How Similar are Icelandic and Greenlandic?

 this-is-the-article-youve-all-been-waiting-for

This is probably THE most commonly question I get asked about languages, interestingly, and it all has to do with the development of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures”, which is a mobile game that I and others are working on right now, set in Greenland, and slated for release either in late 2017 or sometime in 2018.

Now my mischievous side just wants me to write this:

 

NOT AT ALL

 

And be done with it.

But I won’t do that.

Because if you clicked on this page, it means that you are curious and I should reward curiosity rather than punish it. (Too many people and organizations do the opposite, I fear).

 

So what do Icelandic and Greenlandic have in common?

 

Not long ago, Iceland was actually a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, not unlike Greenland and the Faroe Islands are now. This changed as a result of World War II, in which Denmark was invaded by Nazi Germany and, as a result, Hitler could have used the Faroe Island – Icelandic – Greenland route as a quasi-land bridge to North America.

So the allies needed to seize these areas as quickly as possible, and as a result it was primarily the Americans that wound up in Iceland, bringing along their culture, way of life and broadcasting until 2006, when they left. Iceland is one of those countries had has tasted American culture with closeness that most other cultures in the West, yet alone beyond it, still can’t fathom, no matter how many English words they use or how much American television they watch. (The only other ones that come even close are Germany and Israel).

But in 1944, Iceland becomes independent, and the Faroe Islands did have a VERY short-lived independence as well (and by “very short-lived” I mean “a matter of days”).

Nowadays, Iceland is (proportionally speaking) the most visited country in human history with the Icelandic tourist “mafia” growing by the hour. (I am a proud member myself).

2015-08-20 14.50.06

Case in point

Icelandic is indeed very purist, but it also took words and structures from other languages as well, most notably French, Spanish and Danish (in addition to the more recent English loan words that popular musicians of Iceland, such as Emmsjé Gauti, tend to use very frequently.)

The one thing that Greenlandic and Icelandic do have in very much in common is their shared experience via being a member of the Kingdom of Denmark. (What’s more, there was also an American military presence in Greenland during the Second World War and beyond it, but nothing remotely of the same scope as existed in Iceland).

Keep in mind that Kingdom of Denmark does not necessarily equal the country called Denmark, the same way that there are dependences of the British Crown that are not in the UK (such as Papua New Guinea).

Greenlandic, perhaps thanks to missionaries as well as being from a different language family entirely, borrowed Danish idioms more heavily than Icelandic did, a comparatively fewer English words (although they obviously exist in Greenlandic, too).

To summarize: Icelandic and Greenlandic both have Danish and American influence (including loan words and idioms), despite being very purist and having reputations from the outside for being impossible to learn.

And that is where the similarities end.

Greenlandic is an Eskimo-Aleut language that is about as similar to Icelandic as Russian is to Chinese. In Russian and in Chinese you may hear similar words for vegetarian, the same way that in Greenlandic and Icelandic you will hear similar words for car.

I think that one reason I get asked this question a lot is because people see Greenland as a place of the Norse settlers first (the ones that died out in the area that is now Qaqortoq in the far south), sadly leaving the Inuit out of the picture—the same Inuit who brought “Kalaallisut” (or West Greenlandic, the standard and the official language of Greenland) to the island.

And yes, it goes without saying that people do, in fact, live on Greenland. Nothing near the scale you may encounter in much of the rest of the globe (it has the lowest population density out of anywhere), but if you want to read more about Greenlandic, look here.

Hope this answers your questions.

Have fun!

greenland asanninneq

 

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

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

2015-07-06 11.22.31

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

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

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

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

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

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

The point you should take is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

føroyar

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).

baa

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:

foroyar

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.

1000 HITS!!! My Gift to You: 10 Vital Lessons from My Language Adventures (Part 1)

Two days ago, the hits for this blog hit the quadruple digits!

This list needs no further introduction except for the heartiest “thank you all” that I can muster…

tusen tack

  1. Confidence and Peace of Mind are the Most Essential Ingredient

 

“Everyone speaks this language better than I do, everyone’s gonna hate me, everyone will just see me as the stupid American anyhow…”

 

This is how I had to endure my semester a year ago, in which every single course of mine was held in German (although sometimes the instructors let me answer questions in either English, Hebrew or Yiddish).

 

I was self-conscious about my accent in the language. I was self-conscious about my grammar. I thought that people would correct me excessively.

 

It was a mind-numbing experience, one that made me feel tremendously stupid! My self-esteem was in another dimension and you can imagine the relationship I had with my American upbringing at that point.
As it turned out, one fine day I met Isabella the Italian, who turned out to not have any of this self-consciousness in regards to her language journeys, even if it meant using words in English while speaking German or using Italian while speaking English. Even while doing this, she laughed, she kept her peace of mind, and wouldn’t let a single mistake or slip-up faze her.

 

I wasn’t going to let this difference in passports phase me. I took up the same variety of carefree learning spirit, and with this came the final transformation in my soul from polyglot-wannabe to genuine speaker of many languages.

 

No matter how many words you learn, no matter how many mistakes you make, without a certain peace within yourself, you cannot speak any second language well.

 

You don’t need perfect confidence or inner peace. You just need enough to ensure that you can communicate and that people won’t judge you negatively. Which brings me to my next point…

 

  1. Most…Make that…ALL…People want You to Speak Their Language

 

I will never forget the time when I was surrounded by a bunch of students in Heidelberg from various countries.

 

Hopping languages from Hebrew to German to Swedish to Spanish and English again, I had some people begging me (cutely, not desperately) to pick their native tongue as my next language.

 

Whatever you might have heard about “being answered in English” might tell you, the fact is that everyone craves whatever attention may be given to their native languages, however badly it may be spoken.

 

I’ve seen Greeks light up in jubilation with just a few words of the language. Not even the nationalities with the reputation for being the most emotionless of all are immune to this charm.

 

Admittedly there are some countries where the local language(s) are put down, but if anything you should take this as “playing hard to get”…not also to mention that every place that comes to mind where this is the case has people who put on vastly different personae outside of their home countries.

 

Even if you had to stutter (as I did when I first ordered a drink on a Finnair flight), even if you have to mix up a gender (as I did with Swedish for the first time) or use an incorrect idiom (too many times in German and in Hebrew to count), your effort will matter, and people will notice!

 

There is a special phrase in Finnish that I like to use when trying to sell an idea: usko pois! (literally: “believe away!”) That is to say: take it from me, and you can thank me later.

 

  1. With Multilingual Friends, Juggling Languages is Very Helpful

 

I certainly found this a lot easier to do in New York City than anywhere else, but gone are the days where I felt that having a foreigner speak English to me at all is an insult.

 

What I sometimes enjoy doing is juggling various languages between someone who speaks several in common with me, and it can be surprisingly easy to keep this precedent going!

 

Usually you don’t even need to ask to switch the language, just make the switch and then the conversation will follow accordingly.

 

  1. Translations Create an Entire New Dimension for a Text / TV Show / Etc.

 

I remember a popular sport that my flatmates and I had at the National Yiddish Book Center—to watch the same portion of a Disney Musical Film in a series of different languages one after another. This can be surprisingly addicting, although the quality of dubs is, in the case of most languages, all over the place.

 

With every language grounded in the source of its origin, the translations can diverge significantly.

 

Imagine something like ice cream sundae with different toppings or flavors. The language alters the flavor of the work accordingly. You can experience the same text or episode in a different way and actually notice other things that you haven’t seen before, perhaps highlighted by a well-delivered line or by an oddity that becomes more apparent in one translation than another.

 

And then there is news media and how that diverges in accordance with the language…

 

  1. Less Common Languages Have Their Place

 

“Obviously you don’t encounter speakers of Scandinavian Language in Heidelberg, because generally there aren’t many of them

 

I got this over and over and over again during my time living in the city.

 

In New York City, however, I was met with a surprise. From the very first week, I had certainly heard Spanish and Chinese being regularly used, but now that it is nearly two months that I have spent here, I ran into more Scandinavians on the streets of New York than I have Slavs and Germans and Romance Language Speakers (other than Spanish) put together!

 

“That’s odd”, I thought, “I was expecting very much a similar mix to Heidelberg in regards to what European nationalities I would find here, I was not expecting to be regularly encountering Swedes and Danes with such an extraordinarily high frequency!”

 

Truth be told: every language as its place. If it isn’t where you are, then it is definitely somewhere else. Somewhere, someone will thank you for your effort…

“That’s All One Word?!!?” Learning Introductory Greenlandic

 

Before I begin, let me clarify by saying that yes, Greenlandic is a real language. Known also as “Kalaallisut” or “West Greenlandic”, it is an Inuit Language with Danish influence (and some English influence as well), spoken primarily in Greenland (obviously) but also by some in Denmark and, most assuredly, other places as well.

Greenlandic is best known for being a “polysynthetic language”, and the only indigenous language of the Americas that has sole official status in a country. (Can you guess which one? I thought so!)

For those of you to whom the term “polysynthetic language” doesn’t really mean anything, imagine something like Magnetic Poetry—in which you can assemble your own poems from magnet pieces of words.

Now imagine that, instead of assembling sentences or verses with words, that you assemble words from word pieces. That’s a polysynthetic language for you.

Let me demonstrate with something right out of Kauderwelsch’s “Greenlandic Word for Word”, which is in German, but this part is translated by yours truly:

 

Qaqqaliarniarpunga

Qaqqa/liar/niar/punga

Qaqqa(q) = Mountain

Liar- = travel, go on the road

Niar- = Intend

-punga = “I” Verb, intransitive

“I would like to wander around in the mountains”

 

If you guessed that this could sometimes result in really, really long words, you couldn’t have been more right. The idea of “this is why Germans don’t play Scrabble” is comparatively tame in comparison with what you will encounter on your Greenlandic journey:

Nalunaarasuartaatilioqatigiiffissualiulersaaleraluallaraminngooq

“It seems that they were well into the process of talking about founding an association for the establishment of a Telegraph Station”

(Courtesy of the Greenlandic House in Copenhagen)

My first encounter with the Greenlandic Language resulted due to my addiction to travel literature that came to manifest when I was in Stockholm. While visiting Connecticut, I went to the local library and looked at a guide to Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. The language section hereby treated me to this gem:

Image

I didn’t know it at the time, but eventually that line about typewriters would become a running joke in my family, with some people calling Greenlandic “typewriter” or “the typewriter language”.

Reading through the word list, I was entranced—it would be fair to say that it was love at first sight. Within seconds I was dreaming that a day would come in which I would have conversations in this most exquisite language, and hopefully be able to call myself fluent.

Then I got the book out of the library and read almost all of it (especially the part on Greenland). Thereupon did I copy the Greenlandic glossary in the back and created Memrise’s first-ever Greenlandic course for English speakers (even before the Greenlandic category was established on that site, which it now is).

Finding some Greenlandic media was easy enough because a lot of it is in one place: knr.gl. There is news, radio, sports, movie reviews, movie trailers (mostly in English with Greenlandic subtitles), video game reviews, and, of course, children’s programming. KNR, which itself stands for “Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa” (literally, “The Radio of the Land of the Greenlanders”), truly gives you a good glimpse of a culture that many spend their whole lives never thinking about.

Greenland also has an extraordinarily noteworthy musical tradition which has, predictably, reached Denmark with often a lot more than modest success. Don’t expect to find a lot of these songs even in Danish translation, if you can even find the Greenlandic lyrics at all. I find Greenlandic music exciting, tense, modern, and extremely good at a wide range of expression techniques.

The responses I get when I tell people that I can speak a bit of Greenlandic—they are indeed interesting. Usually they fall in line with something like this:

 

“Greenlandic? Is that even a real language?”

“How many people speak it?”

“Is it Indo-European?”

 

And my personal favorite:

 

“How many people live in Greenland…like…three?”

 

In response to hearing it, either from me or, even rarer, from KNR or a song, I hear things like this:

 

“That doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before!”

“I’m not even going to try to repeat that…”

“WHAT?!!?”

 

And of course, when seeing written Greenlandic, I almost invariably get this (or the equivalent):

 

“That’s all one word?”

 

I had been learning Greenlandic somewhat non-seriously on-and-off up until about a few months ago, when my M.A. Thesis was largely complete and I also was on semester break. Afterwards I began pursuing it with more seriousness, despite many people wondering why I could be devoted to something that was, for them, so strange.

Now for some of my hang-ups with Greenlandic so far:

 

(1)    Resources are scarce. This really goes without saying, and this is coming from someone who reads Danish fairly/very well, depending on his mood. If you don’t have Danish in your language arsenal, you are even more out of luck. But given as all numbers in Greenlandic that are higher than 12 are borrowed from Danish, not also to mention much Greenlandic technical jargon (some terms have both a Greenlandic neologism and a Danish equivalent), you’ll be tempted to dive into that world sooner rather than later, and you Greenlandic journey will be that much easier because of it.

 

(2)    The “q” sound is something I still struggle with regularly. Its sound, to me, sounds like “Ah-k-huh-r” when slowed down a lot. Almost everyone who learns this language struggles with it, although there are also problems with the “rl/ll” sound, which is probably like “d-l-German ‘ch’” which slowed down. The single “l” smacks of “dl” in English, but the d is very slight.

 

Hopefully these approximations can ensure that you don’t struggle with these sounds as much as I did. If it makes you feel any better, there are only three real vowel sounds in Greenlandic: a, u, and i. The letters “o” and “e” are shifted formed of “u” and “i” that come about in the fusion of polysynthetic word components.

 

(3)    Spoken comprehension comes hard. Inuit languages are very different from almost anything you may have encountered (unless you have studied another Inuit Language—as you may know, Greenlandic is the most commonly spoken member of the family, the most commonly studied, and the one in least danger of extinction). Consistency and constant media exposure will be your friends here…as they would be with learning any language at all…

 

(4)    A directory of common suffixes does not yet exist for free—and I think every student of the language would require it. There are dictionaries to be found, without question, but with over 20,000 words in the most comprehensive ones, and almost no resources devoted to the “most common words” (or pieces), you may be out of luck in finding a quick way to find a list of words that will prove most useful to you. The Kauderwelsch Guide, mentioned above, is definitely as good as it gets.

The plus side is that there are cultural institutions in Greenland and in Denmark that would be more than willing to help you on your journey and answer, with a few internet searches, most of your questions about Greenlandic and Greenland.

It will be interesting for me to reflect on this piece as I continue on the journey (or give it up, which doesn’t seem likely at this point), but as for now, I am looking forward to the day in which all of Greenland’s musical glory and intriguing culture is a lot less of a mystery.

Why Learning Scandinavian Languages is Worth the Effort

“Why do you need to learn Swedish? Everyone speaks English here…”

That’s what a librarian at the Great Synagogue in Stockholm told me when I was doing research and told her that I was learning the language.

The irony of this statement is that I was, at that same moment, surrounded by books that were written in Swedish and Danish magazines that were obviously not going to translate themselves.

I’ve gotten a good deal of encouragement by my desire to study the Nordic Languages in detail (Nordic comes to include Finnish, whereas Scandinavian does not). Interestingly, I entered the “high gear” for this study while living in Germany (and after having been to Stockholm not once but twice!), and not while living in Scandinavia.

norden

Alongside some encouragement, I’ve also met some puzzled people who wonder why I don’t study something more “useful” like French or Chinese.

I have read too many Language blogs that haven’t addressed the ideas that I’ve come up with, so I’m going to have to write them here:

 

  1. “They All Speak English” is NOT true!

I, like many people, came to Stockholm during the first week expecting everyone to be fluent in English. To be fair, there were many people who spoke with extraordinary skill to the degree that I would have guessed they were Midwestern American rather than Swedish.

But now comes the bubble bursting: Yes, English is widely spoken, but not by all.

Some people are surprised when I tell them the fact that I encountered not one but TWO people who didn’t speak English in Stockholm (but who did speak Swedish)—and that was only during my first week! Both of them did not appear to be ethnically Swedish, but it should be known that if you are expecting everyone in Scandinavia to be fluent in English (or even to have some knowledge of it), expect to be disappointed.

I remember going to a big supermarket in a far-flung corner of the city. I remember asking something about asking a staff member where carrots could be found. He didn’t speak a word of English, despite numerous hand-gestures.

Only across the street from where I studied there was a newspaper store, with ice cream and other treats, and the owner didn’t speak any English at all, responding to me in Swedish which I did not yet understand.

By no means do I intend to detract from the very good English skills that I have heard. But what needs to be said is that “most” does NOT equal “all”

  1. You will speak closely related languages better

 

Many people do not understand how, thanks to the Norse Invaders, the surrounding languages were accordingly impacted. Knowing a Scandinavian Language will help you with English, German, and the West Germanic Language family as a whole, and even more so with the other two members of the Scandinavian trifecta.

 

You may also learn how to speak English with a Scandinavian accent, which is something that many people actually really like (and you are likely to sound smart while using it).

 

Reference points for remembering words in the other languages come more easily. If you speak English as your first language, the Scandinavian Languages will help demystify German and make it seem more “normal”. If you learn Danish, expect to learn secrets of English pronunciation that may get you mistaken for a native.

 

And once you have one of the three, the other two may come to you with little effort.

 

  1. The Scandinavian Languages enable you to study other languages that cannot be readily accessed only with English

 

If you want to learn any of the Sami Languages, it is necessary that you know Norwegian, Finnish, or Swedish—or preferably all three. If you want to find English-language resources for Sami Languages, you’re out of luck, although no doubt you will find something.

 

If you want to learn Greenlandic, know that every number higher than twelve is expressed exactly as it is in Danish, not also to mention many Danish import words in the language—more than English import words.

 

For learning both of these, English itself will not suffice, and neither will German. The technology and the databases are in other languages, the ones of which I’ve been talking about this whole time.

 

  1. The Signs are Not Translated, and it helps to be able to Pronounce Street Names Correctly

 

Never will I forget a student project in Copenhagen (featured in the Economist, I believe) in which there were non-Danish speakers who had such trouble pronouncing the main street names that they affixed machines nearby that would read the names out loud to them.

 

That was when I was entering my honeymoon phase with the Danish Language, and I figured, “my, wouldn’t that be useful?” Now, I know that I need no such thing. Yes, Danish pronunciation takes a while to get used to, but it is nowhere near the level of confusion that English pronunciation endows upon the average learner.

 

If you learn the languages, then you will remember street and place names more easily, and even if you ask for directions in English, if you can’t pronounce the names, you are most definitely out of luck.

 

  1. An extraordinary Confidence Builder for an English Speaker learning his/her first foreign language!

 

If you think that the Romance Languages will come easy to you—well, the Scandinavian trifecta offers simpler grammar and more English cognates than can be found in Spanish. The only real drawback can be the fact that the pronunciation and the rhythms can take some time to get used to (and this is true with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish alike).

Swedish in particular has a perplexing “sj” sound that may require some adjustment time, and the Danish “stød” is purported to be the stuff of nightmares. Rest assured that you will unlock the mysteries of both with enough willpower, confidence and commitment, should you so desire.

In the event that you might be convinced that “they will just speak to me in English anyway”, try this:

Use complicated sentence structure, spice it up with some colloquialisms, and, of course, speak confidently and firmly. Sometimes you may need to make it clear that you have progressed beyond phrasebook material, but most of the time just speaking with fortitude will work.

Even in the worst case situations, you will definitely find friends who will be willing to help you and speak the languages you want.

If you are interested in any of the three (or all of them), there are so many ways to get started!

Endless television programs for kids have been dubbed into the Scandinavian Languages (don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise!), and you can prepare for media exposure very quickly after a handful of exercises, worksheets, or textbook chapters.

Lycka till, allihopa! (SE)

Lykke til, alle sammen! (DK/NO)