
  • Faroese Fluency
  • Icelandic vocabulary building
  • Greenlandic ladder climbing.
  • Northern Sami ladder climbing and continuing translation work with the language on Crowdin.

Thinking as to where I was a year ago with these pursuits and where I am now, there are more than enough reasons to proceed with boldness, confidence and hope.

(On a side note, today is also Finland’s Independence Day, so have a look at one of my first posts on this blog about the Finnish Language, should you so desire to honor the day, in however small a respect).

To Continue or Not to Continue?

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The end of the semester is upon me and many other students in the U.S.

I look back at the past year and I see the projects that I started, the languages that I forgot as well as those which I fortified.

Earlier this year I thought that I would be learning Romansh (a minority language in Switzerland) and while I did make progress I found myself disenchanted and chasing other things.

On the other hand, my growing obsession with the Greenlandic is something that really caused me to think about what makes me continue a project, as opposed to starving it.

This needs to be said: I am still frustrated by the fact that I don’t consider myself fluent in Greenlandic yet, despite listening to the music and the news every day, and speaking exercises (especially for people who want to hear what the language sounds like).

Back when I was in college, I had an obsession with Slavic Languages (although I still believed the lie that fluency wouldn’t be possible to achieve an adult, a falsehood that deserves to “go its way” for good [to use a Norwegian idiom]).

However, in the past few years my Russian has been turned on / off, but remains very weak, and I seem to have forgotten almost everything in Polish (which I never knew to a good conversational degree anyway, despite having lived in the country).

I remember one vivid incident from someone’s birthday party (in Germany) in which I tried to speak Russian with someone who proceeded to tell me that “you do not speak language of empire! You speak language of empire with Polish mistake!

That was probably the least provocative thing I heard that evening…from him, at least.

When people ask me why I forgot pretty much all of the Russian that I knew, I usually point to this incident. (Thanks to a few encouraging people, I have managed to dredge a bit of what I have, but it is a far cry from any sort of fluency…you know who you are. Большое спасибо!).

I remember a number of times in the past year when I walked away from an interaction saying, “That’s it! I’m going to give up (Language x) forever!

However, looking back, I realize that it takes a long time to seriously forget a language almost completely (and forgetting a language completely is impossible!)

Looking more realistically at the situation, it seems that the main reason that I forget languages is merely because I want to devote time to other ones.

It isn’t really that I lose interest in the language or culture, but rather than another language or culture waltzes in, enchants me, and demands more and more of my time.

But what exactly is this “enchanting me” thing about?

Rarely if ever is it about the actual sound of the language (I consider Norwegian to be one noteworthy exception in this regard).

If a language enchants me enough to demand more and more of my time, it is usually for the following reasons:

  • Positive reinforcement from peers. I get asked lots of questions about Greenland and Greenlandic by virtually everyone. People of all ages are very intrigued by my interest in the language and culture and want to know how exactly I got into it. I associate this knowledge with very positive feelings and a sense of belonging, probably more than knowledge of any other language.

 

  • Media. What really gets me hooked on a certain language project after I learn a bit of it is the music, the news, the revival efforts, the podcasts. If I find shows and songs that I really, really like, this also acts as positive reinforcement. At some point the language ceases to be about vocabulary lists and exists in your mind only as an incarnation of materials for native speakers. Those materials, as well as people to whom you speak, are the real reason that I or anyone else undertakes these projects to begin with.

 

  • Cultural Mentality. This is definitely difficult to explain. It is puzzling to understand why a certain sense of humor or body language associated with various cultures would appeal to you, but with the language comes that side to yourself that is created, and supplants itself in your identity sphere, most markedly in your dealings in your native language. Among all language learners I have seen that the languages that they commit themselves to are carried with a desire to be initiated into the cultural mentalities of their respective cultures.

 

You may not be able to get a foreign passport with ease from any country, but this is just as good, and while it may take a lot of work it is a lot easier than many of you may believe it to be.

 

And now for something exciting…

 

It seems that some languages of mine are on their way out, but I have been enchanted by a new language that I will begin to study and continue to study over the break.

 

I bet that none of you will possibly guess what it is…

 

Post on it soon!