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!

Fun Media from Winter Break 2015

Over the course of the break, I made significant progress in some of my projects (Northern Sami, mostly) and not so significant progress in some of my others (Celtic Languages), but while seeking to apply my languages I did come across some things that I thought I should share with you.

From the Sami department, I encountered a TV show on NRK’s website, “Pulk Klinihkka”, which is…I kid you not…a Sami sitcom (for those of you unaware of what Sápmi is, I intend to write a blog post about it in the style of this one about the Faroe Islands).

Language is Northern Sámi with some Norwegian (and a bit of Swedish), with Norwegian subtitles. Even if you don’t know any of these languages, this may be somewhat amusing for you…I hope.

Here is the third episode, with a particularly amusing incident involving baptism:

http://tv.nrk.no/serie/pulk/SAPR69000313/sesong-1/episode-3

Obviously, important issues about minority identity come into play, and I see the same sort of “underdog” humor that I tend to associate with Yiddish theater in this show. Funny how that works out, eh?

From a somewhat warmer place, allow me to introduce you to another television show, “No Béarla”, an Irish-Language show from Ireland in which a native Irish speaker tours the island without using English. Interestingly I think that he does use English in some episodes, but maybe they were filmed…before he made the commitment? I have no idea…

Endless issues about endangered languages and language as it is tied to identity surface beautifully in this program. Here is the first episode:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyll-bBZzyk

And last, but not least, allow me to introduce you to some music I encountered over the break, this time from a very cold place.

The Jerry Cans produce songs in Inuktitut and in English about life in Nunavut, Canada’s youngest province. Quite eclectic and catchy music that may remind you of American country songs…I first discovered them on KNR (of all places…oh, you need to know what that is? Greenland TV) and then I followed the trail.

Here is the SoundCloud account:

https://soundcloud.com/thejerrycans

And here is the video I saw on KNR. “Mamaqtuq” (it tastes delicious) is actually a song about…seal meat stew…you can imagine the look on my mother’s face when I showed it to her. Watch the video and see why:

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

What sort of interesting things have you done over your Winter break? Share them!

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.

Fun Facts about Faroese

Well, the first thing that I have to get out of the way is this:

In the U.S., there are not many people can relate to mentioning a place or a language and then being asked, “where is that?” or “where do they speak that?”

As far as the United States are concerned, I have come across a grand total of ZERO people outside of the Polyglot Bar who had any clue that the Faroe Islands existed. Who can blame them? Most people in Europe probably are aware of their existence because of Football (Soccer? Should I use the word Soccer?)

So, let’s get this straight:

Faroese is related to Old Norse and Icelandic. It is an endangered language and the language used by about 90% of the population of the Faroe Islands and various expatriates of said islands.

These islands are somewhere between the North of Scotland and Iceland.

Faroese’s pronunciation scheme, like that of Danish, is riddled with a reputation for being impenetrable for foreigners. Like in the case of Danish, this can be alleviated by the fact that there are many similarities to English and German.

How many people speak it? Apparently the Faroese are scattered so wildly throughout the globe (although in very small numbers comparatively) that there is no way to know for certain. No fewer than 50,000, however.

Here is the flag, and the coat of arms is apparently a sheep (not shown).

foroyar

The name “Føroyar” (what the Faroese call their country) translates to “Sheep islands”, although this was in an earlier version of the language. In Greenlandic this idea is roughly translated literally, (Savalimmiut – “places where the sheep sources are”)

National Geographic named them as the world’s most desirable island destination, a designation that many Faroese were not expecting.

In no small part could this be due to the fact that the islands, unlike many other candidates in the contest, have their own language. And very recently, this language has joined my list in a low spot on my resume!

It took me a while to grapple with the grammar but a quick look at Icelandic conjugation made me feel better about what I was dealing with (Faroese seems to be tamer in its grammar). Again, it was an issue of exposure until I began to notice patterns. The tables certainly helped, but I really wasn’t someone for rote memorization when I could use fun methods like song lyrics instead.

Without further ado, I promised you alliterative “Fun Facts about Faroese”, so here they are!

  • Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…now imagine something like Thursevening, Frinight, and Saturmorning. This system works in Faroese. (these would be: hóskvøld, fríggjanát, and leygarmorgun)

 

  • The word for “unemployed” is “arbeiðsleysur”, literally, “available for work”. The equivalent appears in Norwegian and Danish today, but think about what it indicates: the implication is that, in a Viking Society, everybody works. If you don’t have work, you are available for it, not just merely being “without” it.

 

  • There is an issue of language purity at hand in the Faroese Language, but it seems to be nowhere as strong as it would be in Iceland or in some of the Native American Languages. Language purity always has, in my opinion, amusing results. One such result in Faroese is that the word for an auto mechanic literally means “car smith” (bilsmiður).

 

  • The Hebrides are referred to literally as the Southern Islands (suðuroggjar). The implication is that the Southern Islands from Frozen are actually a real place!

 

  • Faroese is very similar to English on many, many fronts. Even if you flip through the first few pages of a textbook (keep in mind, there certainly are not many Faroese textbooks to be found), then you may recognize “ha?”, a question tag at the end of sentences that works in a similar way as far as colloquial English is concerned.

 

The example from the textbook: “An Introduction to Modern Faroese”

 

“Tygum eru ikki Føroyingur, ha?”

 

Did you think of this…

 

“You’re not Faroese, huh?”

 

Direct word-for-word translations can work between Faroese and English, testament to Viking invasions from long ago.

 

  • Faroese has more linguistic differences among its speakers than Icelandic does. The “ei” sound is pronounced differently depending on where in the islands you are from, and even the days of the week can differ depending on how south you are (!)

 

  • The word for “religious” literally translates to “churchly” (Kirkjuligur). There are words for other religions (“Jødi” would turn out to be useful for me in particular), but the implication is that only one religious has a hold on the Faroe Islands, and it isn’t Judaism.

 

 

  • The Language’s pronunciation, especially “r” in consonant blends, goes a long way towards explaining some peculiarities about pronunciation in the other Scandinavian Languages. “Bort” in Swedish isn’t pronounced the way it would be in English, but it would be pronounced very similarly in Faroese (in which the word is “burtur”)

 

  • And now you’re probably wondering what on earth Faroese is good for…why bother?

 

Well, for one, it truly honed my ability to understand the Scandinavian Languages and English by means of a language that retains many old features. The odd pronunciation had post-cedents in each of the Scandinavian Languages that were, for me, very readily noticeable.

 

And, of course, the music comes in many different flavors. For now, something a bit more traditionalistic, a tear-jerker song:

 

Lost in the Føroyskt: My First Impressions of Faroese

Richard Kölbl, the author of the Kauderwelsch Faroese Phrasebook/Mini-Textbook, writes in a tongue-in-cheek manner that the Faroese People spent the long winter nights in the Faroe Islands convoluting their written language and creating making their pronunciation system complicated.
That sounds like something that came to my mind upon receiving my very first impressions of Faroese (via the Lonely Planet Guide—the same one that featured this hilarious excerpt). Back then, I could not possibly comprehend how the written language corresponded to the spoken one. Not surprisingly, I had a similar struggle with Danish as well, and am undergoing much of the same with French (although I think that French has the most sensible system of the three).
Thanks largely to Kölbl’s book, my struggles with pronunciation have been readily been put at ease. Each word is usually provided with the phonetic German transcription that I will need.
The most important obstacle that comes out when I learn a language related to those that I already know well is the fact that I am sometimes less inclined to practice if I can recognize things easily (Dutch was the worst offender, by far—immersion sometimes didn’t help, because I would understand a lot of it already, even if I couldn’t actively call upon a good enough vocabulary to use it in conversation most of the time).
Faroese vocabulary in its simple bases presents almost no surprises at all. I found out that the word “ej” (no, none, not having any) and its ilk in the more modern Scandinavian Languages could be related to the Faroese word “einki”, (“ayn-tscheh”). After Swedish, Danish and Norwegian the words that I recognize actively are usually just written down in my notebook without definitions—“eldur” (fire) and “kanska” (maybe) are easily recognizable from “ild” and “kanske”, which mean the same (I used the Swedish examples here).
The grammar is the main reason why I have trouble building sentences. Interestingly, the book hasn’t been too helpful with that, but I did manage to find some other books with the verb tables and declensions that I will need.
Thankfully after Classical Greek (and many other languages), Faroese grammar can’t really surprise me anymore. That isn’t to say that it isn’t scary—I find the tables intimidating, but it isn’t nearly as scary as the guidebooks I have read make it out to be.
(An aside at this point: too many travel guide books make out various languages to be a lot scarier than they actually are. But most of you already knew that. Other travel guide books may make a point of saying that you should just use English anyway, if possible. I think I should address these issues in another post…)
I can’t help but think of the modern Scandinavian languages every minute of my studying Faroese. For one, “ein” (one) is both masculine and feminine, as opposed to the “common gender” in Swedish/Danish/Norwegian/Dutch. There is a neuter in Faroese as well: “eitt”. In Swedish, you have “en” and “ett”, and the connection is obvious.
Okay, Jared, stop talking about things we may not understand and get to something important. Like feelings!
Very well.
For one, Faroese has been a welcome break from many other languages that I have struggled with. I had no head start with Greenlandic (to say the least), save for a handful of Danish words. I listened to my first Radio broadcast in Greenlandic back in early 2013 and didn’t understand a word.
Faroese is different—thanks largely to my prior knowledge of Scandinavian Languages, I do have an extraordinary head start—and this accounts not only for the vocabulary but also for the accent as well. I think that Kringvarp Føroya’s voices do resemble some vague form of Swedish.
I do have another bit of a battle as well: so far, I haven’t encountered too many Faroese programs that I like very much (yet). KNR’s Greenlandic media I found instantly enchanting, even back when I understood almost none of it. As for Faroese media, I think it will very well be a bit of an acquired taste…or maybe I just need to play around with the site more…
I find Faroese Music very enchanting, very much like that of Greenland, and I have a knack for humming the National Anthem of the Faroe Islands (my first song in the language, even though I haven’t learned the lyrics by heart…yet).
Only yesterday evening did I get my first “remark” (and I usually appreciate things like this when they are delivered with a smile and more than a hint of admiration):
Me: “Next week is the Faroese National Holiday, it lasts for two days and everything in the Faroes is closed.
Friend: “Everything in the Faroe Islands is closed. What is there…three shops and one church?”
My collection of Greenlandic comments of this nature is already quite full. I can imagine that this one will be as well, but I’ll have to be patient…
I’ve even encountered a handful of Europeans who don’t even know that the Faroe Islands exist…so maybe this collection might not be as stunning…but something to smile at, nonetheless!
In summary, my progress (with a few more details that I haven’t mentioned before):
(1) Grammar? I’ve been here before. I don’t think it is too much to worry about it. People made a big deal out of grammar in the Finnish Language being tough stuff and I didn’t particularly feel that it was.
(2) Cognates? Cognate heaven. Moving on.
(3) Control of the language? I have the basics down. I’ve learned a number of interesting details about the culture and drawn connections to other languages that I know (which include the whole of the Germanic Language family, actually!)
(4) Pronunciation? I’m growing into it! And a lot more easily than I remember doing with Danish! Heck, I think it’s even easier than French pronunciation at this juncture! But I think the reason this is the case is because Swedish and Danish are hardly mysteries for me anymore, and Faroese can’t be too much of a departure…although it tries to be!
(5) The keyboard: installed, but painful. Need to really figure out how it works…
(6) Immersion: predictably, there are quotes from Danish politicians that are very clearly kept in Danish and not rendered into Faroese. I’m recognizing many words quite quickly, but sometimes have trouble putting the spoken language together with ease. The written language is far easier at this juncture…
(7) However, I don’t have many shows that I particularly crave to watch. This means: I need to find something that I like. It’s out there…
(8) I HAVE to pass from a passive understanding of the grammar and many aspects of vocabulary to an active understanding. Once I do that, then color me proficient.

As to when I will reach that point, well…depends on many factors…

So far, it has been a good journey! It doesn’t seem like it will be one that will ever end, though (any language learner knows this…)…and that’s a good thing!
Until next time…

“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.