How to Perfect your Accent in English

It isn’t often that I find myself writing about my native language! Actually, I think this is literally the FIRST time I’ve ever done that!

I’ve been an English-language tutor for nearly two years now, and one thing I’ve really noticed is that, thanks to my time in Poland at a reception desk (among many other jobs that included “Yiddish translator” and “guy who sings children’s songs for…well…children”), I’ve gained the uncanny ability to actually zone in on people’s English-language errors and peculiarities.

This article isn’t about grammar in the slightest (but if you’re curious I would think that the biggest mistakes made by far would actually be related to sentence structure and article usage [when do I use “a”? when do I use “the”?]).

Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to knowing how to perfect your accent. And English is tricky!

grand central

You, one day, knowing that your English skills are in the top 0.01% of all non-native speakers! 

Some languages, like Finnish or Hebrew, are pronounced the way they are written with mathematical precision!

English, especially the trickier American variety, is anything but that.

Without having to read any of my extended memoirs any more, let’s get into the details.

The most common pronunciation errors made by my students would include:

  • Not using the Schwa sound

American English has a very lazy sound indeed that a lot of languages don’t have. If you are a native speaker of American English, say the word “the” …note that it is a low sound that almost comes from your chin!

Instead, they will pronounce the words “the” and “thee” indentically. You don’t want to do that.

Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use the schwa sound are…well, there are no rules.

Because the schwa can literally be represented by a, e, i, o, u OR y!

Wikipedia, as of the time of writing, gives the following examples: about (first syllable), taken (last syllable), pencil (last syllable), memory (second syllable), supply (first syllable), sibyl (last syllable).

So what you need to do is two things:

  • Master the sound (the wikipedia article on Schwa that I just mentioned has a recording you can use!)
  • Find patterns in the way that it is used by English speakers and imitate them. If you find this hard to do, go to tatoeba.org and find English sentences read out loud by native speakers. In this way, you can learn to imitate a sentence exactly as a native speaker would! (Thanks to Ari in Beijing for this tip!)

 

  • English vowels, especially in “American”, are “Lazy”.

 

When I hear heavily accented English a lot of the time, and this is true for people from all continents, I usually hear a precision in the vowels.

In many types of accented English, the vowels are pronounced with emphasis and are strongly highlighted. You can do this and sound like a native speaker of American English…from the 1940’s, that is.

But contemporary English has a gliding quality to its vowels that almost none of the other languages that I have studied have.

American English uses a “legato” (and for those of you who speak Italian, note how differently an American would say the word versus the way an Italian would say it and you’ll illustrate my point exactly!). The vowels slither from one end of the mouth to the other. The primary focus of that back-and-forth swaying should be the back half of your tongue!

Instead, what many speakers do is that they pronounce the vowels statically. What this means is that the vowels, instead of moving throughout your mouth the way they do in “American”, stay put.

I don’t blame a lot of non-native speakers. Most languages in the world do this.

Those of you who know me in person know that my accent is a mixture of those from the many countries I’ve lived in. I have no problem putting on a flawless American accent, but it takes effort for me, because the lazy sounding of the vowel is something that, looking at it honestly, actually requires effort to execute.

Again, imitation of native speakers will assist you in learning how to do this. Pay attention to the small details of people’s speech (by the way, that’s what I did in my Learn Palauan Video Series that’s still ongoing). That way, you can pick up an accent.

What’s different from the way the native speaker is saying it in comparison to the way you would say it? Pay attention to EVERY. SMALL. DETAIL.

  • Not Pronouncing the R correctly

 

And this is especially  a problem from places like Thailand in which the L and the R sound are almost mixed (I bet you’re probably thinking about politically incorrect accent imitations from cartoons, aren’t you?)

One of my students practiced this sound by imitating my pronunciation of the phrase “rare occurrences”, which many non-native English speakers struggle with.

Your tongue should be curved upwards slightly, or flat, and then retreated. It should sound almost like a lazy dog’s growl (and I think it was a comment on Fluent in 3 Months or something like that that I took it from).

For those of you who speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the phrase 好好 (or “very good” = Hǎohǎo) is actually pronounced something closer to having an “r” sound in the middle of it. That’s how I got native Mandarin speakers from Beijing to pronounce the R sound flawlessly. Surprisingly that r actually resembles the American R to an astonishing degree.

  • Having various pronunciation “ticks” from their native language seep in.

Now this is one that I considered omitting by virtue of the fact that there are some native speakers of English that do this (e.g. some Irish people don’t pronounce the “th” sound, Trinidadian native speakers of Standard English may pronounce the word “ask” as “aks”, etc. And no, this isn’t the time for me to get into a debate about whether or not the English Creoles of the Caribbean are separate languages or not. Post for another time!)

This can take extraordinary training and most people are satisfied with their English accent enough to the degree that they don’t deem it necessary.

Take Sweden, for example, a place with a very high rate of English proficiency. Despite that, you’ll hear people pronounce the “ch” sound like a “sh” sound, or the “j” sound like a “y” sound at times. (“A box of shocolates” … “you yust need to understand…”)

Thanks to my experience with Scandinavian tongues, I speak like that too, at times. (Keep in mind that many Swedish young people will throw in English phrases and sentences even when speaking Swedish among themselves).

You don’t understand the degree to which the things you expose yourself to can affect you. It’s very, very powerful.

These things can be trained away with effort, but given that a lot of people want a “good accent” and not a “they can’t tell the difference between me and an American” accent, a lot of people don’t go this far. But I think that the various English pronunciation ticks of many nationalities are well-documented and you just need to be aware enough to avoid them.

And sometimes speaking exercises and tongue twisters may train things away.

Again, maybe these ticks are actually something that you like (as conversation starters, for example). But I got news for you: you can easily turn such things like that “on” and “off”.

Some examples of these ticks:

  • Swedes, Norwegians, French people pronouncing “ch” as “sh”.
  • Polish and Portuguese speakers overusing nasal vowels in English.
  • Hungarians speaking English with the first-syllable-is-always-stressed rule (English does, as a general rule, do this, but not with the consistency of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • Greenlanders pronouncing the “ti” combination as “tsi” rather than “tea” (e.g. “Arctsic Winter Games”)

This is very much a perfectionist point. Which brings me to the one thing that almost ALL English learners struggle with.

  • Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language

The most common roadblock for developing a good accent in English!

Your native language may have a set amount of vowels. English is almost certainly very likely to have more.

Often some speakers will just read and speak English using the vowels of their native language, rather than learning in detail the way that the English language uses vowels.

As an English native speaker, I have to be careful about my accent. If I don’t do a good job, I may get answered in English, especially if my accent impedes my understanding.

You, as an English learner, don’t really need to get worried about being answered in your native tongue when you try to speak English, and NOWHERE NEAR with as much consistency. This is especially true in English-speaking countries.

As a result, I’m not surprised by the fact that most people don’t want to hone their accent and only want to make it “borderline understandable”. And this is true even in places that score “very high” on English proficiency tests.

To some degree, I understand this because humans are, generally speaking, lazy creatures.

So what you’ll need to do is learn how to pronounce the vowels in English while successfully shutting out the sounds of your native tongue.

Imagine that you had no knowledge of your other languages in the slightest, and just needed to imitate the sounds based on what you heard, without overlaying the vowel sounds of your native language on it. That’s what you need to be doing.

Simply put: don’t read English vowels the way as if they were the same exact vowels in your native tongue. Use a new system.

 

BONUS: Another thing you could do to help you in English is…learn a little bit of another language!

 

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Especially in places where it is commonly believed “don’t learn too many languages because you can’t master them all. Focus on a handful of them!” (just wait till I and the rest of the polyglots get validated by furthered informational and memory technology! Hoo hah!)

But if you choose to do this, you’ll actually acquire skills from your other language to help you with English and everything that it entails.

You’ll also learn about how to approach learning from a different angle, and what makes English (and the process of learning English) different from whatever other languages you may be learning.

As a hyperpolyglot myself, I’ve honed the many processes of learning and maintaining my many other languages by means of collecting experiences on each journey and sharing them with each other.

This is one well-known fix that very, VERY few people try, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it already.

Granted, English may actually be your third, fourth, fifth, etc. language, in which case you just may need a little bit of thought, investigation and a few diary entries in order to see what you could do to fix it.

 

Yes, I have, on a handful of occasions, met non-bilingual folks whom I mistook for Americans because they spoke English so well (and my accent radar is EXTREMELY well-honed).

It. Is. Possible!

That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!

Have fun on the journey!

The Wonderful World of Music in the Faroe Islands

Today is Ólavsøka (well, it’s actually a multi-day holiday, and by that, I mean it’s 1.5 days, and July 29th is the 1.0 of the 1.5), which is the Faroe Islands’ National Day.

foroyar

In the simplest way possible, this day celebrates the Saint that converted Norway to Christianity (and keep in mind that the Faroe Islands and the history of Denmark-Norway, now two separate countries, are very much linked. To this day, the largest Faroese communities outside of the Faroe Islands themselves are located in Denmark and in Norway respectively).

But you probably didn’t come for a history lesson, you came here for music, so that’s what I’m going to give you:

 

  1. Frændur

 

One of the Faroe Islands’ classical mainstays, Frændur (from an Old Norse word meaning friends, the source of the English word as well) has a well-established nostalgic feel to it, and the lyrics are not only eloquent but also helpful for beginner and intermediate learners.

 

This song is probably the closest thing that the Faroe Islands have to an unofficial national anthem (The title just means “The Faroe Islands”). If performed at a concert, expect literally everyone in the audience to start singing along, sometimes so strongly that the people on stage will go silent completely:

 

 

And while we’re on “I Love my Country” themed songs, I’ll throw you another one (“My Country”):

 

 

And a cover of that song done by many well-known Faroese singers:

 

 

 

  1. Terji og Føstufressar

 

I could try to translate this name cleanly but all I can come up with at the moment would be something like “Terji and the Fasting Munchers”. (Guess who neglected his study for Faroese for years? Shockingly I can still understand a lot of the lyrics and I can read even better than I ever remember being able to!)

Their first album won the title of Album of the Millennium in the Faroe Islands and they even came out with a sequel, just titled “Tvey” (“Two”).

That first album, just titled “Terji og Føstufressar”, concludes with the following harrowing song, with a chorus I’ve  never forgotten: Snjóhvíta dúgvan er skotin til jarðar, sorlaðir liggja nú menniskjans sjálvgjørdu verjugarðar.  “The snow-white dove is shot to the ground, it lies now, broken, mankind’s self-imposed line of defense”

And just listen to those sound effects at the end:

 

 

(That entire album is available on YouTube in Karaoke form if you want to sing along ,by the way).

 

And their second album contains this gem at the end. This song pretty much goes like “I really like spending time with you and I feel something… [mood whiplash in the course] … pity you and I aren’t getting together because you’re married and have kids!”

 

 

  1. Children’s Music Available from VIT

http://kvf.fo/vit/sending/sv/sangir

I bet you didn’t know you could play flash games in Faroese either! Click “spøl” on the link above. You can also get the highest possible score on the marshmallow game if you literally do nothing after angling the vehicle on an upward tilt after collecting one marshmallow (interestingly you get a game over when it gets so big that you have no choice but to hit yourself. Oh, it’s a snake clone, sorry if it wasn’t clear from the outset).

 

  1. Rasmus Rasmussen

 

One of the most sublime musicians I’ve ever heard in my life, Rasmus Rasmussen’s instrumental guitar music is a divine experience that you just simply have to partake of.

 

His life story sadly involved being bullied as a result of having come out of the closet and ultimately resulted in his suicide, and it could be argued that his death and significant suffering beforehand actually spurred a change in the Faroe Islands, in which homosexuality wasn’t always viewed kindly.

 

Within the past few years, I think the Faroe Islands have really changed in this regard (although definitely let me know more about this if you know more).

 

Let’s treat you to some of Rasmus’s music in his memory:

 

 

 

 

His digital albums are available at this bandcamp website, accessible here:

https://rasmusrasmussen.bandcamp.com/

 

  1. Eivør

 

Probably one of the most recognizable voices in the Faroe Islands, Eivør Pálsdóttir combines primeval influences that echo not only the magnificent landscape of the Faroese but also of pre-Christian times.

 

 

Interestingly, some of the growling noises that you hear in many of her songs have an uncanny resemblance to Inuit throat-singing (which is heard more often in places like Canada and the USA given that Danish missionaries banned it in Greenland).

 

 

  1. Kári P.

A folk singer that always seems to carry tunes that you know you’ve heard before, but can never recognize exactly where from:

  1. Tyr

 

I learned from my Greenlandic music to save my heavy metal for the end. In honor of Ólavsøka, I figured I had to include the national anthem in here somewhere. Here it is. *smirk* (And yes, it is instrumental)

 

 

  1. Hamferð

 

It means “Phantom” or “Vision” in Faroese, and they acquired a lot of attention back in March 2015 when they became the first-ever humans to film a music video during a solar eclipse.

 

Now, while they are a heavy metal band, keep in mind that this version is actually comparatively tame:

 

 

And last and certainly not least, let’s introduce you to the way they actually sound in their albums:

 

 

I remember one time I successfully got someone to think that the screaming voice you hear in the first song was actually how Faroese was spoken on a day-to-day basis.

Just kidding.

I was told “Ha. I’m not that gullible”.

 

 

Appendix: Song Lyrics

 

The Faroe Islands may be a small country, but there’s a HUGE collection of song lyrics (in Faroese only) that you can use with learning as well as your Karaoke evenings or cover songs:

http://sangtekstir.com/sangir/

 

Did I leave your favorite Faroese musician out?

Are you a Faroese musician and did I leave YOU out?

Let me know in the comments!

Góða Ólavsøku!

The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

2015-08-20 16.40.04

It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

IMG_4725

The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!

The Top 5 Catchiest Songs I’ve Heard in My Whole Life to Date (March 2017 Edition)

 moving forward 1

Today is Purim, a Jewish Holiday that does involve costumes, celebration and the reversals of fortune.

Interestingly, it occurs to me that it may be the closest thing to a “troll holiday” that really exists in the Jewish calendar.

My identity, especially my Jewish identity, is something I struggle with a LOT more than I should.

But that’s a story for another day.

True to the spirit of reversal on Purim (vnahafokh = Ancient Hebrew for “and it was reversed”, referring to the denouement of the Book of Esther which you should read one fine afternoon, if you haven’t heard it already today or yesterday evening), I ain’t gonna be writing about language learning.

I’m going to be posting the catchiest songs I’ve heard. Ever.

Actually, what am I thinking? Does this have anything to do with Purim? No, it probably doesn’t. There isn’t even any Jewish performer on this list (as far as I can tell…sorry)

But I hope all of you regardless of background or level or anything else can enjoy this playlist.

Want the lyrics? Leave a comment. Didn’t include them because I thought it would clutter this post more than message. I didn’t include commentary for the same reason. You came to hear catchy songs, not a lecture.

So more music, less wordz!

  1. Basshunter, “Boten Anna” (Swedish)
  1. The Tokens, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (English)
  1. Daniel Bilip “Mangi Mendi” (Papua New Guinea / mostly in Tok Pisin)
  1. SUSSAT! “Sila Qaamareerpoq” (Greenlandic)

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Staysman and Lazz, “En Godt Stekt Pizza” (Norwegian)

Juan Magan, «Mal de Amores» (Spanish [Spain])

Marc Fussing Rosbach, «FIIST!» (Greenlandic)

And now for the first place you’ve all been waiting for…

  1. Keatly Kalulu, «Kava» (Bislama [Vanuatu])

Where in the World is Samiland?

sapmi

Have you ever looked at a map of Scandinavia and ever wondered if people lived in that northernmost area that encompasses Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia?

Turns out that people do live there. (There are also residents of Slavbard in the Polar North, but that’s another story).

This area is commonly known by Americans as “Lapland”, which nowadays denotes a purely geographical meaning (as opposed to the geopolitical “Samiland”, which is an area with some autonomy from the Sami Parliament).

The inhabitants of Samiland were formerly known as the “Lapps” and the language as “Lappish”, but these terms have fallen out of use (even though derivatives of them still appear in place names). Instead, they are referred to as Sámi People and the Sámi Language, and the land is Sápmi, or Samiland.

How many people live in this area? About 70,000.

What sort of languages are spoken there? In addition to the national languages of the countries that own the territory on a map (Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian), there are the Sami Languages, or the indigenous languages of the indigenous Sami People.

(At this point I would like to say that whether or not I used the accent for “Sámi” is completely arbitrary.)

The most commonly spoken of these Sami Languages is Northern Sami, which I wrote about here.

The Sami Languages, all of which are endangered, belong to the Finno-Ugric Language family, and the Northern Sami Language in particular is about as distant from Finnish as English is from German. Both Finnish and Northern Sami use non-Latin versions of the months that denote aspects of that time of the year (unlike Estonian and Hungarian, which use the Latin names the way English speakers do).

There are many similarities in vocabulary besides, although Northern Sami does use fewer cases and more complicated “consonant gradation” (which is shifting a consonant in a word to a weaker form when it declines—in Finnish, “kaikki” [everything] would become “kaiken” [of everything] when declined in the genitive. Note that the “kk” becomes “k”. Northern Sami uses a similar system).

There are other Sami Languages aside from Northern Sami. Don’t ask me about them because I haven’t studied any of them. They are not mutually intelligible with one another, although their vocabularies are similar.

Here is the flag, my personal favorite flag on the face of the earth. I have heard a theory that the colors refer to Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, but…like I know…

sapmi

The Sami are also well-known for a wordless singing known as “Yoiking”. You may have already heard yoiking before…if you have seen the opening titles for Disney’s Frozen. Yes, this was not an original creation, but rather the “Yoik of the Earth”. Have a listen and refresh your memory:

(Note: the latter portion of this version does involve a mashup with a Norwegian Christmas hymn).

Here is an a cappella version of the national anthem:

I could get into some of the politics of tensions that occur between the Sami and the various countries, but you are welcome to do research on that on your own.

In the meantime, why not treat yourself to some radio:

http://radio.nrk.no/direkte/sapmi

Or, if you would prefer, why not some television? (This links to the version with Norwegian subtitles, but you can easily find the same with Swedish or Finnish subtitles if you poke around the web, or ask about it in the comments).

http://tv.nrk.no/serie/oddasat-tv

I would like to dedicate this post to anyone who asked me about the Sami at any point. This is for you.

 

1000 HITS!!! My Gift to You: 10 Vital Lessons from My Language Adventures (Part 2)

You can read the first part here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/1000-hits-my-gift-to-you-10-vital-lessons-from-my-language-adventures-part-1/

  1. Manipulating Facebook (should you have it) is essential

This is even truer for languages which are spoken by fewer people than most of the more commonly studied languages.

“Like” music groups and news sources in your target language. You could also very well notice that certain colloquialisms (e.g. “great job!” or “awesome!”) are commonly used by native-language commenters. Things like these are what’s missing from your textbook or phrasebook…

As is often the case, the announcements on the page will be in your target language and sometimes English (or something else). Use these translations and detect patterns accordingly.

  1. Ridicule is the Best Omen

Thankfully I have not often been targeted by genuine ridicule (although it has happened). I was once told by someone that I had no reason to be interested in Greenland, followed by a list of its social problems. (I remember this as the “Greenland is a Shithole” speech).

Interestingly the person who gave me this speech relented later on after a few weeks.

Behind what appears to be ridicule is actually amazement that is sometimes littered with more than a hint of jealousy.

More often than not, a lot of this ridicule was directed at my oddball hobbies or my odder languages. And to be fair, most of the time it was genuine curiosity rather than mockery. And I genuinely appreciate that curiosity and I treasure every moment of it!

If you are feeling that others are discouraging you from your path, this is a good sign. If you feel that others are intrigued by your path and fling lots of questions at you, this is also a good sign.

  1. Americans are just like everyone else when it comes to language acquisition

Come on, American peeps, you really thing that you’re the only people on earth that have ever “studied language X for Y years and forgot it all?”

Hardly.

I’ve seen it everywhere that I’ve been.

You think you’re the only ones that have accents that “can’t be changed” or a reputation for “being bad with languages?” Nice try. You are very much not alone with that reputation…and let’s be honest, a lot of it can be done away with it very easily.

And there are actually some places (Norway comes to mind) where Americans have an easier time picking up the local language than members of most other nationalities.

There is really one thing holding my American friends back in this regard: belief that they can’t. Belief that you can’t learn a language well as an adult. Belief that they’re not cut out for the task for whatever reason.

Tell you what: you’re no different from me. If you don’t want to undertake the task, I respect that. But if you want to undertake the path don’t let any “science” get in your way…

  1. You have only two goals: make yourself understood, or understand

My goal in asking where my professor is in XYZ Language is not to ensure that every aspect of my grammar is perfect (and most native English speakers don’t speak with perfect grammar, either!)

My goal is asking where my professor is? Make myself understood.

My goal in watching children’s television in the target language isn’t to understand every word that is said. It is to put meanings on enough words so that what is happening becomes clear.

Perfection will come later. And most native speakers tend to not have perfection either. So don’t get nervous. Just understand that you have only two goals: make yourself understood, and understand.

  1. Knowledge of Other Cultures and Languages Enhances EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR LIFE!

I almost titled this “Knowledge of Other Cultures and Language Just Makes You A Better Person. Deal With It”. Then I figured that I’d better not…

With each new language you get more songs, more idioms, more inside knowledge, more sides to your personality, more inside jokes…actually, it seems that you get more of everything!

Even if you only know the language on a very basic level, there is something that changes within you when you genuinely commit yourself.

You become stronger in every aspect. And at this point I remember my mother saying, “Are any of your polyglot friends boring or uninteresting or not too intelligent?”

I paused for a moment, thought back through all of my life, and then uttered…

“…no….”

polyglot moi

Playing Favorites? (October 2014 Edition)

One fine evening in New York that probably wasn’t as cold as it is now, I was asked on not a few occasions if I had a favorite language.

As much as I love all of my commitments, the fact is that I cannot budget everything equally (and I think that almost no one can) and therefore I (and many other polyglots) do end up playing favorites by default.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at the tag categories above.

And should you have the good fortune to have read other blogs written by those who have learned multiple languages in adulthood, expect something similar: some languages are mentioned in their writing more than others, and it is clear that the levels are not all the same and that those that are the best are likely those that they put the most time into.

IMG_3129

A Restaurant in Hania’s Old Town

That being said, I believe that there are multiple ways to choose favorites, and while I have no favorite language overall, I can say that I play favorites in specific categories.

And should you want to ask me for more categories, nothing is stopping you.

For one, most people who are not polyglots usually judge a language just by virtue of its sound. And concerning my favorite language sound-wise, there is a very clear-winner:

norsk flagg

Norsk Bokmål, as spoken in Oslo in particular, has maintained an allure for me every since I first heard it in Stockholm. The fact that it is very closely related to English in many regards gave me further incentive to commit time to the project.

One thing I noted about Norwegian Language Learners is that they tend to hop right into native-level material (even if for kids) a lot earlier than learners of many of the common “high school” languages (Spanish and French being the best well-known).

About the sound: most people from the rest of Scandinavia note that Standard Norwegian has a unique rhythm that is reminiscent of a lilting song.

Many of my Swedish friends are very much enchanted by the language and call it “magnificient” and “wonderful” and many other varieties of praise-laden names.

I was also recently asked by someone if there are localizations of well-known animated classics into Norwegian. Yes. Very much so…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIAibXgN2Lo

Then there is the system of a language, the way it works and the way words and sentences are formed. Again, a clear winner here:

kalaallit nunaat

When asked to describe how Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) works, I will usually give people examples like these:

 

Sila = weather

Silarsuaq = world, the universe (literally: “big weather”)

Anori = wind

Anorersuaq = storm (“big wind”)

Nuna = land

Nunarsuaq = planet earth (“big land”)

Nunavissuaq = continent (land + place where something is found or done + big)

Illu = house

Illorsuaq = mansion (you get the idea)

Illoqarfik = city, village (house + have + place where something is found or done)

Pinnguaq = toy (something + little)

Pinnguarpoq = he/she/it plays (The dividing line between verbs and nouns in Greenlandic is so thin that some scholars argue that a division between them doesn’t exist)

 

Much like mathematics, virtually the entire language, minus loanwords (mostly from Danish) works in this fashion. There are suffixes that all have functions that you need to learn (not unlike mathematical signs).

Greenlandic is also home to my favorite word in any language, “qaqqaqaqaaq” (there are lots of mountains).

When I described this language to my mother (who only speaks English), she told me that the language “sounds easy”.

There are only two real difficulties with Greenlandic: (1) relative lack of learning materials (especially if you don’t know Danish) and (2) the fact that it is very much different from any language that is commonly studied (i.e. don’t rely on any cognates whatsoever, unless you have studied other Inuit languages).

And here is the language as spoken by Paul Barbato, an American (watch the other videos in the channel for the backstory):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4cyMEOkhU4

Another important aspect is taste, and this time there is no clear winner, and I would tie Danish and Yiddish for first place:

Much like German and Dutch, Danish is also heavily insulted by many just by virtue of its sound. Drunk Norwegian is one of the tamer names I’ve heard, with the harshest being the unfortunate but memorable “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

Of the languages of Europe that are spoken by more than 1 million people, the two that are most closely related are Danish and (Standard) Norwegian. The written languages in particular are very close, but as one of my Swedish friends said, “I can read Danish, but when spoken, it sounds as strange to me as Chinese”.

As to Yiddish, it is probably the West Germanic Language that gets insulted the least but made fun of the most.

I have written on both of them here and here.

And now as to the languages that changed my life the most:

Two-way tie with two honorable mentioned: Greenlandic and Yiddish, and honorable mentions Finnish and Modern Hebrew.

Greenlandic enabled me to glimpse the culture of an island that everyone on the planet is familiar with but tend to not think of as a place where people live. The “push-pull” between the Inuit and Danish spheres of influence is a source of creative tension that powers the entire culture of the country. I myself am vegetarian and I dread the thought of seal meat. What I do not dread, however, is the world that opened up to me as a result of my venture and how it changed the way I see everything in the Americas in particular.

Yiddish is also a tension between many European elements and the cultures of the holy tongue (as far as Yiddish is concerned, this is a blend between Hebrew and Aramaic). It also enabled me to understand my culture in a way that most Jews today just cannot fathom, not just as texts or politics or prayers but as a way to taste life—a flavor concocted from too many lands to list.

As to Finnish, J.R.R. Tolkien taught himself the language and likened it to a wine cellar that few people venture into. The languages that he (make that “we”) created share influences from this language (What’s it with Finnish enthusiasts creating artificial languages? There must be something in it…as we would say, “katsokaa itse!” [see for yourself!]).

But most people associate Finnish with “being difficult” and little else.

And it is a shame…because Finnish has a tendency to be quite absurdly logical most of the time. I have never heard Hebrew described as an immensely hard language…

As for Modern Hebrew itself, it is a cultural salad, not unlike Yiddish, Dutch, and Estonian (and definitely many other languages about which I have scant knowledge).

Before Modern Hebrew, the language was merely something scriptural, something used for prayer.

After Modern Hebrew, it became the result of a grand experiment as to what would happen if you took a holy language and let it travel the world for a long time.

The result makes you think more about how a language can evolve, and where our languages are going and where they could go.

Quite a thought…