Here’s Why Corporate Power Doesn’t Want You To Learn Languages

It has been more than a year since Donald Trump was elected and I know I’m not alone in being positively furious, but in a way that my fury has further impassioned me to change the world.

One thing that I’ve brought into conversation, seldom with disagreement, is the fact that ever since that fateful night, I’ve been seeking to cut the toxic influences of American culture than enabled Donald Trump to happen (that is to say, sensationalism, the idea that money is life’s report card, conformity, extreme divisions within our society with not a lot of dialogue, being directed by mass media to be angry for the sake of being angry and not in a productive manner, among many other things).

After all, saying “Fuck you, Donald Trump” is easy. Looking at your life choices and realizing what sort of choices you can make to create a culture less likely to choose and promote someone of that sort takes effort and sacrifice.

All the while I see that America continues to be a land in which the dream that brought my ancestors here continues to be more and more elusive. Behind it all is a military-industrial complex, op-eds that seek to confuse, emotionally manipulate and gaslight the public, and a mass media culture so great that resisting it completely requires the self-discipline of a spiritual giant.

Granted, there are many aspects that I really like about American culture, and I have no doubt that my hyperpolyglotism came about in part because of the many intercultural conversations and intersections that only the United States can provide. But that’s for another time, although I realize that in order to criticize a society you need to affirm yourself as a friend of said society. And all things considered, I truly do love the United States, given as I may have not been given the opportunity to live had it never existed (given my Jewish roots).

One thing that I thoroughly dislike about it is the fact that I hear a lot of people say extremely predictable things, over and over again. This is in part because many people in this country read the exact same newspapers, watch the exact same television shows and consume many of the same contemporary popular songs. (People often ask me how on earth I can manage to learn so many languages to fluency and I tell them consistently that it requires you taking in entertainment in other languages and downsizing your entertainment intake in your native language. Guess how many people I’ve spoken to [outside of polyglot communities, that is] who have actually followed through on that plan after I told them what to do.)

Often I hear almost headache-inducing ideas of “you’re good with languages” or “I heard that it’s no use learning a language” or “I tried learning a language for a decade and I can’t speak any of it”. I know why I hear these same things continuously

And it’s primarily by design.

Look, if the ruling class in the United States truly wanted it, the secrets of Language Hackers and my friends at the polyglot conference would be known to 4 out of every 5 citizens living in this country. The knowledge is available freely on blogs in English. My advice is free and I’m glad to share any of my stories and the uglier sides of my struggles to fluency.

But instead, the same old myths persist.

Because a corporate dominated society doesn’t want a broad citizenry of open-minded languages learners.

Here’s why not:

 

  1. Income inequality is very much based on pitting people (or groups of people) against each other. Language Learners build bridges.

 

“The Arabs”, “The Russians”, “The Jews”, “The Iranians”, “The Europeans” … I’ve heard all of these referenced very frequently in dismissive tones in conversation from people in many different political arenas.

 

Truth be told, division is essential as a distraction tactic. This fear of the other also drives the military-industrial complex which is probably the one thing that has endangered the biosphere most severely in human history.

I’ve met language learners from all continents, from all over the globe. They’re certainly not perfect people, but they’re bridge-builders and peacemakers. They view people different from them as potential friends and hobbies, not something to spark fear. Many of them see themselves and doing “divine work” (even if they don’t believe in a higher power), and rightly so.

They learn about cultures that the corporate state boils down into stereotypes. They realize that problems are more readily solved with dialogue, understanding and respect than with force and violence.

They are the very antithesis of a system that keeps people divided and distrustful of one another.

 

  1. A lot of sensationalized news stories (many of their owners and writers also seeking to prop up income inequality and perpetuate it) strategically make people afraid of other places. Language learners recognize all countries of people with ordinary dreams.

 

I’ve met people from the majority of countries on this planet, thanks to my time in New York City. Believe me when I say that people are remarkably the same everywhere in terms of many things, although social conditioning is one aspect in which there is a lot of difference.

If you take away a lot of the mythologies that our various national and/or religious agendas have instilled into us, we are pretty much all the same.

And yes, there are hateful and destructive people on every corner of the globe, but they exist by virtue of the fact that, in some respect, they’ve been derived of something, whether it be economic opportunity or a caring support system, or even taken in by a system of “us vs. them” that is almost entirely promoted by self-serving politicians and people who want to keep the system in place in which the rich keep getting richer. And I haven’t even touched on limiting beliefs yet, the almighty slayer of dreams.

Our governments divide us but at our language exchange events and in our online forums, we’re bringing the world together. There’s difficulty in having such tasks come about, but almost all of us strive for it. And in a world in which any culture in the WORLD can be yours to explore within a few mouse clicks, YOU can be on the right side of history!

 

  1. Neoliberalism frames countries as their governments and economies foremost, rather than their cultural stories. Language learners get to the heart of places’ cultural stories that are often hidden.

 

“China’s gonna take over the world!”, “Saudi Arabia is an evil country!”, “Israel is a cancer!”, “Russia hates everything about the west”, and on and on and on.

Again, division at work. And yes, there are a lot of political problems present throughout the world, but seldom if ever do people investigate the cultural roots of conflicts and even more seldom do they try to administer dialogue and healing.

With language learning you can delve into the cultural story of anywhere you’d like, complete with its flaws and darkest chapters. Usually a lot of the “issues” that have come about in which people are afraid of other countries are present for reasons that are not visible on the surface. The path of least resistance is to be angry and call names. That’s what the system depends on, meaningless rage and emotional manipulation in which people are tricked into thinking that they’re helping when they’re actually not.

True peace doesn’t come about with divisions like this, it comes about through realizing that we have shared cultures and dreams that all humans understand. These commonalities are far stronger than our differences, however big a world of income inequality would like these differences to be.

 

  1. If enough people explore other places, even virtually, the entire framework of fear which serves as a distraction from the problems of capitalism will fall apart completely.

 After so many emotional headlines and frantic googling when I had Lyme Disease (believe me, you don’t want Lyme Disease) and again in the months leading up to Trump’s election as well as after it, it occurred to me that there was just a lot of … fearmongering…and not a lot of productive dialogue.

No doubt there is productive dialogue (that I have particularly found among independent journalists), but usually it’s just click-farming, dumbing down and making people more scared.

Right now at this very moment I remember when I met the Chief Rabbi of Norway, Rabbi Michael Melchior. He told me boldly the following statement (and I PROMISE I’m not making this up!): “I’ve spoken to the most extreme Jihadist in the West Bank, and when I was done talking with him, he agreed that a Two-State Solution was the best possible outcome” (!!!)

In 2013, I couldn’t believe it. In 2017, I can. After having encountered tons of people throughout the world, I realize that if we just strip away our fears one by one, we’d lead fulfilled live of peace and harmony as a species from then on out.

But instead, our current system depends on fear. Fear to distract from the genuine problems of capitalism that threaten the future of our species. A good deal of that fear depends on misunderstanding other people.

I don’t misunderstand other people and other cultures, I only seek to explore. And I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have sneered at me telling me that I was fraternizing with “countries that hate Jews and Israel” (exact words).

Surprisingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone’s xenophobia, however microscopic it may be, can be whittled away to nothing with choosing to explore other cultures and languages. I’ve seen it happen. And close-minded people are created by being made to be fearful of others first and foremost. Being in other countries, I realized my fears about other places were largely just imagined.

Some of my acquaintances haven’t been as lucky to achieve this path to open-mindedness as I and my polyglot friends have, but it’s always available and we’d love to have you.

The world depends on your being an explorer.

So go explore!

just-visiting-in-jail

If you don’t explore, this might as well be you. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

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The Tongan Way

It was my life’s dream to begin learning languages of the Pacific since I was a kid. The fact that I haven’t done so for decades is confusing to me, but perhaps one reason I started it this late was because I needed to hone my techniques and confidence, both of which are required in greater depth if you want to take on languages that virtually no one you know of is likely to learn or speak.

Granted, I have been speaking Tok Pisin since 2014 and Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin since 2016. What I mean when I say “Pacific Languages” are those truly indigenous to the region, and this year brought me into the arms of three of them specifically: Palauan, Tongan and Kiribati / Gilbertese. I’ve been extremely fascinated by all of them (and I would say at this juncture that Palauan is the hardest and Kiribati the easiest).

But today I’m going to talk about Tonga, because today is Tonga National Day.

Tonga is a country that continues to hold very strongly to its traditions, being an absolute monarchy even today, as well as one in which Christian identity is taken very seriously. What’s more I would venture that most people learning the Tongan Language might be doing so because they are missionaries.

The language itself is fascinating on every level and works unlike any other language I’ve seen. Let’s hop in!

The pronunciation, like many Austronesian languages (or “Languages of the Southern Islands” which stretch all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island / Rapa Nui) is extremely straightforward. You have a, e, i, o and u, pronounced virtually the EXACT same way as they would be pronounced in Spanish. If you see a line over any of these vowels, hold it a little bit longer. This principle, thanks to Finnish (which employed lengthened vowels very similarly but uses “aa” instead of “ā”, was not foreign to me.

Tongan also has a glottal stop, noted as the “ ‘ “ character. This is trickier, and it is pronounced with something like the breathing sound in the middle of “uh-oh”. (In singing this is extremely difficult to hear!)

Now let’s introduce you to what is probably the most commonly known Tongan word abroad, an interjection that literally serves ALL purposes (surprise, joy, anger, excitement), “ ‘oiaue!” Yup, all of the vowels and a glottal stop. Also super fun to say!

The consonants will not be slurred and, much like in a language like Hebrew, always have the exact same pronunciation! Given how similar they are to English that’s not something you need to worry about.

One aspect in which Tongan has really caused me to enter a word of mental gymnastics is the fact that, instead of indicating a tense with changing a verb, you use a “tense marker”.

Let’s give an example. “ ‘oku” is a present tense marker, so if you see it, a verb that follows it will be in the present tense. And PRONOUNS also change with tenses accordingly!

 

Ou -> present “I”

Ku -> past “I”

U -> future “I”

 

‘oku ou -> I am (lit. present-marker I-present)

Na’a ku -> I was (lit. past-marker I-past)

Te u -> I will be (lit. future-marker I-future)

 

You put verbs afterwards

Now there’s yet ANOTHER version of “I”, one that is utilized when it goes at the end of the sentence after a verb. “au”

 

‘Oku ‘alo ki kolo ‘a au. = I am going to town.

Present-marker go all-purpose-preposition town verb marker I-post-verb-version

 

The various pronouns in Tongan are all calibrated in various ways according, complete with exclusive and inclusive versions “we” as well as a singular / dual / plural system.

 

Much like some other languages, Tongan also has an interesting way of asking “what” you ask “Ko e hā e meʻa” = “what is the thing …”

It can be set up in other ways:

 

Ko e hā e lea faka-Tonga ki he _____?

What is the Tongan Word for _____?

 

The word “ko” is translated in so many ways and used is so many constructs that it’s dizzying to even think about how I would begin to describe it on paper. After all, I just got into Tongan a few months ago.

But you probably noticed something about “faka-Tonga”, which translates to “the Tongan Way”, something that is, obviously, at the center of the country’s national identity. Lea faka-Tonga, speaking in the Tongan Way, refers to the Tongan Language (of course).

Faka- as a prefix can also turn any noun into an adjective of the noun. Tonga is, of course, the Kingdom we all know and love (or, at least, we NOW know it and love it!). faka-Tonga turns it into an adjective. Not just Tongan, but an adjectival word that encapsulates everything that is the Tongan Way.

Another thing I didn’t find on the internet so far was how to say “why” in Tongan. That would be “ko e hā … ai” (and it is a sentence construction, with the thing you are asking the “why” about goes in the area with the three dots).

In summary:

  • Pronunciation is extremely easy
  • Verbs don’t really change but you note the tense of a sentence with a word that indicates tense.
  • Pronouns also change for tense too, they also can change depending on sentence structure (there are four forms of the word “I” covered above suited for different situation)
  • I didn’t touch upon it here, but possessives come in two classes. Read more about it on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongan_language#Possessive_pronouns
  • Idiomatic differences and learning what constitutes a “natural” construct will be your biggest obstacle in learning Tongan (more than anything else would be.

 

What’s more, Tongan also (unsurprisingly) has a lot of English Loan Words, and much like in Japanese, they will be adopted to local spelling conventions. This includes NAMES sometimes!

 

David – Tēvita

Mary – Mele

Science / Scientist – Saienisi

 

Tonga has great music that makes you feel as though you’re on an island (no, REALLY!) as well as a history that features it on center stage locally many times (it has been described as “expansionist”). Pieces of Tongan culture have been featured on the global stage, with the national drink, Kava, having its name COME from Tongan, as well as having costumes from Disney’s Moana / Vaiana modelled after the dress from the Tongan Royal Family, not also to mention it having been a playable mini-civilization in a mode of Civilization V (No joke!!!)

Polynesia as a whole (not to mention the Pacific Island cultures as a group) has been featured in many aspects of both American and Japanese popular culture (it was the colonial frontier for both of them!) As a result, many aspects of any of these cultures will be oddly familiar to you, given how both American and Japanese popular culture have impacted the world.

I have a long way to go with speaking the Tongan way, but it’s been SUPER fun (as well as challenging!) and I can’t wait to see how well I speak Tongan in a year’s time!

And now a song that will get stuck in your head!

Happy Tonga Day, world!

LEA FAKA TONGA

10 Lessons I Learned from Language Immersion in Greenland for a Week

Two Languages (three if you count English which I used at time). One city. A lot of ice and friendly people. Was it a success? MOST DEFINITELY!

I’ve been studying Greenland on-and-off since 2013 when I first encountered that Lonely Planet book that described the Greenlandic Language as “the result of a small child banging on a typewriter”.

Cupid’s arrow to the heart. Photographed the entire language section of that guidebook, page by page. Put the words into Memrise. I thereby made the site’s first Greenlandic course which ultimately ended up in the language  being included in the OFFICIAL LISTING OF LANGUAGES IN THE APP!

Then there’s Danish, which I’ve been studying / speaking since 2013 as well. Frightened to speak it fearing judgmental native speakers until I encountered some people who spoke it in 2014 (native Danish speakers as well as L2 speakers from Germany). Then I realized there was nothing to be scared of.

Greenlandic: Weak although impressive on some level. Certainly a lot better than my Burmese was earlier this year (although I think my Burmese is SLIGHTLY better than my Greenlandic now, truth be told). I managed some tasks impressively, some with difficulty, and I have absolutely no ability to speak in Greenlandic about deeply serious or philosophical topics (but ONE DAY!)

Danish: Conversationally fluent to professionally fluent, depending on my mood and who I’m talking to. There is one thing, however. Sometimes I still feel frightened and judged when I try to speak certain languages with strangers. This results in “cymbals banging in my head” which can significantly deter my ability to think of vocabulary at the right moment. But surprisingly, I’ve IMPROVED as a result of being here.

So how did I do? For one, I managed almost ALL of my business that could be done in Danish or Greenlandic in those two languages. In conversations with friends I think I managed a good balance between Greenland, Danish, and English (hey, it’s fair that I share my native language with them, too!) Especially in the second half with Danish, I expressed myself without any issue and had absolutely no glaring issues with being answered in English after the second day!

Above all, GREAT SUCCESS! I also learned a lot of words as well and gained insight into the dynamics of bilingual societies (this is the first time I’m doing immersion in a place with TWO local languages, although no doubt Danish is significantly less prominent in more rural areas of Greenland outside of the major cities)

Yes, I know I was on a break, but I thought it would be important for me to write at least SOMETHING because I’m here in Greenland for the first time:

 

  • In a multilingual place, expect rapid changes in switching languages at times.

 

This was fun. I’ve heard of people going to places like Montreal or South Africa or other places where multiple languages are used between people and in the public sphere. I wasn’t sure what sort of dynamic to expect, but interestingly I found that the dynamic between many Greenlanders involved hopping between languages in conversations sometimes (this might be especially evident as far as families that may have different first languages among them). My host family used Greenlandic, Danish and English with me, sometimes switching throughout the conversation, and sometimes I even overheard some people doing the same. Granted, with probably about the same frequency you’ll encounter people sticking to one language at a time.

 

There are SO many dynamics to be taken into account with this that it probably would take more than a week to fully investigate and delve into them.

 

  • Don’t take being spoken to in English personally, especially if it occurs at a time in which the person who you are speaking to is aware that you are from an English-speaking country.

Imagine this: you hear that somebody is from a place where your L2 or L3 or L28 is spoken. Great success! So you begin speaking in the language of that place, believing that, in so doing, you will demonstrate cultural appreciation and a willingness to show that, on some level, you care about where they came from.

 

That’s how some of the people who “answer in English” may be thinking!

 

I’ve noticed that usually a shift to English tended to occur in Greenland not so much when I messed up (usually I just rebounded and continued in the target language, especially with Danish) but rather when (1) somehow they found out I was from the U.S. (either I told them or something on my personal information made it clear, etc) or (2) they were aware of the fact that I was American beforehand (even if I had communication with them in other languages in the past. Note: my written Greenlandic is tremendously weak, although I’m hoping that predictive text and better learning methods will help me in the future).

 

In the other Nordic countries, conversations are being had about the threat that English is posing to their language. In Iceland this is particularly strong (I feel). In Greenland, it is my understanding that this conversation isn’t even had as far as English is concerned (I think a lot of the debates center on Greenlandic vs. Danish). Danish was (and is) 1000x easier to learn and to maintain than Greenlandic is (and this is more to do with political power of these two languages than anything else). But given that I was willing to learn and converse in BOTH, it actually sent a message to people that I really, REALLY cared about Greenland, its people and its culture (learning one language for a trip is cool, but two?)

 

I can imagine that a lot of Greenlanders want to feel global and globally connected. To that end, I am willing to use English with them to some degree, as long as I can use the other local languages as well. I used English at times, but never to the degree that it became a detriment to my “language learning mission”. (In Iceland, I strove / will strive to avoid English as much as I can).

 

What’s more, there are some immigrants to Greenland (Yes, they exist!) who speak neither Greenlandic nor Danish, and I sometimes encountered these folks behind service counters. In one Thai restaurant in Nuuk I even saw the menu in Danish that was coded with number-and-letter combinations, possibly to get over any language barrier than may be involved.

 

  • If you’re headed to a multilingual place (that is to say, a place with more than one LOCAL language. Nuuk qualifies [with Greenlandic and Danish] and while Reykjavik does have many English-speaking denizens, Icelandic is the ONLY local language there), get advice beforehand (or as soon as you can) about what sort of languages you should use in which spaces.

 

Also if you can determine what language a certain waiter or celebrity or person you’re meeting speaks, use that to your advantage as well.

 

On the way from the airport I was told that it was wisest for me to usually use Danish while buying things (which I did). But obviously using Danish was not 100% suitable (or even 50% suitable) for EVERY SINGLE SITUATION that I encountered in Nuuk. Simply put, there were situations in which knowledge of Danish wasn’t essential in the slightest, and Greenlandic was.

 

Again, among people who speak both, you are welcome to use both, especially in casual conversation. I would gather the same would hold for any other bilingual area.

 

  • Don’t Overthink Your Mistakes (or Anything Else)

 

No, just because you messed up that one word doesn’t mean you’re a failure. No, just because somebody began speaking English to you that one time doesn’t mean you’re a failure either (this happened once or twice to me by the way). And for the love of everything that is holy, don’t belittle your accomplishments!

 

Especially if you’ve come from a family of over-achievers and perfectionists (a bit like mine used to be), you may hold yourself to a standard that is way too high. Don’t expect yourself to be an angel. Believe me, even the best of polyglots out there aren’t angels either, even if it may seem like that in their videos. I sure know I ain’t!

 

  • If you’re starting to feel doubt, think about how far you’ve come and how FEW people have attempted what you’re doing.

 

Surrounded by native speakers of languages that I spoke to varying degrees made me self-conscious at times. My perfectionism (which exists in my heart even though my brain knows it should be gone) also did not help. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be taken as a “serious” polyglot by masses of people on the Internet, or even if I really DESERVED to present at any polyglot conference at all.

 

And this is DESPITE the fact that I manage MOST of my interactions during this trip without ANY English. (Even though I did use English because, again, I don’t want to be greedy. I understand that people see me as a resource in a country where non-Danish foreigners weren’t even allowed to visit until 1953 [!!!])

 

I also took for granted the fact that I could read all of the signs, all of the menus, all of the everything (in Danish – note that the vast majority of these things in Nuuk are actually bilingual Greenlandic / Danish).

 

  • If the language you’re speaking is threatened or perceived as threatened, you have advantages with its speakers (and getting help from them) on many, MANY levels

 

Greenlandic-speakers see their language as vulnerable, and UNESCO agrees with them. Against the mini-giant that is Danish and the ultra-global-giant that is English, it seems that Greenlandic sees itself stuck in a magnificent clash of outsider cultures (well…these two cultures…).

 

When I began speaking to Greenlandic speakers in places like pubs and restaurants and my host family, I got every single possible variety of positive reaction and tons of continued encouragement. Greenlandic speakers are probably among the most helpful native speakers I’ve encountered for any language ANYWHERE!

 

I got business contacts, high fives, hugs, compliments, in-depth conversations and plenty, PLENTY more. And this is with my manageable-in-tourist-situations-mostly Greenlandic.

 

The only languages I remember getting this sort of red carpet treatment for were (1) Icelandic, (2) Hungarian and (3) Polish (and even [3] was very selective. Some people reacted with utter joy and others were a tad confused. I should say that Poland is a FANTASTIC environment for language immersion with JUST the right amount of English usage vs. usage of the local language that is helpful for whatever you’re doing!)

 

  • Don’t assume other people are judging you (or will judge you) for speaking their language.

 

Greenlandic people usually don’t show their emotion at all—EVEN in comparison to other Nordic countries. As an American, I found this extremely jarring and almost strange. Anyone who knows American culture even on a surface level knows how “obsessed with feelings” we are.

 

Sometimes I was tempted to think that people were displeased with me, and then I remembered that the cultural mentality is extremely different in comparison to the United States.

 

And one person went so far as to even tell me that the idea that “speaking Danish -> Greenlanders will judge you as a bit of a colonial invader” wasn’t actually that true at all.

 

Point is, a lot of people “not being nice to you” or “not liking you” may actually be…imagined…

 

On the other side, in the United States we have the reverse problem, being too kind to people with whom we do not really want to interact with. And I think, to a degree, that’s significantly more dangerous. But onto the next point…

 

  • Pubs and gatherings are great places to help you with language learning. Keep in mind that they serve different ends.

 

Pubs -> great for finding people that will help you with individual words or gaps in your vocabulary. You may encounter some people who may be very carefree due to alcohol and they’ll (1) be forgiving of your mistakes and (2) compliment you way too much. If you’re a beginner and you feel up to it, I would make evenings like this a priority.

 

After all, I think the Polyglot Bar and Mundo Lingo also really helped me especially with French which I learned almost ENTIRELY through this method! (even though sometimes I fear that I speak it not quite as well as I would like and it is NOWHERE near my strongest language and sometimes I’m definitely not fluent!)

 

Gatherings -> great for having serious conversations and also rehearsing new vocabulary that you may have memorized in response to the theme of the event. It’s also a true measure to see how spontaneous you really can be and you’ll encounter speakers of many languages at larger gatherings. Great for advanced learners especially who want to go from good or very good to divinely invincible.

 

  • Over time, you’ll grow into a persona with a language you’re proficient or fluent in

 

Imitate the people. Note what they do. Learn to behave a little more like them. Pretend you are them. You’ll be able to grow into fluency a lot more readily with a language in which you have a persona. How does your native-language self compare to the sort of people you see around you? Note the differences and act on them. This may actually happen naturally as a result of being around people.

I had someone tell me that over the course of the week I was looking “progressively more like an Inuit”. Make of that whatever you will!

 

  • Your goal isn’t to be mistaken for a local. Your goal is to communicate.

 

Okay, maybe you DO want to be mistaken for a local, but obviously if you haven’t visited the country or if you haven’t developed deep in-person friendships with people there, there will probably be something in your body language or in the way you speak that will give it away.

 

I look vaguely Asiatic (probably my Jewish background) and I look vaguely Nordic (probably my Swedish-American background) but I don’t really look like I’m Inuk in the slightest. I don’t dress like Greenlanders do (and I was told this to my face, Greenlandic people really liked my fashion style and said that I looked like a “super-manly American cowboy”. No joke!)  I don’t look like a “typical Dane” either, regarding both my fashion and my physical appearance.

None of that mattered in the slightest because my pronunciation in both Greenlandic and Danish were good (so I’ve been told) and in the case of Danish I got all of what I wanted to say said almost all of the time (except when my nervousness got the better of me and in both cases it was when I was speaking to people whom I had seen on TV, concerts, etc.).

 

I think the one thing I need to work on is internal self-doubt and freezing up sometimes. I think that’s really preventing me from being at my best consistently using foreign languages. And I guess that’s probably gonna be part of my New Year’s Resolution for 2018 (COMING SO SOON?!!?)

Greetings from Nuuk,Greenland!

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I Want to Learn Indigenous Languages! How Do I Start?

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

I’m writing this article from Brooklyn, not far away from the Peace Corps HQ, a company that pioneered the study of indigenous languages throughout the Americas (although I don’t think they’ve published any materials for indigenous languages of the US specifically.)

You can see their extremely impressive and useful list of language-learning materials here (and this is probably more useful than most bookstore Language-Learning sections I’ve seen can hope to be): https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

This may surprise you, but in many areas of the Americas indigenous languages are not only markers of cultural identity but also thriving more than you would expect.

Transparent Language Online actually has an indigenous language of LOUISIANA (Koasati) available in its offerings! As well as indigenous languages of Canada such as Ojibwe and Cree, and Lakota (and probably many others I forgot) from the United States (and I have it on good authority that there are more of them on the way.)

I love the fact that I live in a time in which the many painful legacies of colonialism have been confronted, and in particular Christopher Columbus’s moral shortcomings (putting it as lightly as I can).

Indigenous communities from throughout the American continents, all the way from the Inuit in the far north (I’m going to GREENLAND NEXT WEEK!) all the way down to the Mapuche in Southern Chile, now have tools to make their languages more powerful with an online presence. I think one thing that may be holding such prospects back is a self-defeating idea of “why would ANYONE use or need this?” But I think if more such publications were made possible, more people (even people who are complete outsiders to these indigenous communities) would find avenues to learn these languages, thereby creating a very positive “vicious circle”.

Okay, that was enough musing to open the article with, now let’s get to HOW to find resources for indigenous languages!

 

  • Omniglot

 

The A-Z Index of Languages on Omniglot is like window shopping. Languages will be provided with histories, scripts, samples, links for further study (usually) and lists of useful phrases (on some occasions)

Poke around this website in order to find what sort of indigenous languages (or any other) YOU would like to see in your life, and how to proceed.

A word of caution, however: there have been some times that I have literally been unable to learn languages due to a dearth of materials (Chuukese from the Federated States of Micronesia being the most potent example in recent memory). You may or may not encounter such a dearth, but you may also expect to be pleasantly surprised!

 

  • Transparent Language Online

 

With various libraries offering this service for free, you are welcome to explore many indigenous languages of the Americas with their fantastically useful sets of flashcards.

 

You can find a list of offering languages here:

https://home.transparent.com/transparent-language-online-available-languages?_ga=2.108520199.400276675.1507569656-1845425504.1451068801

 

On the desktop version, not only will you have all languages available but you’ll also be able to choose from MANY different modes of study for your cards, like matching, blank-filling, or even rattling all of the audio in the target language for your entire collection! (I tried this and I got bored after a few seconds).

 

The mobile version is more simplified with only flashcards being available (although it is nonetheless extremely useful on train rides, for example)

 

If there is one weakness, it is the fact that grammar explanations are usually lacking unless they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY (e.g. with Icelandic)

 

  • Your Bookstore / Your Library

 

I discovered the Quechua Lonely Planet Guide in the Columbia University Bookstore one fine day and I was enchanted by the very idea of speaking the language of the Incas (although there are many different regional variations thereof depending on where in the Andes you are).

 

I also found a book on Australian English and it actually had a guide section in the back about basic phrases in various Australian Aboriginal Languages! (Not enough to make one fluent or even reach A1, not by a long shot, but still interesting. If memory serves correctly, I don’t think the book is in print any more, but print-on-demand may provide you a save if you’re still seeking it…)

 

And, of course, Greenlandic, which I also discovered in a Lonely Planet Guide…one thing led to another and my dream to learn a language with ultra-mega-long words led to me designing a video game set in contemporary Greenland. Fancy that!

 

Still haven’t gotten around to speaking Quechua, although I’m going to shamelessly plug myself when I mention…

 

  • YouTube!

 

I originally discovered Guarani, an indigenous language of Paraguay and the surrounding countries, thanks to Duolingo (a resource not on this list because it offers just one indigenous language of the Americas with currently no plans to add other ones that I’m aware of).

I found online tutorials (in Spanish) on how to learn Basic Guarani. Somewhat unsatisfied with their level, I decided to…take it up a notch!

 

Found a Public Domain book on how to learn Guarani online and began filming the process bit-by-bit. Hey, you could do this with your other languages to and help raise awareness or just get feedback from fluent speakers or experienced learners!

As to where I got that book…

 

  • The LiveLingua Project

 

https://www.livelingua.com/project/#by-language

COME HERE KIDZ FREE BOOKZ!!!!1!!! (And by “free” I mean “legally free” not “pirated”!)

 

  • Religious Materials (for Christians)

 

Even if you’re not Christian yourself, you can use materials produced by missionaries in order to aid your journey. The Bible (sometimes both the Old and New Testaments) has been translated into more languages than any other in human history, keep in mind that the New Testament does tend to be translated more often by a small margin.

Also, the most dubbed-film in human history is The Jesus Film, and while it does remind me a lot of something I would watch in high school classes when the syllabi ran dry (I don’t really mean that as a genuine compliment, although my teachers there were great!), it can also be a very useful language-learning resource given how visually-oriented the plot and dialogue are.

The most translated website is that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well. Yes, more commonly translated than…

 

  • Wikipedia

 

Sadly in some indigenous languages (like Cree and Greenlandic) there is a lot of the “colonial” language used in the interface (that would be English and Danish respectively), but in many others the words are more complete, such as the Guarani Wikipedia (https://gn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ape), the Quechua Wikipedia (https://qu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qhapaq_p%27anqa) and “Huiquipedia (the Nahuatl Wikipedia) (https://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl)

 

You can also find out how to contribute in some capacity even if you’re a beginner in the language! (There are a lot of times that I’ve seen articles that are literally three words long, and then this gem from the Bislama Wikipedia: https://bi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven [as of the time of writing, it just shows the number seven in a picture with the caption “Seven, namba 7”)

 

You’ll pick up a significant amount of useful vocabulary to discuss languages and cultures with these wikipedias if you look at the articles detailing these languages or countries respectively.

 

This is a list that is just going to keep growing

 

With accelerated growth of technology will come more opportunities for indigenous communities to proliferate the usage of their language as well as, perhaps, a more keen sense that “time is running out” if they perceive their traditions as threatened.

 

New resources are coming into the world every year and it seems that more and more people are open to the idea of learning indigenous languages, which I think we, as polyglots in general, should do.

 

We need to use our strong, cohesive identity and passion to heal the world. And where else to start by telling these small cultures that we care about them and want them to keep creating in their languages, many of which have been lost to us forever?

 

May this Indigenous People’s Day be a source of determination to you!

greenland asanninneq

 

The Treasures of Bislama

 

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the Overture.

I first heard about Bislama when I was bidding farewell to one of my friends in Germany. She was a German-American and also a polyglot (who focused primarily on Middle Eastern Languages, I remember she knew Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic very well with knowledge of Egyptian Arabic and Turkish. Probably many others I forgot to mention).

We were in an American-themed diner in Heidelberg that was housed in a caboose. We were talking about what sort of languages we planned to learn in the future, and I mentioned Greenlandic and Faroese as being on my “hit list”.

She mentioned a language called Bislama, that I had never heard of before. She told me that it was a Creole English that was the primary language of Vanuatu, and proceeded to tell me some vocabulary that she learned.

Here’s a small taste of what people on the internet know about Bislama (if they know anything at all): http://imgur.com/GiiTKf8

Vanuatu also has the distinction of being the only country in the world that has its national anthem in an English Creole Language (Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, while they have very similar Creoles spoken there, have their national anthems in Standard English).

“Yumi, Yumi, Yumi” (Yumi = you and me = we [inclusive]) is a melody you don’t forget easily! Have yourself a listen to the instrumental track with the words on the screen! (The vowels should be pronounced as in Spanish, and the consonants like in phonetic English, and you’ll be good. Bislama, like other Creole Languages, is hyper-mathematical in its spelling system, although no doubt speakers will talk very quickly and abbreviate stuff that way):

To translate the first two lines:

 

Yumi, yumi, yumi i glat long talem se

Yumi, yumi, yumi i man blong Vanuatu

 

(We, we, we are happy to say that

We, we, we are people of Vanuatu)

 

In English you don’t say something like “Vanuatuan”, instead you refer to the people and culture of Vanuatu as “Ni-Vanuatu” or “Ni-Van” for short. This comes from usages of local languages.

Unlike Pijin or Tok Pisin (its releatives in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea respectively), Bislama has a significant amount of French words (bonane = new year, kabine = toilet) as well as those with both English-loaned and French-loaned equivalents (accident can be “aksiden” or “aksidong”, the first from English and the second from French).

The fact that there was the struggle between British and French colonialists in Vanuatu actually caused its people to cling strongly to the usage of Bislama as a national languages (although English and French are also used in official contexts as well). It’s a bit like two giants are asking you “what team are you on?” and you confidently assert “I am on team me”.

Bislama is not only a cultural treasure of what is actually a noteworthy tourist destination in the Pacific, it’s also surprisingly accessible to learn (because of that fact).

YouTube tutorials and the LiveLingua Project will help you on your way to fluency, as well as the Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook which is literally the most useful phrasebook I’ve encountered in any language (as far as English-language phrasebooks are concerned!) And, of course, there is also bislama.org which is VERY helpful!

2015-03-17 20.17.12

They redid the cover shortly after I acquired this version with the cool masks.

The word “Bislama” actually comes from the French word “Bêche-de-mer”, the sea cucumber, because Bislama was the language used to communicate with Ni-Vanuatu traders that were dealt with to acquire said sea cucumbers. In more old-timey books, the language will be referred to as “Bêche-de-mer”.

Jack London even uses Bislama (WAY before the days of the orthography used to write the language nowadays) in ones of his stories, “Yah, Yah, Yah!”.

The portions in Bislama were a bit of a headache for me to sight-read but I read them out loud and, sure enough, it sounds like completely legitimate Bislama that Ni-Vanuatu from contemporary times can understand without any issues at all:

http://www.online-literature.com/london/48/

Note how he actually uses Standard English spelling to write Bislama. Contemporary Bislama doesn’t do that, instead opting for a hyper-phonetic system (the National Anthem Video above actually uses the contemporary orthography).

Bislama is extraordinarily rich in interjections. Some of them come from French (“alala!”) and some from English (“areno!” = I don’t know) and many more come from the many local languages that came together to form Bislama.

If you speak English and want to learn Bislama, expect a significant head start in your vocabulary, especially once you begin picking up patterns on how English words are transferred into Bislama’s pronunciation system.

The patterns are fairly easy to pick up not only in that regard but also concerning its idiomatic structure (remember, these were designed by the genius of the human mind so as to create an efficient tongue that can be readily used in communication and even more readily learned in advance! The same is true for ALL Creole Languages!)

Often there is the duplication of syllables, “bigbigman” (dignitary, someone with a lot of status) can also be “bigman”, to follow is “folfolem” (all transitive verbs in Bislama end in –m and it employs a system of vowel harmony not unlike languages like Hungarian that adjust suffixes depending on vowel content of the word. Folfol + em – folfolem, but put + em [to put] = putum, the –em shifts to a –um).

I’ve noticed similar patterns of duplication used in Burmese, Chinese and even Hebrew and English variants (good, good!). Surprisingly this makes words easier for you to remember.

Some words are also very easy to attach “stories” to. A lot of these words are not appropriate for writing in a blog post like this but one such word is “fiftififti”, which actually means…bisexual! Fancy that! Another word refers to an effeminate man, “geligeli”, and shouldn’t be too easy for you to forget.

I really wanted to look at the comprehensive dictionary at bislama.org in more detail and list some of the words that jumped out at me, but aside from risking repetitive-strain-injury the comprehensive dictionary (of around 7000 words, mind you, making it one of the smallest comprehensive dictionaries of a language I’ve encountered [remember: comprehensive dictionary = ALL KNOWN WORDS IN THE LANGUAGE]), there are also a lot of place names not only relevant to Melanesia and beyond but also the Bible and sometimes it can be painful to browse the list because of that.

Another extraordinary damaging myth about Bislama is that it “isn’t a real language”, “is just a dialect of English” or is just “broken English”. All of these ideas are unequivocally false. If Bislama isn’t a real language, that Afrikaans and Yiddish should also be disqualifies as well. And Haitian Creole is also deemed as 100% legitimate while many creoles in the world are not.

Bislama can not only be helpful for you in navigating rural areas of Vanuatu (as well as giving you a leg-up on related languages spoken throughout Melanesia and Australia), but is also a marketable skill, especially in the Pacific.

Thanks largely to climate change, the world’s eyes are on the Pacific because it is, sadly, the front line in this battle against our damaged environment. Somehow, somewhere I feel that there is hope, oddly enough, and I think that a very good first step would be to experience the culture of places like Vanuatu in which people are not only suffering because of climate change but also singing and lamenting and talking about it endlessly to a degree that we should be doing in more industrialized nations.

Looking back, Bislama made me a better human being, and the more I learn about Melanesia in general and Vanuatu in particular, I glimpse a side of humanity, poised between 2017 and our ancient roots as humans, that many people should be looking at with more seriousness.

I also have a Bislama Anki deck (although it isn’t without its problems) of the Bislama.org list. If you want it from me, message me from the “Have Jared Teach You!” link at the top of this page!

yumi yumi yumi

3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)

The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

2015-08-20 16.40.04

It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!