How to Choose Your Next Language: The Only Post You’ll Ever Need

The advice that I put in this article is literally found nowhere else and if you’ve come here for a list of eight languages you should consider studying, you’re not going to get that.

Too many people have asked exactly what sort of process I use in order to pick what language goes “next on my list” or which ones I’d like to learn manageably well (Breton) vs. professionally fluent (Danish).

Too many people embark on a language-learning journey and just say “I want to be fluent. Period.” But it requires more thought than this. (Learning English for communicating with customers vs. learning English for law school are going to be too very different things. And besides, not all of a language’s “realms” have been fully explored by native speakers. Far from it, in fact!)

The fluency that people like this probably have in mind is when the various “realms” of their target language pertaining to their life are filled up.

If you think I need to talk about music theory in Tok Pisin or Finnish, think again. While I do know that vocabulary in my native language, I barely use it. I could manage it if I want (although keep in mind, some languages don’t have all of these “realms” filled in, Estonian in particular prides itself in being the smallest language in the world with a very comprehensive scientific vocabulary!).

Anyhow, language choice.

 

Reasons that I would disregard when choosing a language

Too many people pick languages based on “how many native speakers it has”.

This is not a helpful metric, for a number of reasons.

For one, the one thing you should NEVER do with your life is entrust the choices in your life to other people. E-ver!

Obviously earlier in your life it may have been necessary but if you’re independent in any capacity I highly recommend anything that even contains a whiff of letting other people choose your destiny.

There are those that choose languages like Spanish and Chinese because they have a resonance with their friends from places where they are spoken. They have become attached to the music and to the literatures and the many cultural mentalities contained in such a place.

There are others that choose these languages because of cultural misunderstandings—perhaps they think that a fear of Mexico or China is just too much to bear in the United States and learning these languages will help serve as a protection against such a fear.

There are others still that encounter speakers of these languages with great regularity.

But choosing a language based on an abstract concept of “lots of people speak it” and very little else is pointless and ill-defined.

People who learn Spanish or French for reasons like this and little else barely get past the intermediate stage, don’t have the cultural resonance required for genuine fluency, and probably continue their learning for ill-defined “monetary benefits” or “understanding people” when just sticking to learning material aimed at foreigners year after year, being surpassed in progress by people who learned the language out of a genuine love for the culture and way of thinking.

(You CANNOT become fluent with just language-learning materials! You NEED material intended for native or fluent speakers!)

And never, ever, EVER ask ANYONE “what language should I learn next?”

Ask YOURSELF that question instead!

I’m sorry if my word choice is too harsh, but I’ve decided that in the coming year, I’m going to be a lot more uncensored in my opinions. It’s good for clickbait, after all!

Also peer pressure is not a good reason in the SLIGHTEST. Not for language, not for anything. “No French? No Turkish? No Chinese?” Got this year after year after year.

And the only thing that really got me interested in the French language to begin with wasn’t even France, it was West Africa and the Pacific Islands!

You are the boss of your life. Disregard the rest of people who want to pressure you or make you feel bad. Make decisions that you really want from the heart, and you’ll be a legend. Let other people make your choices, and you’ll end up burned out and full of regret. End of story.

Okay Jared, so HOW should I choose my language instead?

Step 1: Look at one of the following things:

 

  • A map of the world
  • The language index at omniglot.com
  • The register of flag emojis in your smartphone keyboard (if you have one)
  • A very vast collection of language-learning books
  • The travel section in a bookstore or library.

 

Feel free to use a combination of these elements.

What places or languages in that list stick out to you?

Which ones might you have been dreaming of seeing or knowing more about since you were a kid?

When the language is written on a page, does it feel like something you ABSOLUTELY must have in your life?

When you read about the language or the country where the language is spoken or visit online forums about the language or communities associated with it, do you feel a sense of wishing that you were a part of that? Do you feel a sense of wishing that you would like to communicate with these people and understand this culture?

When you listen to music sung in this language, how does it make you feel? Would you like more music of that sort in your life or not?

Also, another metric to consider using is to look at your own heritage.

What language(s) did your ancestors speak? Do you have relatives that speak it or otherwise are (or were) capable of understanding it? You’ll have the motivation to learn such languages because, whether you like it or not, they are a part of who you are.

I got very much attached to languages like Yiddish and Swedish precisely for this reason, and it seems that it will be that way with Hungarian, too.

It’s Okay to Learn a Language for Silly Reasons, Too

Sometimes a language jumps out at you and you don’t know why. Maybe it sounds cool. Maybe you like the writing system. Maybe you read something funny about the way the language is spoken (“Danish sounds like seal talk”) or written (“Greenlandic looks like a kid banging on a typewriter”)

You’re probably wondering, “Jared, did you just write that it wasn’t a good idea to choose a language based on number of speakers, but it is okay to choose a language because it ‘sounds cools’?”

Precisely.

Here’s the reason why.

When choosing to invest in a hobby or buying a product, it is primarily an emotional decision. Logical decisions can be used some of the time, but if you want a lasting attachment to your investment, choose something based on your emotions rather than what other people think might be good for you.

My choice to have learned Greenlandic was not a logical decision in the slightest. My choice to have taken the book out from the library, photographed the language section in the back, and put it on Memrise was all purely from an emotional standpoint.

Where exactly did it land me?

Well, I became attached to Greenlandic because I liked how it looked on paper and how it sounded. I also had a fascination with Greenland since my childhood.

Several years later, I’m going to Greenland to meet with some of the country’s biggest names in the arts and I’m developing a video game set in Nuuk. I was also interviewed by Greenlandic National Radio in December 2016!

This was all because I had an emotional attachment to my project.

And you need a project that you, similarly, are emotionally attached to.

The choice of language has to be YOURS.

It has to be one that you long for deeply, that you can think about with a smile and talk about with friends and show you true devotion to the culture and literature and idioms and everything that language is.

It can be any language in the world! It doesn’t matter if it is a global language or a small national language or a minority language or an endangered language or even an ancient tongue that is used only in writing.

You have to choose it because you genuinely love it!

Love conquers all, and this is doubly true for language learning.

many languages

This building from Antwerp has been featured in WAY too many foreign-language learning posts. I think I may be the one that started the trend! 

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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!

A Brief Look at Some Native American Languages

Today is an American holiday fraught with controversy. In its honor, I have decided to reflect upon some indigenous languages of the Americas, one of which I know quite well and the other two of which I don’t.

  1. Sioux / Lakota

 

For those of you wondering what language was described in my book collection as a mixture of Polish, French and Chinese, wonder no more!

 

Obviously this statement can only be qualified in regards to the way the language sounds, and even then there are those that may try to call it into question. For one, the “l” sound in Lakota sounds very much like the English “w”, not unlike the Polish letter “ł”.

 

Lakota has a language forum for all levels (from beginner until Native Speaker) and a language consortium as well. Have a look yourself:

 

http://www.lakotadictionary.org/phpBB3/

 

http://www.lakhota.org/

 

One thing that is noteworthy about Lakota is that, unlike either of the other members on this list, it is a very purist language.

 

For those of you who have studied Chinese you may remember that various country names are given new versions that match a certain sound in the language being borrowed from and a meaning in Chinese that is deemed relevant.

 

Lakota is even more rigid in fact that the names given to countries don’t even match any sound in the language. The word for “Germany”, for example, literally means “the land of people who speak badly”

 

iyasica makhoche

There is a historical reason for this: American settlers were expected to speak English, and the Sioux picked up the language accordingly. As for the German-American settlers that spoke German and not English—they were known as the “people who speak badly” because they couldn’t be understood. The name stuck and remains in place until today.

 

I actually did some searches in the Lakota Dictionary for “Israel”, “Austria”, and “Switzerland” and it didn’t turn up anything.

 

The words for modern inventions are likewise all neologisms, not unlike the situation found in Icelandic, also noted for being notoriously purist.

 

Some things you may recognize in the journey to learning (which I have barely begun because of sustaining other languages): the word “tipi” comes from Lakota, as does a system for giving names to outsiders, similar to that of Chinese (also quite purist). Obviously this system has been featured in American popular culture depictions of Native Americans.

 

For those of you who might have played some of the Age of Empires games, I recall vaguely that one of the installments did feature Sioux soldiers using bits of genuine Lakota.

 

Before I go onto the next language, I should say that the Lakota Language Consortium has created a version of the Bernstein Bears cartoons dubbed into the language!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nta0aAQyVIA&list=PLWebueRr1D03NQzavj6yIHZimqbjFhQ1Y

 

  1. Greenlandic / Kalaallisut

 

“Oh, that’s the language with the really long words, right?”

kid banging on a typewriter

Greenlandic is an Eskimo-Aleut language with a good balance of purism and Danish import words. The word “Inuit” is actually a Greenlandic word, meaning “people”. For that matter, “Igloo” also comes from the word “illu”, meaning “house”.

The names of the countries in Greenlandic almost all come from Danish, with exceptions made for Greenland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Faroe Islands (arguably America, which could be referred to as “USA”, “Amerika”, or “Naalagaaffeqatigiit”, which is a literal translation of “United States”).

Some linguistics have referred to Greenlandic as the world’s hardest language, and therefore I should consider a blogpost as to why learning Greenlandic isn’t as hard as they might thing. But this is not that post.

I wrote about Greenlandic in more detail here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/thats-all-one-word-learning-introductory-greenlandic/comment-page-1/

Interesting fact: Greenlandic was featured in Gravity, spoken by an off-screen character singing a lullaby.

For those of you more intrigued by Greenland’s more modern side (which I get asked quite often about by people), look no further than these links:

Here is a show on KNR (the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation), in which video games and movies are reviewed:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NjR5uAaAZM

 

One of my favorite television shows back before KNR did a cleanup of its site a few weeks ago was this show, “Pisuttuarpunga” (a kid’s show, “I was out for a walk”). It is based on the premise of a Greenlandic children’s song about what kids think about when the adults in their lives are away working.

The premise is based on the song (featured in the video), and the main character who lives in a tent spends each episode trying out a new job in real-life modern Greenland, and learns the basics of each in a given episode. Extraordinarily educational, and I believe there are two seasons for sale on DVD (but hopefully the free episodes will come back to the site soon):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtjEdZ8XxiY

 

My journey through Greenlandic Language and Culture has been quite extensive so I invite you to look around this blog and read what you want on the topic, should you be interested.

  1. Nahuatl

 

“The Elegant Language”, as it literally translates to, was formerly known as “Aztec” by many. My Nahuatl book (which is in German) asks the following question in the introduction: “Aztec? Hasn’t it already died off?”

 

No, actually, and when you think about it, it makes sense that it didn’t. If the Spanish colonists were trying to convert the local populations, wouldn’t it make sense to learn the local languages to reach out to them? (The same logic that led to the New Testament being translated into Yiddish…the result is positively hilarious, I assure you…)

 

That book also offers the following remark about the indigenous languages of Mexico: there are many of them, and they are about as diverse as German, Korean, and Swahili. (Hence: if you think that a given Maya Language is similar to Nahuatl in any way…rest assured that English and Icelandic are closer to each other than Maya Languages to Nahuatl)

 

Nahuatl is probably the best known of the “Nahuan Languages”, which is why my book regularly offers dialectal varieties.

 

Students of Nahuatl may be surprised with the amount of words that may be familiar to them in some context already—“Tomato”, “Avocado”, “Chili”, “Mexico” and “Chocolate” all have their origins in the language. Many place names of Mexico are similarly indebted, as are import words known to speakers of Mexican Spanish.

 

Like Greenlandic, Nahuatl is polysynthetic, as you could possibly guess from looking at the Nahuatl “Huiquipedia” : http://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl

 

One thing that quite vexes me about learning Nahuatl, however, is the relative lack of multimedia material (e.g. the likes of the Greenlandic videos seen above). Maybe I just need to look in other places…

 

…but it is good to know that there are many universities throughout the world that are teaching it and that there are eager students willing to learn!

 

Will you be one of them?

My Small Stimulating Samiland: Lessons from Immersion

Last week, during my home visit, I dedicated a handful of hours to speaking nothing else aside from Northern Sami, with my phrasebook in one hand and Giellatekno within reach. The only person who was present at the time was my mother, and I agreed to not avoid English in public (in the event that something needed to be purchased) nor would I refrain from writing it.
Due to time constraints, no video was made, but here are some of my observations:
(1) The Dual Pronouns and Conjugations in Northern Sami weren’t particularly strange after a significant amount of usage. Back when I first started, I had to constantly remind myself not to use “mii” instead of “moai” when there were only two people involved. Given as there was only one other person on the premises during my immersion scheme, I had learned to block the plural pronouns out of my mind completely, except when talking about a peer group or so.

(2) An important thing I noticed is that the language wasn’t about painful grammar tables any more. I had a quick reference in my notebook that I had used for ensuring that I got verbs correct.

After a while, I realized that the most important thing for memorizing the contents of a table wasn’t looking at the table and trying to memorize it (this toxic habit may have been in part due to my having studied Classics in college…a table-memorization binge is certainly not helpful with living languages at all!)

What you must do instead, however, is use the language, if only by talking to yourself, and thereby inculcate the grammatical systems into your conscious in this manner.

This will be particularly helpful later on when I focus more on Faroese, which has a notorious grammar system closer to that of ancient languages. I’m not afraid, however, because now I know exactly what to do! And so do you, for that matter!

(3) I remember giving my Greenlandic phrasebook to someone back when I lived in Heidelberg. He proceeded to take a look through it, and his immediate observation was this:

“It is interesting that, instead of words like “house” and “computer” they have words for, like, “kayak” and “polar bear”. (the fact is, “house” and “computer” did also exist in the book, just not in the first few pages…)

What does this have to do with my little Samiland? Well…in my book, there are two pages devoted to reindeer-related vocabulary, one of the unique features of the Northern Sami Language (and possibly the other Sami Languages? Can anyone help me here?)

I don’t particularly need reindeer related vocabulary when living in an American suburb. Not right now, at least…

Similarly, Giellatekno’s dictionary, the Freelang dictionary, Sami Wikipedia, and the phrasebook all failed to offer any word in Northern Sami for “dolphin”. Therefore, I opted for some vague corruption of Finnish “delfiini” (I cannot remember exactly what I said).

This is something that just simply does not occur with more commonly spoken languages.

One reason I decided to start this blog was because I knew that I would be entering territory that almost no one had entered. Therefore, it is my duty to share these experiences.

(4) Asked to describe Ođđasat (the Sami News Channel) at a party yesterday, I related the following:

“Picture this: Person speaking in Swedish with Northern Sami voiceovers and Norwegian Subtitles”.

My language filter can sometimes have significant problems with this “Kauderwelsch”, even with Swedish and Norwegian being very close to each other.

Therefore, I primarily opted to focus on speaking rather than media in order to hone my skills, because I fear that, more often than not, getting material in 100% Sami is just simply not going to happen (hopefully the future will change this). Even on Kringvarp Føroya (the Faroese Media Service) this is a bit of an issue with Danish spokespeople frequently appearing (although, very interestingly, Greenlandic TV is usually kept in one language at a time).

(5) The very fact that I had devoted time to this endeavor made me excited for the day in which I may end up visiting Samiland. It is difficult to explain the connectionthat I feel toward the land and this culture, I suppose that attraction to cultures and hobbies just cannot be explained at times…

…regardless, there are some language journeys of mine that I have slowed down or sometimes stopped altogether, but this is one that I am very much intent on continuing.

Coming later on this week: a software surprise!

Two New Languages…Announced!

Here’s the questionnaire from that other time:

Before 2014 is up, I intend to undertake serious study of two languages, one of which is popularly studied and the other of which very much is not:

(1) They are both the official languages of one nation each
(2) The nations they are affiliated with share the same colors in their flags
(3) The nations begin with the same letter in most European Languages spelled with the Latin Alphabet
(4) One of the languages is endangered
(5) Take one of the countries’ languages and translate the other country into that language. One possible result of this word will sound like a word (not the nicest one) associated with that other country (and that word is in English).

And here is your answer!

FRENCH (European)
rf
FAROESE
foroyar
Item number 5? “Frakland”, and the word in question is “Frog”.
The riddle was correctly solved less than an hour after it came out by the brilliant and wise Julian Tsapir! Congratulations, Julian!
You are hereby entitled to write a blog post on this site, on whatever topic you want, even if it isn’t related one bit to any of the existing posts! You are also welcome to write it in any language that your heart desires!
As to these two languages, my current attack plan is as follows:
(1) I intend to complete the Brazilian Portuguese Tree on Duolingo to its fullest. Thereupon I will have the energy to continue with the French course. Beginning from there, I will go my normal route of media immersion and reading—and I expect there to be a lot of it, more than there would be for Faroese.

(2) I’ve already looked into Faroese pronunciation a bit, and I’m going to write a bit on my impressions of the language. This week I am going to Karlsruhe to buy the Kauderwelsch Faroese guide, which will teach me pronunciation better than almost anything. I expect to grow into Kringvarp Føroya the same way that I did with KNR (which currently has the biggest collection of Greenlandic media on the web).

As for the third language referenced in the post, the one that my textbook said was a combination of French, Polish, and Chinese—it is on the “back burner” for now, but at some point before 2014 I will bring it up again, definitely in another riddle with more details.
And again, I expect that a set of languages in my current collection may be getting the “axe”, but I can’t say for sure which ones. I’ll know when that happens.
Two things in the near future: (1) a project for when I am back in the U.S. in August and before my semester begins and (2) I will write a post about my first impressions with Faroese!
Until then, wish me luck!

The Case for Many Languages

Image

 

Antwerp Stadhuis, August 2013. Photo: Jared Gimbel

It is often Europeans that wonder why I would focus a lot of my efforts on many languages than all of my efforts on just a few. It is also often Europeans that wonder why I would even bother with a language with few speakers.

With people from the rest of the world, especially the United States, I don’t receive such reactions and encounter a lot less condescension. That isn’t to say that I haven’t received support for my efforts from my European peers—far from it.

But now I’m going to make the case as to why I studied many languages to small degrees (as well as getting very good at a handful of them) rather than just focusing all of my efforts on a few useful ones.

In my view, there are two goals to learning any language: (1) usage (conversations, bureaucracy, ordering food, and the like) and (2) the revelation of an entire new world.

Interestingly there are many people who just think that the first reason has any validity at all, and I’ve encountered this everywhere.

My last post was on the Greenlandic Language. I may have not had any conversations in it as of yet (although I have spoken it to people who did not understand it—namely, those who ask “How do you say XYZ in Greenlandic?”). However, the fact is that I have experienced music, TV shows, and other media that I just simply couldn’t have if I not learned the language at all. The Danish and the English translations just don’t cut it, if they even exist at all.

I only get one life, as do the rest of us.

There is only so much time I can spend in this world and I don’t want to give all of my effort to understanding just a small portion of the human experience. (It is true that I focus a lot of my cultural work on Europe, but this is because of the nature of my project and my work at the time being.)

When I talk about other countries and cultures that most people don’t know anything about, I usually think, “this entire world could be yours with even just minimal effort…even if just a part of it will suffice, it will change your life”

I’ve encountered many people who expressed a desire to learn one language or another. To have the desire is common. Acting on the desire isn’t. And if you have the desire, act on it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the time. Any small effort can be rewarded. You should be proud of your efforts, even small ones—and others will, too!

High-caliber polyglottery is effectively a juggling act. There are languages that I have forgotten because I can only juggle so much at a given time.

The Finnish Language was useful for what I have been doing for the past year and a half, but in my next MA Degree Project I can’t imagine that it would be as necessary for me as other languages. But in the event that I forget that language (or any other) and need it again, my latent knowledge is still there, waiting for it to be reactivated with noteworthy effort.

But even if you forget a language, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have some cultural context—and a good head start in the event that you want to take it up again.

I learned French as a child, and now I have forgotten almost everything, and Russian and Italian have gone similar ways in my life. I don’t see them as having been lost forever—I see them as waiting for me to come and pick them up.

But now I have to carpool other languages as my clients. One day I may drop a number of them off, but I can pick them up if I need them. I may have not learned all of them perfectly, but nothing is stopping me from bringing them up to a professional level if I need to—except for maybe procrastination.

Back on topic:

Languages are not just about usage.

They are about empathy with a culture.

They are about understanding how a culture relates to others.

They are about changing the way you see the world outside your own linguistic spheres.

If you look at the most essential words in any given language, they will, more often than not, not align with the most important ones in any other. One of the first words I learned in both Northern Sami and in Greenlandic was the word for reindeer. Obviously this word isn’t going to be as important in Israel.

While learning German, my first experiences were with urban vocabulary. With Swedish, it was with nature-oriented vocabulary. With Yiddish, words relating to religion are of primary importance. With Greenlandic? Not a chance.

(It occurs to me that I may be one of the only people on the planet that has a command of both Yiddish and Greenlandic. If there are any others, please let me know.)

KNR’s modestly successful TV show for kids, “Pisuttuarpunga” carries a completely different essence from America’s “Sesame Street”. Even if you compare the various international localizations of Sesame Street to one another (e.g. Israel’s “Rekhov Sumsum” or Norway’s “Sesam Stasjon”), it is obvious that there are differences and that the language makes the differences between the cultures even clearer.

In the professional world, there is one imperative: be useful.

Knowing a rare language to any degree will make you a commodity, whether you like it or not.

Learning many languages to okay degrees has enabled me to have an “I-Thou” relationship with many other cultures. My peers who study a handful of commonly studied languages to full professional proficiency tend to not have this—or they don’t have it the way I do. That isn’t to say that you should avoid that path—but be aware that being different will always give you the edge. Always.

Thanks to my excessive language juggling, I find myself very empathetic to other cultures and attuned to the human experience as a whole.

If that isn’t useful, I don’t know what is.

“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.