Some Encouraging Thoughts about Learning Swedish in Sweden

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Today is June 6th, now the National Day of Sweden, formerly known as the Day of the Swedish Flag. As to why that day in particular was chosen, you can read the story about it here.

And if you ever go to Stockholm, I highly recommend a visit to Skansen, which is one of the most genuine experiences you will ever have in your life, guaranteed. It sometimes feels like time travel, given that many of the shops there function exactly the way they did before the Industrial Revolution.

Anyhow, if you have an interest in learning Swedish, particularly for travel purposes, you’re going to encounter a lot of discouragement on the Internet, and this piece will serve as your “antidote”.

I’ve lived in Sweden for a year. I did not leave fluent (I acquired that mantle at around early 2014, when my polyglot visions all started to come together, and when I found myself practicing with encouraging and helpful native speakers very often). But it was a good start.

But chances are if you look around the Internet, you’ll encounter, you guess it, horror stories, the same way I did with learning Danish and Icelandic. Stories from The Local (a newspaper that has English-Language editions in several countries, including Sweden and Denmark) about how “my Swedish spouse won’t talk Swedish to me, she only uses English even though I’ve asked her thousands of times to not use it” and about “why bother, given as I’ve only been answered in English?”.

(Hey, I know I’ve been repeating myself but you have NO IDEA how many hits posts like these get!)

Anyhow, as I detailed when writing about Myanmar, it was actually easier to get answered in Swedish in Sweden than it was to get answered in Burmese in Myanmar (this is taking my appearance as someone who does not look Asian into account). This was despite the fact that Sweden has among the highest rates of English proficiency in the world and Myanmar has 5% of its population as fluent English speakers.

Anyhow…

Reasons Why Learning Swedish in Sweden is a Good Idea

I was told beforehand that learning Swedish just wasn’t necessary. And then my luggage got misplaced at the airport and I couldn’t even pronounce the name of my address. I couldn’t pronounce the street names. I couldn’t even pronounce the names of businesses.

Then my housemates and I went on a shopping tour to buy things for the house (I was in the Paideia Program in Sweden). Thinking that not knowing Swedish wouldn’t be a problem, we encountered several staff members at that store who responded to our English in Swedish.

And then there was another store near Östermalmstorg (a town square near where I went to classes) in which the same thing happened to me.

(My understanding is that they might have been immigrants that underwent Swedish-language immersion beforehand to the exclusion of learning any English at all, or possibly might have learned Swedish from their environment much like I was doing in the early stages).

And to top it all off, the apartment I was in was owned by the Jewish community and we had to follow the guidelines for keeping a kosher home that were written in Swedish and seldom translated into English! (Only a few paragraphs from the guide, if I recall correctly)

Keep in mind: this was before I learned about polyglot cultures, language hacking, or before smartphones were invented. This was before I had access to any decent programs that would help me learn languages (although I would pick them up in the next few months after the events I described).

So…I was going to learn Swedish but…I had no real clue about how I would go about doing it.

The only real thing I had was the phrasebook sections in my guidebook.

I struggled. I got answered in English quite often, but sooner or later it happened a lot less often. Sometimes I encountered the occasional Swedish native speaker that would feel threatened by my level of Swedish and sometimes not-so-subtlely ignored me, treated me not very nicely, or outright refused to use Swedish with me (sometimes this still happens to me, oddly enough, although the overwhelming majority is appreciative!)

I know the feeling as well. I’ve encountered some people who have spoken English to me with virtually no trace of any accent (these have only been a handful, and keep in mind that my ear for accents is very, very sharp, especially as concerns Nordic languages). I felt a little bit threatened too, to be honest. Can’t blame others for feeling the same way.

But anyhow, enough complaining, more about advice about how to make the most of your venture.

  • Sweden is full of people from various backgrounds that all come to the country and learn to speak Swedish. Like Americans, Swedes are more used to hearing their language spoken in foreign accents than people of other nationalities may be.

 

“You pretty much have to talk like a native otherwise they’re going to answer you in English”.

WRONG!

Get good pronunciation, no doubt, especially as concerns the letter “a”, which is pronounced differently when stressed than when unstressed (I spent ten minutes trying to think of English equivalents and between the dissimilarity between English dialects I can’t think  of anything suitable to illustrate the difference. “Ja” = yes = stressed, the a’s in “fattar” (understands) is unstressed.

But don’t feel that you’re under extraordinary pressure to be perfect. They may hear an accent (when I wasn’t fluent yet, I was placed in either Germany or Finland most of the time), but just because they hear an accent doesn’t mean it is English-only city for you.

 

  • Use your smartphone to your advantage

If you know what you want for breakfast, check it up on Google Translate or, better yet, go to en.wikipedia.org, look for the item you want, and then change the article language to Swedish. If you do the latter, look at the article and notice how the word pluralizes (if you haven’t gotten the hang of the flavors of the Swedish plural form yet).

If you don’t have coverage, make sure to download the Swedish language packet on the Google Translate app so that you can use it even when offline. It may not be perfect, but thanks to the fact that there are a lot of Swedish speakers in the Google Translate online community, your luck is better with Swedish than it is with something like Irish or Burmese.

Simple phrases will, more often than not, work.

For an app with very good simple phrases that will be useful in travel, I recommend the Transparent Language app that can come with many US library accounts (I don’t know if it is available outside of the US, however). For more information on how to find a library that supports the service, write a comment and I’ll help you. All of these phrases are accompanied by native speaker audio.

Mango Languages is also good for getting the hang of simple conversations that will be useful on a daily basis. It, too, is available through libraries.

 

  • If you have Swedish-speaking friends, even if you primarily use English (or another language) with them, get their help! 

One of my best friends in Stockholm was a priest in the church of Sweden. Being a Swedish teacher himself, he really helped me with irregular verbs as well as assisting me with commonly mixed-up words. He helped me have my first-ever conversation in Swedish!

Even the Hebrew teacher in Paideia, who picked up Swedish later on in life, helped me as well! So you can enlist the help of your Swedish-speaking friends even though not all of them may be native speakers!

Swedish language enthusiasm is a very contagious bug (as is Swedish-culture enthusiasm, must I add). Those who get addicted get in for life. Swedish people lecture foreigners about Sweden and the Swedish language all of the time. (Admit it!) So if you have friends who have been affected, they’re going to affect you too!

And my, my, is Swedish a useful skill to have! Especially in Internet comment sections 😛

 

  • If you get answered in English and know what to say next, just continue in Swedish as if nothing happened.

I actually learned this trick from watching my monoglot family members interact with people who don’t speak English, as well as other people like the shopkeepers I mentioned above (who didn’t speak English).

Keep in mind that, in some places, native speakers get mistaken for tourists at times (I’ve heard multiple stories about this happening in the Netherlands). If you know what to say next in order to ask for directions or order food, then say it. If you don’t use English you’ll give no one any pretense to answer back in English.

But keep in mind: if you are in the company of Swedish-speakers and English-speakers, use English unless necessary so as not to come off as rude. Swedes are more sensitive towards that sense of exclusion than members of other nationalities (or so I feel).

I’ve had times when I’ve just kept using Swedish after accidentally hesitating (and getting responded to in English) and then it just continues in Swedish as if nothing happened.

  • Don’t dwell on mistakes

You aren’t your mistakes. Your mistakes are like the various blows of a hammer that mold you into what you are about to become.

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And this will soon become the sigil of your success resulting forthwith!

  • Use filler words and make your sentences longer than normal.

You don’t actually want to sound like a phrasebook, you want to sound like a native speaker (or close to it). But the phrasebook stuff actually serves as a “springboard” to sounding like a native speaker.

As a result, I’ll direct you to my article here, which is valid for learning how to avoid being answered in English anywhere (taking into account that I’ve had most of my language immersion in European countries as of 2014).

  • Realize that Swedish People are, on the Whole, Supportive and Want you to Learn Their Language

Swedish pride is very strong. Like with other cultures, Swedish culture rewards those who have an active interest in it. You will make new friends, you will get complimented, you will be treated with awe and respect if you master conversational Swedish.

But the road to that can be difficult, but here’s the thing: looking back, picking up Swedish wasn’t too difficult in comparison to having picked up many other languages. And looking back, Sweden had among the most encouraging native speakers I’ve encountered anywhere, especially among its younger generations.

Was my immersion journey in Sweden hard? Yes

Would immersion journeys be hard anywhere else? You bet.

Did I leave Sweden fluent? No.

If I came back there, would I avoid English the entire time? Of course I would.

And when I would come back, I would remember that the last time I was there, in 2013, I was struggling an awful lot, and realizing that that fulfillment from having come a long way…could also be yours, be it with Swedish or any other language.

You’ve got an exciting journey ahead!

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Uppsala, complete with a very Swedish indeed truck in the backgrond.

8 Important Lessons I Learned Speaking Elementary Burmese in Myanmar for 2 ½ Weeks

My goal: learn Burmese well enough to get by. Did I succeed? Yes I did! Did I leave fluent in Burmese and being able to talk about philosophy and politics? No, but that’s okay.

More importantly, I did pick up some very important lessons.

Shortly before taking off, I got a message from one of my friends who is a native speaker of another East Asian Language, saying “now we’ll see how our Western polyglot fares with our Eastern languages!”

(Full disclosure: my only other Asian Language up until that point was Hebrew. Even then, there are those that would consider the languages of the Middle East, Central Asia or even most Indo-Aryan Languages as “Western”)

Burmese was VERY different from every other language I’ve studied (although interesting it had grammatical similarities to the Melanesian Creoles like Tok Pisin [of all things], which gave me an advantage, as well as odd similarities to many other languages I can speak as well). It was a challenge. Obviously I would have fared better with languages more similar to those I knew already, but it is what it is and I’m glad that I did it.

 

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Victory. Is my Destiny.

 

It seems that, after this enchanting experience, I’m likely to want to pick up more languages from outside Europe in the future. That is…if I could even manage the whole maintenance thing or have the heart to actually abandon some of my previous languages…

Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!

 

  1. Just because English isn’t widely spoken where you are, doesn’t mean that your chances of being answered in English are any lower. Actually, you’re probably MORE likely to get answered in English in such a country!

 

“Burmese people speak terrible English”. That’s what I read once on a Swedish-language travel site. Part of me was surprised (former British colony? Bad English? Really?), part of me wasn’t (all that isolation is probably responsible for that). But I thought, “I don’t need to worry about getting answered in English at all! Yippi”

WRONG!

Actually, looking at it neutrally (and this is taking into account the fact that I am a white person who would, under almost all circumstances, not be mistaken for a Myanmar local), I got answered in English more frequently in Myanmar than in SWEDEN.

(And, looking back on in, Sweden wasn’t really all that bad in that regard, unless I hesitated / made a grievous grammar mistake / did something very un-Swedish. Even with my English-speaking family members nearby and even when I handed the cashier my American passport at Systembolaget, I still got answered in Swedish!)

I did encounter fluent English speakers in Myanmar, but only near high-end places in Yangon (and these were the richest areas of the whole country).

With most Burmese (including these fluent speakers as well as those what spoke elementary English), it seems that they wanted to prove that they knew English (to whatever degree they did). In a place like Sweden or Iceland, with heaps of hackneyed articles being written on why they speak English so well, it seems that most feel no need to prove it.

In Italy and in France (back when my Italian and French was even worse than my Burmese was when I took off), the situation was very comparable to that of Myanmar, with the English of the locals usually being a lot higher than most areas of East Asia.

That said, all hope is not lost, because…

 

  1. With the exception of places where global / popular languages are spoken, few foreigners will even attempt the local language. This, already, makes you stand out.

 

In Myanmar, it is common for local to greet tourists with “Mingalarbar”(မင်္ဂလာပါ).

Some tourists respond in kind (and only once did I hear a group of tourists profess any knowledge of Burmese beyond that, my only interaction with expatriates [who , according to my knowledge, spoke Burmese about as well as I did], was at the “Myanmar Shalom” Expatriate Shabbat. Yes, there are Jews living in Myanmar! More on that some other day.)

But I noticed something whenever I would interact with restaurant staff or locals on the street and there were other tourists nearby. Often they would stare at me with amazement. Locals would also react differently to me, even though I was travelling with people who didn’t even know a lick of Burmese. Even if I had trouble understanding what was spoken back to me, or even if I got answered in English, I still got complimented very heavily.

In Iceland, I also had a very similar reception as well when I spoke Icelandic to locals. This is what knowing the local language does (even if you speak a little bit, which would mean “I can order food in this language and ask how much things costs or ask for directions”). It gives you an aura of enchantment that those who don’t make the attempt and even those who have been speaking the language since birth. This is even truer with languages that are more rarely studied.

 

  1. Your Skills Fluctuate as a result of Travel, as well as of the Learning Process

 

At some points during my Myanmar trip, I was “on a roll”, I was getting all of the tones right, I was not making pronunciation errors, no hesitation and sometimes didn’t even need to peek in my books for a vocabulary refresher!

Sometimes I was too tired and “wasn’t feeling up to it”, and therefore wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic, able or confident. But interestingly, if I had to interact in a language I was consistently good with (like those that I teach), I wouldn’t have had an issue even if I was tired or sick or being eaten by bugs (this didn’t happen to me, thankfully).

Only once or twice was I so “out of it” that I defaulted to English.

But only a few hours later did I use my Burmese skills that actually resulted in me getting free water bottles! (This was at Shwedagon Pagoda, no less!)

You are learning. Until you are consistently good, your skills are going to fluctuate wildly. And even with your native language, your ability to apply grammar or come up with meaningful expressions is going to fluctuate (to a lesser degree). And this is true even if you are a monoglot who only speaks your native language.

 

  1. Use What Resources You Have. Obviously for Less Politically Powerful Languages, You’ll Have Less. But Take Your Disadvantages into Account in the Learning Process.

 

I looked at the Google Translate App in frustration, wondering why on earth I wasn’t able to download the Myanmar / Burmese translation package (the way I was capable of doing with Icelandic).

If I were headed to somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, I would have had my work cut out for me more easily, with more books, more tips and more technological resources to deploy.

My books for learning Burmese, however, weren’t nothing (and I had two that I carried on my person at all times).

One thing I learned to do within the first few days was keep a ready mental note to use the index if I saw a certain situation was coming up. For the Lonely Planet book, this was easier. But for the Kauderwelsch book, I often had to remember page numbers where I encountered certain phrases or use the mini-images at the top of the page in order to serve as a guide to when I would need to use what.

And speaking of books…

 

  1. Use your books or your tech resources during your downtime (at the hotel, waiting for a meal, etc.)

Something to note: as of the time of writing there are a lot of people, especially older folk, that will get visibly irritated if you use your phone excessively. Interestingly, they will have no such reaction to you referencing a book (unless you are really engrossed in it).

That said, keep in mind that whenever you are having an “I’m bored” moment, get out your book and look at something you think you may need or otherwise look at something related to a consistent weak point.

For Burmese, one consistent weak point I had was numerical classifiers (fail to use these well enough and this means you’ll get answered in English in a yap). For those who don’t know what a classifier is (they exist in a lot of East Asian Languages across the board), it is a word used to indicate a number of a measurement of something. That something comes in various “flavors”, and you choose what “flavor” depending on what class of thing you are talking about.

So when I was in a hotel or waiting for a meal, and it seemed that conversation was slow or that there was an aura of laziness in the air, I would take out my book, review classifiers, and do so until circumstances required me to do something else.

But just reading the words off the page isn’t going to do much…so you’ll need…

 

  1. Memory Devices are your Best Friends. I used (1) similarity to words I already knew in other languages and (2) using the memory palace technique in order to mentally “place” the word where I knew I would use it.

 

 

Let’s look at the Burmese classifier list on Wikipedia, shall we? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_numerical_classifiers)

Now, how exactly would I remember the first entry in the list (ကောင် / kàuɴ), a classifer used for animals?

Well, it sounds like “cow” and I would remember a cow falling, but there’s also an “င်” at the end which is pronounced like an “ng” sound. I kept in mind “kong” (whether exactly you may be thinking of King Kong of Hollywood Fame or the Kong Family of the Nintendo Franchise is entirely up to you)

Then, of course, there were my first evenings in a restaurant where I was required to remember words for what I wanted to order. I took in the surroundings and I “placed” the various words on the tables in my mental space. That did the trick.

 

  1. Discouragement and “Why Did I Even Try This?” May Come. Resist these feelings and don’t dwell on your mistakes.

 

You are almost certainly going to be making mistakes on your immersion journey. Back when I was in various European countries from 2011 until 2014, I sometimes dwelled on my mistakes too often. Now I’ve known better.

Misunderstood? Eh.

Answered in English? Bleh.

Didn’t know how to respond in a conversation? Meh.

I usually don’t get too vexed when I’m playing a video game and I lose a life. I expect losing lives to be the natural course of playing a video game. Similarly, I don’t think I should overreact when the same thing happens in language learning.

And this leads to my final lesson…

 

 

  1. Be easy on yourself and take what you can get.

 

I didn’t leave fluent in Burmese. That’ll take a while yet. What I did get, however, was motivation, practice, and tips for the road forward.

Knowing that one day I will look back on these days when I was making mistakes more frequently, knowing that I would remember “back when I couldn’t speak Burmese all that well”, and that I would probably laugh at it with a smile…fills me with determination.

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I know. I said I would knock off the Undertale Jokes. Come to think of it, I think I made the exact same joke some twenty-odd posts ago?

It’s easy to compare yourself to other learners, including those who have lived in the country for a brief while and left fluent (I can only think of a handful of instances, I think Benny Lewis in Brazil was one such occurrence, but obviously learning Portuguese as a Native English speaker is going to be nothing like learning Burmese as a native speaker of … any European Language, actually).

Take what you can. You have plenty of time to get to the rest later (and “the rest” is actually of infinite volume, and this is true for any language). And even if you don’t return, you’ll have the chance to interact with native speakers, wherever you meet them, for the rest of your life.

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I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.

A Sample Warm-Up Ritual for Polyglot Gatherings

In the days leading up to it, I ask myself the following questions:

  • Which languages am I most likely to be using? (Spanish, German, Portuguese, Hebrew)
  • Which rarer languages might be featured? (For example, this round I am practicing Finnish and Faroese because they were both name-dropped in a blog post about the last polyglot bar. Given how Estonian and Finnish are related, it might be fair to count Estonian in, too)
  • Which languages am I not feeling particularly confident about right now? (Answers: Romance Languages, Greenlandic, Estonian a bit rusty too)
  • Which Languages do I feel I could use quite readily right now? (Answer: Scandinavian Languages, German, Yiddish)

The ones in regard to (4) are ignored for the time being. Anyone that intersects with both (1) and (3) (in this case, Spanish and Portuguese) gets special media treatment.

Anyone which intersects with (2) and (3) gets treatment as well.

Lastly, any other languages in (3) get attention.

So, what languages of mine require practice?

Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Finnish, Estonian, Faroese

Yay, list!

Now, what I do:

The ones that I feel are the WEAKEST I practice at the earlier in the week.

Faroese goes first (On with Kringvarp Føroya until I get bored of it, and then an assortment of Faroese Music).

Once I feel that I’ve had my fill of that, I take out my phrasebook and review the grammar. Alas, I am still using “language learning materials” with Faroese but hopefully within a month or two I’ll drop it.

Estonian is next. Songs, review vocabulary lists (I don’t use textbooks for Estonian except for reference now), and watch Estonian versions of some Disney musical animated films for kids.

After this, I put the computer away and train myself to think in Estonian (with Faroese it is a bit more difficult because there is no Google Translate for it…but mark my words…I think we’ll have it before the year is up!)

Words I am blanking on are looked up and recited out loud.

Hebrew—well, I figure I have the class on Wednesday. No big deal.

Finnish, Portuguese, Spanish— I watch TV in all of them at various points throughout the day when I have time. Words I do not know are looked up, but for Romance Languages I feel that my understanding is usually very, very good, but active use is weaker than I would like.

The rest of the languages get about two minutes worth of attention each (usually a YouTube something). The ones that I am learning I either use (1) Memrise (2) Quizlet or (3) a book.

And then when the day comes, I get my confidence in perfect gear, and then I walk to the area on foot, training myself to think positively about my abilities all the way there.

And then the fun begins…

Polyglot Report Card, for September 2014 (Part 2)

The First Part of this report card is here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/polyglot-report-card-for-september-2014-part-1/

Next up is a language with two flavors, Portuguese.

as armas

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I cannot lie, I really like European Portuguese and I am quite passionate about it (although not as passionate as I am about many other languages).

In fact, I say this with a hint of guilt, I like it a LOT more than I do Brazilian Portuguese, despite the fact that it could be said (as a friend of mine has) that “European Portuguese isn’t a separate language. It’s only a really annoying accent”.

In any case, I’m not really where I want to be with either of them (except for when it comes for understanding Brazilian Portuguese, thanks a lot to Duolingo…)

I may be tempted to “throw television at the problem” in order to make it go away, especially for European Portuguese which is less commonly studied. At present I’ve been watching something in EU Portuguese on average of once every week, as opposed to my Duolingo studies in “Brasileiro”, which I try to make daily.

My plan:

Brazil: Complete the Duolingo tree (and the end is within sight). The problem: sometimes it really feels like a chore for me and my hand hurts from typing. The three-heart system can also be particularly stressful—probably the most stressful “game-like” experience I’ve had is with Duolingo.

Portugal: Once I complete the tree, I’ll use Portuguese media to measure my progress. That will be another diagnosis, but if European Portuguese really isn’t much more than a “really annoying accent”, then this spells wonderful things for me, despite of some cries of “two separate languages”.

The pronunciation of both is definitely not a problem for me anymore. Not only that, but I can switch between them with minimal effort. I couldn’t do this when the year began.

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I really got lazy with Modern Hebrew and it really is all my fault. I got lazy with Spanish as well. Given how these were the languages which I had plugged the most time into earlier in my life (because of school), I really felt that, on some level, I had been “force fed” them. Because of this, it is difficult for me to feel “passionate” about them, and sometimes my conversational ability can range from good to troublesomely bad, depending on how I feel.

How do I get that passion back?

ay yay yay

Well, for one, we’ll see what JTS’ Hebrew classes do to me in a few days. Hopefully I can put it together and get to convincing conversational ability between then and now. I can’t allow myself to become a victim of my “mood swings”.

As for Spanish, well, there are plenty of Latin American conversation partners, including one of my best friends who is Puerto Rican. Then there is also immersion, which I hadn’t used in high school because I was too naïve (nor did I really have the time for it back then, given the dreadful testing culture…)

The same way that I learned the Scandinavian Languages with a lot of media immersion, I have to realize that I must do the same with the Romance Languages. It may be boring at times because I feel like I understand everything (when what I want is ACTIVE control of the language), but if I want to maintain this language that’s what I have to do. Portuguese by itself and expecting Spanish to remain in place just by virtue of the connection isn’t going to work.

Worse off than Spanish is Dutch, and I came across the odd realization in Paris that I can understand Flemish accents more easily than I can those from the Netherlands (odd…they’re the same language, that’s what everyone tells me…)

 

vlaanderen

That “ui” sound is the least of my problems. My knowledge of Dutch grammar is rusty and I don’t think that my accent is at all that good. I’ve been using the immersion technique with Dutch for a while now but I think that I’ve hit a brick wall…

I can understand a good deal of television and even more of the written language. But what do I need to do for active control of the language that I can be proud of?

not orange quite surprising

I may need to turn to Memrise or even Duolingo’s Dutch course (even though my plate is very well full on both). Reading the Transparent Dutch blog certainly wouldn’t hurt, especially in regards to those past participles that I sometimes draw blanks on, not also to mention those odd situations which leave me wondering whether or not I should use German sentence structure in Dutch.

And last but not least, a new member of the almost conversational family, having graduated from the lower tier:

kalaallit nunaat

Words cannot describe how proud I am about the fact that I can talk about myself and my hobbies in what is probably my favorite language at the moment.

For those of you who have dealt with me personally over the course of the past few months, you may instantly know that I am talking about Greenlandic, an Inuit Language with Danish influence which has been described by many as notoriously difficult, possibly even the world’s hardest language. But I digress.

According to Per Långgard, the teacher probably best known for Greenlandic for Foreigners courses (in both the English- and the Danish-speaking words), there are very few foreigners who have full working proficiency in Greenlandic (according to my recollection, the amount of foreigners who have done so could fit into a small classroom!)

I’m nowhere near that level, I don’t know if I would commit my Greenlandic studies to that degree, but the fact is that I have a very good firm basis in the prefixes, the suffixes, basic verbs, and what makes the language different from all of the other languages that I have studied.

My weakness: the written language, and this may in part be due to the fact that Greenlandic isn’t supported by either Google Translate nor Facebook (although there is a Wikipedia in Greenlandic).

I can’t go around translating songs quite yet, but I can get the gist of every article and song or TV episode that I see with no help from Danish or English. Something for me to be proud of!

Also, if any of you know any Greenlandic Speakers in the New York Area, send ‘em my way.

 

This series ain’t over yet! Tune in later on for Part 3!

Why Danish isn’t as Hard as Google Search Results Make It Out to Be

dansk i graekenland

From the airport in Hania, Crete–a place that has a reputation for getting “planeloads of Danes” during the tourist season.

Hej allesammen!

If there is one language that has been accused of being both very easy and very difficult to learn, it would definitely be the Danish Language. I still have remember the first time I typed in some words into Google Translate and had them read aloud with that recognizable little button…

My mouth dropped, I lightly screamed, “WHAT?!!?”, and I muttered to myself in disbelief. “How does THAT come out to be…THAT?” I wondered…

Nearly a year and a half later after that incident, Danish pronunciation is not the least bit scary to me, after lots of cartoon-watching and media consumption (in fact, the only reason why I would consume media and watch cartoons is precisely for learning a new language—nothing more…)

[TANGENT]

Let’s get this out of the way right now: for media aimed at younger audiences, even in part, there will be dubs of them in the Nordic Languages, “All their media is in English, and that’s why they all learn to speak it excellently…”, you might have heard? No, not quite. Sorry. That would be the schooling systems you have in mind.

In my Stockholm hotel TV where my family was staying, there was definitely very little dubbed material (is that why people get this impression?), but the fact is, that you can find media in the “everyone from the countries where these languages are spoken speaks English” languages, and a lot of it!

Not only that, but you can and will find people willing to speak to you in these languages and will actually be very pleased that you undertook the effort!

Wait, did I go off on a tangent? Yes I did…

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On one hand, a quick Google Search in regards to the Danish Language may tell you that you better give up now because all the expatriates struggle with the language, never learn it, always get answered in English, can’t even get the basic street names correctly, etc. etc.

On the other hand, while I don’t particularly trust the FSI’s rating of languages by difficulty (or any such ratings, actually), the fact that Danish is in the easiest category (along with Romanian, the other Scandinavian Languages and the Romance Languages—hey, FSI, possibly put Romansh in there, too?) is telling.

I came across this list back when Danish pronunciation mystified me, back when I thought, “I will never bother with torturing myself with this, I’ll stick to Swedish and Norwegian for the time being”, and I was perplexed. But interestingly, a part of me found it believable…maybe the pronunciation wasn’t so bad after all.

Okay, back up, for those of you wondering what exactly makes Danish so elusive in the eyes of foreigners, allow me to introduce you to the stød, the glottal stop. Mention this to someone who speaks the language, and he or she may make a motion of sticking his or her tongue out slightly and then withdrawing it—in so doing, this creates a certain creaky vibration of the throat. This is effectively what you need to master.

While it took me a number of weeks practicing to practice it, while walking on silent roads or in the shower, I actually encountered someone a few weeks ago (German/British), with no prior knowledge of Danish, who pronounced a perfect stød on his first try! Well, you really shouldn’t judge anyone from first tries, but the fact is: there is hope for you! Not also to mention that there are dialects of the language without it.

Without further ado, allow me to present this, a translation of a very popular Greenlandic song, “Sila Qaammarerpoq”, into Danish:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQwjuScey9s

That creaky voice sound that you can hear at multiple points in the song? Yep, that’s what scares away many prospective learners.

Not the only thing, however—the fact that Danish spelling is deemed a “poor indicator” of pronunciation means that even basic words, like “bedst” (best), “gade” (street), “overalt” (everywhere) and “eventyr” (fairy tale—you know, that’s what Hans Christian Andersen called his own creations…), become very intimidating.

But, in reality, these words are just as intimidating as their English counterparts would be for a foreigner!

Scratch that, the English words would actually be more intimidating!

I don’t see too many foreigners saying how the English language is extraordinarily difficult, and I think that Danish pronunciation and spelling is actually a lot more intuitive than that of English—although let’s be honest, this is not a very high standard.

In summary, Danish’s reputation as very hard can be ascribed to the following factors:

(1)    Stød—not impossible for a foreigner to learn. Obviously this requires some practice

(2)    The spelling-pronunciation disconnect. This, too, requires some practice.

 

And the best way to get this practice is by using the same method that most people who learn English to any degree use: media immersion.

This is effectively how I learned Danish, after learning Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees. Thanks largely to the similarities between Norwegian Bokmål and Danish, the written language was a lot less scary, thanks largely to the fact that Norwegian is very straightforward in its spelling and pronunciation systems, more than both Swedish and Danish are.

I spent the least amount of time with Danish textbooks and learning materials—far fewer than I have with any other language. Because I spent most of my time with materials made for young native speakers of the language, my confidence skyrocketed and my progress was quick. This way, I turned the nightmarish aspects into a boon—I used it as a means to tell myself, “immersion is necessary to be good at this”. And so it was.

My vocabulary was almost entirely gained through immersion, and I even remember some from the food packaging labels from the time I lived in Stockholm, back when I thought, “if I even try to read this gosh-darned language aloud, I’m gonna make a fool of myself…”

But even if Danish is your first Scandinavian language, you have to realize that your journey is very much not impossible, contrary to what the Internet might say (and what doesn’t the Internet say?). You will be amazed with your progress and your journey, and so will you. And so will your friends….even the Danish-speaking ones…especially the Danish-speaking ones!

And actually, I’ll leave you with a secret: I know that there are many people who disagree with me, but I think that Danish sounds beautiful, especially when sung.

If you don’t believe me, watch Walt Disney’s films dubbed into the language. They’re all there!

This might also be roughly familiar to some to you:

Held og lykke!

Your Handy Guide to Never Being Answered in English during your European Travels…Ever Again!

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Skansen, Stockholm–taken by me, as with all photos on this blog except when otherwise noted.

The feeling of trying to speak the local language and being answered in English has given me more ego-crushing blows than almost anything else on my intellectual journey. I realized in retrospect that a lot of said ego-crushers can be very easily avoided!

And therefore this post is to ensure that you can realize what I did and ensure that you not go through this similar downtime. However, I cannot tell you that it is going to be super-easy…

The most important thing, above all else, is to be convincing. This means that you have to employ the following methods:

(1)    You must speak without hesitation. Using pauses is okay, but you must employ an air of confidence in your speech. Don’t feel like you are shaking upon the words coming out of your mouth. Possibly smile (if it makes you feel better) and deliver your request as firmly as you can, and if you are a tourist, you may want to set aside any anxieties you may have.

 

(2)    Which do you think is more likely to be more convincing:

 

“Excuse me, where is X?”

 

Or…

 

“I arrived to this city a few minutes ago and I think that I’m lost, I want to go to X, do you know where I could find it?”

 

Without question, the second answer (in any language) communicates a willingness to speak the language and not an “I flung open Google Translate for a few minutes on the train while the connection lasted” mentality.

 

Don’t prepare the genuine phrasebook material. Okay, use that as a starting point, but if you want to be answered in the local language you may need to use more complicated sentence structure.

 

Confidence by itself may be enough, and even when I was in Stockholm and still putting on my polygot shoes and getting them to fit, I usually wasn’t answered in English while ordering in Sweden as long as I firm enough. But in those rare cases in which being firm just won’t cut it, using complex sentences definitely will…and surprisingly, I don’t think that it is much work!

 

(3)    One thing that people may tell you that honestly doesn’t matter: even if you are easily identifiable as an English speaker, you can still pull yourself off as a local!

I’ve done this in Stockholm’s Systembolaget every time I was in the store. For those of you who don’t know what Systembolaget is, it is the state-owned alcohol store chain in Sweden—any alcohol higher than 5% may only be sold at one of these chain stores.

 

You need a passport or a valid ID in order to purchase something. I had one of two choices: either my American passport, or my Swedish Residence Card (both indicated that I was a foreigner)

 

Guess how many times I got answered in English after handing over the American passport while using a few words of Swedish? Zero! Even after I got the passport handed back to me!

 

I’m used to saying that there were only two countries that I visited in which I was regularly identified as a foreigner on sight: Israel and the Netherlands. But in these countries, as well as any other, this needs to be stressed: trying to use the local language will only bring you good results!

 

(Interestingly, while I have learned French as a child, I have forgotten it, nor have I visited Paris, although I have heard multiple accounts, from foreigners, of a certain degree of language chauvinism coming from French people. I should say that my French-speaking friends, whom I hold very dear, are supportive of my very slight attempts to mangle their language via oral repetition. I can’t comment on these things as of the time being, but when the time comes, I will definitely write a post on it…)

 

(4)    Another thing that may help is, if you have trouble grasping the local accent, use another accent that is very clearly not English.

 

Back when I was struggling with the German Language (and who doesn’t struggle with the German Language? Or with any other, for that matter…), until around March 2014, I put on a host of Scandinavian accents to disguise the fact that I was not German (I mostly used an Eastern Norwegian accent for this purpose). Interestingly, at times I heard that my accent sounded like that of a native!

 

I do not recommend using this tactic among your friends, however, who may insist that you speak in your normal voice. However, with servicepeople (waiters, flight attendants, etc.) their primary goal is making you feel at home, and they will address you in your language if they feel that will make you the most comfortable.

 

Speaking of flight attendants…

 

(5)    I used this tactic on many flights, especially with Finnair, Lufthansa, and KLM: when the flight attendants address you in English (they do that to everyone), address them in the local language instead. Even if you stutter, you’ll be convincing just by virtue of this. Just don’t mangle your speech too much.

 

During my flight to Helsinki, I used this to pass myself off as a native Finn instantly! Not a single one of the stewardesses spoke English to me during the whole flight, even though I didn’t particularly understand their quick chatter amongst themselves (note: not all Finns are reticent and super-quiet).

 

(6)    If you are with a person who doesn’t speak the local language, and you do (even not very well), it is very easy to convince servicepeople (and others) that you are the local who is guiding them around town. Use this to your advantage if you can.

 

(7)    The rarer your language is, the more likely it is to get others to speak your language with you when you are outside the country that the language is spoken.

 

I don’t think that I speak Dutch particularly well (yet…), but interestingly I felt it was easier for me to get Dutch people to talk a bit with me in their language when I was outside the Netherlands than when I was in it (…them?).

 

(Interestingly, I feel that with Flemings it was the reverse, I’ve been told that my accent indicates that I had learned the language in the Netherlands [I did so in a bunch of places, but not really in the Netherlands nor Belgium]).

 

(8)    You should really keep yourself to using complete sentences, filler words, and a pinch of slang. These make you convincing. Just using incomplete sentences and standard phrasebook material won’t do you well if you want to be convincing. If you are at that point, it is easy to fix it, even just by using Google Translate and a notebook.

 

(9)    If you are in a country with lots of immigrants that learn the local language (Sweden is the example par excellence, as there are immigrants, from various countries, who learn Swedish before even touching the English language), you are in luck, and it is a lot easier for you to be addressed in the local language, because they understand the struggle with learning more than most.

 

(10) The most important lesson of all? Don’t be discouraged! If you are getting answered in English, this is a problem you can fix. Just read through my guide again and take it to heart. These principles hold true everywhere—in Italy, in Belgium, in Malta, and everywhere else I can name, both where English is widely spoken and where it may be a rarity.

 

What are you waiting for? Don’t use the “they’ll just speak English back to you” as an excuse! If you want to learn languages from countries with such reputations, don’t let it stop you! Now get learning!

“I’ve Heard It’s Really Hard…” : On The Finnish Language

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I began my journey with the Finnish Language in March 2013, during a few weeks off in the United States.

After having spent eight months in Sweden, I remember that many of my friends (Swedish and otherwise) found the Finnish Language odd, interesting, and completely unintelligible, despite the fact that there were Finnish translations on almost every single piece of food packaging in the country.

“Strange Language. Double Letters. Long Words.”

One time I asked a Swede why the Finnish language was understudied in Sweden. His answer: “You don’t study Cherokee in the United States, do you?”

And that was nothing to say of the fake Finnish thrown around by some Swedish comedians. What follows is likely the best-known example (with English subtitles):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAl9OyGYxOg

I’m not passing judgment on any of these phenomena. They are what they are.

I did research in Finland for my MA Thesis—an effort I will submit later this week. Obviously it made sense to show commitment to the culture by learning the language. While I was not fluent by the time I arrived in November 2013 (and I still am not, but I am almost there…), my efforts were appreciated by everyone whom I interviewed , and the following exchange I had with the Rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch in Helsinki was priceless:

 

Rabbi Wolff: “You obviously know a lot about the Finnish Language. When did you first arrive here?”

Jared: (with a smile) “…just a couple of hours ago…”

 

Only last night did I hear for the I-stopped-counting-how-many-th time that Finnish is super-hard. There is one thing in common with everyone that I hear this from:

None of them have tried!

Interestingly even for a few people who learned about twenty words of the language, they don’t find it especially difficult—just different.

I’ve had significant struggles with language grammars. Modern Greek’s future tense system gave me nightmares. The Hebrew binyanim became something I never wanted to think about. And then there was Finnish’s lesser-known relative, Northern Sami, which had consonant shifts across the board that I still struggle with.

I can tell who is informed about the Finnish Language if he or she uses one word to describe it: logical. Some have even said that it is a language that is possible for an outsider to learn perfectly (I would never say this about American English).

The grammar does take some effort to learn, but I found that in comparison to the grammar of Modern Greek and Modern Hebrew especially (not also to mention those of the ancient languages that I had forgotten), Finnish was an easy ride. It is true that there are about thirty-five different noun categories for declination (Greenlandic only has ten). Most of these are intuitive, however, and I couldn’t have said the same thing about anything regarding, let’s say, Classical Greek.

And then we get to the second part about what I constantly hear from outsiders about the Finnish language:

“lots of cases”

I always counter this with the following: “most of them are straight-up prepositions”

In the Slavic Languages that I have learned (Russian, Polish, and one Czech lesson), when there is a preposition, there is a case that goes with it:

 

“Polska” = Poland, “w Polsce” = in Poland.

 

Now note the equivalent in Finnish:

 

”Puolassa” = in Poland

 

The information about the preposition is contained within the case itself.

When I was first immersing myself in Finnish, I found it difficult to absorb native material because I felt that my brain was trying to watch a ball being thrown back and forth by professional athletes with unnatural reflexes. Namely—I couldn’t absorb all of the case information very quickly.

This, too, comes with practice. And this brings me to my next point about the Finnish Language:

As the accent is always on the first syllable, distinguishing words in spoken speech is very easy.

Even if you are relatively inexperienced, you can use this principle in order to type in words you hear into Google Translate just by hearing them.

The Finnish Language, in comparison to others that I have heard, is spoken slowly.

I’ve noticed very much the same in most instances of spoken Swedish as well.  This definitely isn’t Brazilian Portuguese or Andalusian Spanish that you are dealing with.

Maybe FinnAir stewardesses speak very quickly sometimes, but most of the time, I have noticed a significantly slower tempo—in both spoken speech and in the media.

Are you afraid of learning a language because people speak too quickly and that you can’t make out the words? Both problems solved! Just choose the Finnish Language.

There is only one real difficulty, however, and that is the fact that most words are not Indo-European at all. Never fear, there are a handful of Swedish import words (luvata = att lova = to promise), German idiomatic structures (pääkaupunki = Hauptstadt = capital city), internationalisms (dramaattinen, poliittinen), and English words (rooli, mestari).

Aside from that? Mostly it is an issue of getting out the flash cards, or the right software to assist with your memory. But you can do it!

You would have to be doing memorization like this anyway. I don’t see people complaining that Hebrew is an extraordinarily difficult language, and I know why not: it is more commonly studied.

Another reason why some people might believe Finnish to be difficult is because of the long- and short-vowels. The difference between these two sentences is well-known, and this paradigm was my first-ever exposure to the Finnish Language, back in 2008:

Minä tapaan sinut huomenna ´= I will meet you tomorrow

Minä tapan sinut huomenna = I will kill you tomorrow

Back when I was younger I was ready to give up right then. There would be no way I could manage anything like that! Or so I thought…

But one thing that I didn’t think about was this: I played lots of piano at the time and it never occurred to me that it was merely an issue of holding a note for longer. That is the same difference you would find between the long and the short vowels, not also to mention the long and the short consonants (valita = to choose, vallita = to govern).

Both of them, just like everything else in a language, takes time getting used to—and you’re not going to get people angry by accidentally using the short vowel when the long one should be used. Context is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Therefore, pronunciation isn’t actually a problem. In both Finnish and Hungarian I have heard that is it quite easy to sound like a genuine speaker (I still have yet to have extended experiences with Estonian and Northern Sami, not to mention the other Finno-Ugric Languages). My friends who would struggle with a few words of a Scandinavian Language like Norwegian could easily pronounce Finnish words with no difficulty.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Finnish pronunciation could very well be easier than that of Esperanto.

Then there is the issue that the written language is quite different from the spoken one, but start with the spoken language and then you will be able to read the billboards and even the newspapers with enough discipline and practice. The difference between the two sides of this language is no different than between the spoken and the written German Language.

And here’s a secret: the German Language and the Finnish Language, despite their differences, are very similar idiomatically!

Even better: almost everything you will need to become fluent is contained in one site: http://www.uusikielemme.fi/index.html

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use other resources—hearing the language is essential, and my progress in the language would have been impossible without it. There is lots of material to be found, American children’s classics included.

And here’s the best part: even if you learn the language to an “okay” or even rudimentary level, the mythology that the Finnish Language is extraordinarily hard means that you will command respect from people, most of who have never tried!

Aren’t you excited?