4 Reasons You Should Learn a Provincial Language from India

“I Speak English, Hindi and *pause* … a couple of Indian Languages”

If you have met someone from India and the topic of languages comes up, you may hear a sentence like this.

As the proud owner of an India Phrasebook, I am happy to say that I usually follow up the question with “which ones?”

So Many Languages, So Small a Book. And My Time Budget is even smaller.

And then I remember the one time I met someone from West Bengal at a video game design mixer. I asked him if Bengali was similar to Assamese (one of India’s languages that actually sounds like it is from Southeast Asia despite the fact that it is Indo-European). Stunned, he asked me three times how on earth a Jewish boy from Connecticut would have any knowledge of Indian local cultures at all

“You’re like one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!”

It is very far from the first time. And then there was the one time I correctly identified someone as a Malayalam speaker (I just guessed), and after a minute of a dropped jaw, I was told, stunned. “Oh. My. God. ARE YOU PSYCHIC?!!?”

Just knowing the names of the local Indian Languages set you apart. I’m probably the only member of my extended family that can name more than five Indian Languages.

As for Indian Languages I’ve studied…well…some Tamil…not very much at all…some Gujarati…not too much…and some Oriya…even less than both of the two of those put together.

Of the one that I am focusing my effort on (as far as Memrise.com is concerned), it is Gujarati (for the time being) still haven’t had a conversation in it (I’ve used a few sentences with native speakers!), but given as today is Gujarat Day and Maharashtra Day (which is actually the same day, when the “Bombay” state was divided into two pieces, and is celebrated in both provinces as their provincial day), I’m going to write this piece.

 

  1. India is a Fusion of Many, MANY Peoples and Recognizing that Will Earn Favor and Smiles. The Best Way to Recognize it is to Learn an Indian Regional Language.

 

Hindi and English do function as languages that tie most of the country together, but each area of India comes with a regional flavor (and many other sub-regional flavors) that many outside of that area of the world overlook.

I still remember the times when I needed someone to explain me what “Tamil” or “Marathi” was. In high school, I thought that Hindi functioned in India the way that English did in the United States. I had no clue how deeply important and used the regional languages were (and continue to be).

As of the time of writing, I don’t even list Gujarati or Tamil as languages that I know. At all. Given that my list is a bit large at the time (both in the languages learned and the languages to-be-learned department) I feel the pressure to abandon them.

Luckily I’ve stopped caring so much about pressure of any sort, although I’m not actively learning either. (I’m just picking up pieces on apps)

Anyhow, building connections with Indian Languages!

The various little things that I have said have been construed as demonstrations of the fact that I recognize that India is a collection of many, MANY cultures, and that I am very amused by some of them and I want to learn more about them!

In the case of talking to Native Speakers of these languages, it gets them to open up about what life in their province is like, what there is to see, what sort of fun words there are in the language, as well as endless praising of your skills, even if they are the most basic.

 

They tend to be used to people not even knowing that these local cultures exist! And then you come along!

I am very grateful to my Indian friends and acquaintances for their help!

 

  1. The Indo-Aryan Languages, as well as the Dravidian Languages, are similar to each other, sometimes even mutually intelligible!

 

In some areas of Europe (Scandinavia and the Balkans come to mind), languages became discrete entities based on national borders. Denmark and Sweden decided to alter their linguistic orthographies to become very much not like the other one.

 

The entire thing with the Balkan Languages is not something I feel too qualified to talk about at the moment, but feel free to treat yourself to a Google Search about Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Or Bulgarian and Macedonian.

Have Fun.

Tee Hee.

 

In India, a lot of languages, despite being discrete, actually blended with similar characteristics, as a result of Sanskrit influence. In nearly the whole North of India, similar words for “Thank You” are used, all based on the Sanskrit “Dhanyavaadaha”. Greetings are function similarly, as well as the usage of words from liturgical languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) playing their role.

Often it is common for Indians to learn another regional language when they head to another province of the country. (One person told me “I bet you could learn Kannada in a week with my help”). In the case of Kannada, its closest relatives are the other main Dravidian Languages of Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil (These four are the primary languages of the South of India, distinct from their Indo-European compatriots). Learning any one will get you very close to learning any of the other three to fluency.

The Indo-Aryan Languages in the North, some of which are very similar to each other (like Hindi and Urdu being, as one of my Pakistani students put it, like Swedish and Norwegian) and others less so (Oriya and Gujarati are from opposite ends of the country but still have some similarities) can also be “collected” with similar ease, much like the Romance Languages.

There is the writing issue, which is more of an issue with some languages than others, but interestingly some character sets are close to each other or even identical. (Kannada’s script is also used for Konkani in Goa).

No wonder there is such an internal polyglot culture in India! And it is one that you can contribute to!

 

  1. Regional Media and Culture is more Accessible than ever, and will continue to endow privileges to L2 Learners!

 

India is a tech giant. Just look for apps to learn Indian Languages on the Google Play Store (or IOS). A lot of these apps have fantastic audio, very good phrase selections, and audiences for adult learners as well as for kids!

And that’s just the beginning.

Go into ANY YouTube search or any library in a major city. Look for the film section. Look for films in Indian Languages. I often find films not only Hindi but also every single Indian language I’ve mentioned in this article (although I don’t think I’ve seen Konkani so far).

India is home to the world’s largest film industry! Yes, Hindi and English dominate a lot of it, but that’s not the whole story!

All throughout India, film culture plays an extraordinary role, and coming to know its various regional aspects and flavors will make you think about what role regionalism and regional cultures could play in our increasingly global world, if only more of us were more adventurous!

Your Indian friends will be more than happy to give you recommendations!

Speaking of which…

  1. Native Speakers will be Super Helpful!

I haven’t received a single word of discouragement the way I have with some other languages, least of all from native speakers!

Sometimes I cringe whenever I think of the time that I was in a library in Sweden and was told “why bother learning Swedish if we all speak English anyhow?” (Answers: too many to list, but at the time it was “the letters written by my deceased family members were not going to translate themselves, one, and two…I’m surrounded by books I can’t read yet!”)

India is the world’s largest English-speaking nation, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) the Indians to whom I have spoken speak fondly about their regional cultures, and actively are thrilled with the possibility of you engaging with it!

Coming from a place with many, MANY regional languages, a lot of Indians are keenly aware of the struggle of learning another language! What we need in the struggle is more encouragement! And with a choice like an Indian languages, you’ll encountered plenty of it!

Hawaii Pidgin isn’t an Indian Language. Just letting you know that.

A Happy Gujarat Day / Maharashtra Day to all! I hope that one day I will be able to write more articles on Indian Languages! But first I actually have to … ummm … learn them better!

My Translation Adventure with Northern Sami ‘n Friends

IMG_0267 (2)

A week from tomorrow is my birthday. In looking for potential gifts and wish-list constructions, one click led to another and I found myself discovering something about Minecraft (a well-known video game with quite simplistic but cute graphics that I can’t really grasp the point of) being translated into many languages.

Since my travels have hardened my discipline, I’m usually not one for game-playing, but I was so intrigued that I had to take a look.

Turned out, the list of languages included the standard ones that most Americans can name off the top of their head, but then spun into complete unpredictability with Manx Gaelic and Cornish being featured (!!!!)

Both languages, for those unaware, had passed into extinction and have been revived. In the UN’s Atlas of Endangered Languages, these two are noted with the red pin (indicating “critically endangered”) with a letter “R” on it, indicating that it had been brought, pardon my expression, back from the bring.

It is interesting to note that the game is likely being used to further the revival attempts at both languages, even though neither translation is truly complete (Cornish is at 65% or so as of the time of writing, with Manx slightly over 70%).

Now here’s the most interesting part: Minecraft outsourced its translations to the public. What that means: you can create an account on CrowdIn, and start translating to whatever degree you want to, no matter who you are. Of course, those who know the language better will vote on your translations accordingly, acting as quality control.

Taking a look at its offerings, I noted that there was a Northern Sami translation and that it was not making signs of great progress (as of last week it was about 1%).

Keeping in mind the adage from the language encourager community that languages need to be experienced rather than learned, I snatched the chance, created the account, and then began translating.

My only experiences with the game dealt with watching some of my college friends play it (and try to hopelessly explain the game to me), but luckily this was no barrier in me getting to work.

A few days later, and the progress for the translation is now at around 14% or so, and when I’m in more of a working mood I’m likely to continue it.

Some of my thoughts / frustrations:

  1. There are lots of languages recognized by CrowdIn, possibly the longest list I’ve seen on anywhere that isn’t Reddit. Very interestingly, while they had offerings like Ewe and other languages whose name I only recall seeing once, Greenlandic / Kalaallisut was nowhere on the list.

 

Mixed blessing?

 

  1. A Material Notebook proved helpful. I had grammar tables and the like in my notebook that was right by my side. I had also copied the contents of a screenshot from Wikipedia that showed Kubuntu being translated into Northern Sami, and I had never thought that I would ever to put it to use like this when I first wrote it.

 

As it turns out, I consult multiple dictionaries for the translation, Giella Tekno (which is Norwegian/Finnish to Northern Sami and back to both), as well as two English-Northern Sami Dictionary lists, and another Norwegian/Swedish /Sami Languages dictionary. But clicking between the tabs proved difficult and really wore out my hand, after which I needed to take a walk.

 

  1. There was an original stage of self-consciousness, but I quickly got over it. I thought, “what if a Native speaker comes in and demolishes all of my translations?”, then I figured, “well, you know what, Jared? If you don’t get this done, who on earth is going to do it? Are you going to put your skills to use or are you just going to close the window and forget than anything ever happened?. Jared. Samiland needs you. You might not know it perfectly, but good enough is okay. And you can trust that others will modify your work accordingly…”

 

Further adding to the degree of self-consciousness was the fact that the language, as small as it is, is fractured (for those who don’t know, there are about 15,000 native speakers of this language at least, and definitely many others who learn it as a second language).

 

The word for “I” can be spelled either “mon” or “mun”, and I opted for the first one. Now among the books and websites that I was using, some of them did end up using alternate spellings and I might have not been perfectly consistent. But yet again, Minecraft does note that the “translations may not be 100% correct”.

 

Speaking of which, Facebook is also working on its Northern Sami Translation and it is showing almost no signs of activity, last I checked (which was last week or so).

 

  1. “My dictionaries aren’t showing up any word for X. Should I use the English word instead?”

 

  1. “My dictionaries offer multiple words, one that is more purist Sami and the other that is very clearly ‘Dárogiella’ (the “land language” which is either Norwegian or Swedish, depending on where in Samiland you are). Which one do I use?”

 

I am reminded of the same struggles in some other languages, specifically in Hebrew and in Greenlandic, where there are purist words and European loanwords (all over Europe in Hebrew’s case, Danish in the case of Greenlandic). Yiddish also comes to mind, with its blend of Germanic, Slavic and “Loshn-Koydesh” elements, all of which carry different connotations to a trained ear.

 

The situations are very comparable between the lot of them.

 

  1. “This language has lots of words for reindeer and lots of words for snow, but for some odd reason I can’t find any equivalent for word X (usually something related to technology)…odd…”

 

  1. CrowdIn gathers a list of your “preferred languages” as a result of your profile registration. This proved to be very useful, as I could reference the Finnish and Estonian translations, as well as those in the Scandinavian and West Germanic Languages (among many others) and note what routes I could take. (I usually checked my results with Google Search or Giella Tekno…you’d be surprised how much material there is online even for the smallest of languages…)

 

  1. Despite the fact that it was working, it didn’t really feel like work. I kept in mind Robert Benchley’s adage that “anyone can do any amount of work, as long as it is the work he’s not supposed to be doing at the moment” (note to world: I did not miss any assignments on account of this project).

 

  1. This exercise dramatically improved my vocabulary in all of the “preferred languages”, especially in Norwegian, Finnish and, of course, Northern Sami itself. A speaking exercise afterwards noted that I almost never was grasping for words or pausing as a result of this immersion.

 

I help translate things, and my languages get better…

 

And who knows? Maybe I’ll end up playing the game one day…

 

What a deal!

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…

[/TANGENT]

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!