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.

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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!

 

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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!

Some Encouraging Thoughts about Learning Swedish in Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyhow…

Reasons Why Learning Swedish in Sweden is a Good Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

WRONG!

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

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

 

  • Use your smartphone to your advantage

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

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

Simple phrases will, more often than not, work.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • Don’t dwell on mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was my immersion journey in Sweden hard? Yes

Would immersion journeys be hard anywhere else? You bet.

Did I leave Sweden fluent? No.

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

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

You’ve got an exciting journey ahead!

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

My Journey Through the Danish Language and How It Changed Me Forever

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We sure did!

It’s Danish Constitution Day, and I thought it would be a good idea to write something of a different flavor in honor of this (quasi) national day.

I began studying Danish in 2013. Being a novice polyglot at the time, I turned to the Internet for advice and virtually none of it was encouraging and even less of it was encouraging about the prospects of a foreigner learning Danish. And even less of that for a foreigner whose native language was English.

Being honest: when I heard the Danish language for the first time, I was not too enchanted by it. I thought it would be something I would “pass” on, in favor of Swedish and Norwegian.

This was in addition to the fact that I was heavily intimidated by the prospect of the pronunciation of the language, in which, as I like to tell my friends and students, “half of the language is not pronounced”.

I’ll pass, I thought, although sometimes, even then, I was feeling masochistic and I would try watching some things in Danish on the Internet and see how little I would understand.

And then in encountering Danish people in my travels (and Danes travel a LOT!), somehow I was enchanted by the mentality, the accent, the culture, and a dozen other factors I still can’t articulate. (And “in my travels” I mean “on the plane on the way back from Sweden to the United States”).

I already had a significant amount of Norwegian under my belt, although I wasn’t fluent yet (that would come in due course, however). One reason this was important was that I didn’t really need to learn Danish from word lists and books the way that I had with Norwegian and Swedish previously.

(Note to those unaware: Danish and Norwegian are very, very close in their written forms, a handful of times I’ve speed-read a Facebook post and didn’t even know which of the two it was until I chanced upon one of the orthography differences. I’ll give you one such difference: the –tion at the ending of international words is kept in Danish but transformed to –sjon in Norwegian. This is also a sign that I may be speed reading too quickly.)

As a result of having my Norwegian experience, I could immerse myself in Danish freely, while keeping track of (1) differences I encountered in the writing systems, (2) differences I encountered in word choice (“måske” in Danish means “maybe”, but a Norwegian speaker would opt for “kanskje”) and (3) the way certain Norwegian words that I could recognize became changed when pronounced through Danish (pronouncing “v” as something like an English “u” sound is something that some Indo-European languages do, Ukrainian, Slovak and Latin as taught in some classics departments have something like this as well. Danish does this with regularity as well).

Thanks to me sight-reading food labels in Sweden (which are commonly translated into Finnish and / or Danish), I recognized a lot of words and orthography patterns before I even started.

Given how different the pronunciation was from any other language I had encountered, I thought that immersion was the only way to even get a decent Danish accent (and by “accent” I mean “ability to actually pronounce the words in a way that is even half-way normal for a native speaker of the language”). I was so right about that.

Now, let’s pivot back to the discouragement.

The idea that there were so many expatriates online that struggled, that said that Danes demanded that they spoke English instead, that they got told off by locals that there was “no point” to learning the language, and dozens of other horror stories.

(Granted, this happened only once or twice to me in Sweden, interestingly, and usually once I brought up the fact that I had to know the language for heritage reasons [reading the letters from my deceased family members] this usually made people [somewhat shamefully] retreat from the idea that Swedish was or is “useless”).

Thanks to these stories, I was under this impression that my pronunciation had to be nigh-perfect, otherwise I would get laughed at and made fun of.

Thanks to these stories, I also was feeling more masochistic, the idea that I should take on a hopeless project, and even if I didn’t succeed, write about it someday.

I just kept going. Kept imitating the people on the screen, kept looking at phrasebooks to get good pronunciation tips, kept reading and realizing that Danish wasn’t nearly as hard as the Internet (or I) had imagined it to be.

Sooner or later, the slurring and the glottal stop actually became normal for me.

In Greece as well as in Germany I encountered non-native speakers of Danish who picked it up from their friends or living in Danish-speaking areas. This was a huge boost to my confidence (although a lot of them said that they were in the minority but…yeah, people who pick up the local language in places that are not English-speaking countries tend to be the minority anyhow.)

And then, later on, I actually encountered native Danish speakers who were actually not only not making fun of me but actually conversing with me like a normal person! And actually complimenting my efforts! And only in this past year have I been told that my Danish was “fantastic” and “unbelievably impressive!” J

 

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A victory pose, if e’er there was.

What’s the big lesson of all of this? Apparently it was the Internet horror stories that emboldened me, rather than turned me away (as what also happened with my journey to Iceland in 2015).

The various people who would “hate” me for speaking their language I never ended up encountering. The people who would belittle my attempts I didn’t cross path with (okay, there was that one time, but it wasn’t a native speaker).

SIMPLY PUT: I IMAGINED IT.

However, the legends of “Danish being harder to learn than Chinese” did help me in one regard: they caused me to put a lot of ungodly time into exposing myself to the language, and, as I tell my students, the more you invest in a language, the sooner you can get fluent and feel a full member of the culture!

2014 was the year I had my first conversations in Danish, and I deem it no coincidence that having acquired Danish led me on a road to my polyglot awakening. Simply put, I put pessimism in its place, and my willpower and desire to succeed and turned it away.

Granted, I still have a while yet to go. Sometimes my mom encouraged me during my Myanmar trip to “practice with the Burmese people at the hotel” and sometimes I was too paralyzed with fear of judgment in order to do it. Sometimes I still have that paralysis in talking to native speakers of even my best languages, worried that somehow I’ll slip up for that my nervousness will get the better of me, or that I have to live up to a Michael Jordan-like reputation that I honestly don’t think I deserve.

But one day, I know, these fears will go the way of the ones that I had imagined along this journey I had described.

And this is Jared Gimbel, telling you that your fears, whatever they are, will disappear soon in due time.

I’m here to help.

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Don’t worry, be happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Victory. Is my Destiny.

 

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

Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!

 

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

 

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

WRONG!

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

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

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

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

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

That said, all hope is not lost, because…

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

And speaking of books…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Misunderstood? Eh.

Answered in English? Bleh.

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

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

And this leads to my final lesson…

 

 

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

 

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

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

2016-10-31-19-21-52

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

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

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

myanmarsaga

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

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!

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])

No, Americans are Not “Worse” or “Better” at Languages Than Anybody Else

While there are some certain realities that cannot be denied (that every member of my extended family that is still living, with the exception of myself, is a monoglot), it has little to do with reality and more to do with attitude.

2015-07-06 11.22.31

Austin, TX, home to speakers of Spanish, Japanese, Upper Sorbian and Northern Sami, among others

Think about it. If you were raised with everyone telling you that learning a language is a waste of time, hopeless beyond a certain age, and that “everyone speaks your language anyways”…why would you expect very stellar results?

Let’s say, for the purposes of a thought experiment, that all the countries on earth, instead of the 190+ there are in reality, are the current and former members of the Danish “Common Kingdom” (Dan. “Rigsfællesskabet”). So in this world, the only countries that exist are Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m not mentioning Norway and Sweden here, that is taking the exercise a bit too far and possibly extending into controversy).

As you well know, Danes do visit and have employment opportunities on Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and in both places Danish is the second-most common language after West Greenlandic and Faroese respectively. In Iceland, Danish is still learned commonly as a foreign language after English.

In the real world, while there is some interest among Danish-speakers in learning Greenlandic and Faroese, the majority does go with the idea that “they speak Danish anyways, why bother” , not unlike what some English speakers do in the real world with where their language is commonly spoken (most of the developed world, more or less).

In this thought exercise, in which the English language does not exist, who do the “worst” language learners actually become?

The point you should take is this:

No one nationality is better or worse at learning languages than any other. But some nations do have better or worse ATTITUDES at learning languages than others.

It has little to do with age of beginning education either. The Netherlands, very high English proficiency indeed, does start its English language nearly later than any other country in the EU (I regret not remembering nor writing down the source). The earliest is Belgium (3 years, if I recall correctly).

But there is no correlation between age and English proficiency or proficiency in any other languages.

Often I read articles about how wonderful the Luxembourgers / South Africans / Nigerians / Scandinavians / Dutch are at “linguistic ability, and then sometimes I feel pain. Why did I have to be born into this nation?

But at a certain point, I realized, especially coming from the Northeastern U.S., that I had advantages in picking up languages that people from these countries and others do not.

  1. English may be everywhere in certain countries, but in many American Cities, nearly EVERY major language is everywhere.

In Heidelberg, I struggled to find speakers of official EU languages of smaller countries. In New York City, I once encountered two Faroese speakers over the course of a single weekend! (P.S. that was NOT the Polyglot Conference).

Furthermore, the neighborhoods of many American cities are known for being, to some degree, ethnically divided, with regional languages dominating alongside English. Yes, this does exist to a degree in many other developed countries, but given as the United States still remains the world’s most popular immigration destination, you can imagine the variety you can help yourself to!

This is the U.S.’s hidden treasure that it has lying out in the open. But will you take it?

  1. American English has its accents taken from the various countries from which its immigrants came. You probably have a variety of foreign accent without knowing it.

 

This is somewhat self-explanatory. Upon returning from Germany to the U.S., I noticed exactly how many American accents owed themselves to German. I also noticed significant Slavic strands (especially Polish) as well as Scandinavian strands among American accents in general. Sometimes I could even tell what an American’s ancestry was based on listening to their voice, and you’d be surprised how right I was!

As a result of this, you’ve been exposed to a plethora of voices that you somehow need to convert into the many accents of the world. Again, the fact that so many immigrate and have immigrated to the U.S. can make this a boon.

  1. American English has a colloquial speech taken from words and colloquialisms from all of the immigrant languages.

“Long time no see”, “you hear?” as a question, and “this here book” all started out as immigrant mistakes, and then they became fossilized in correct, although slang, English. In literally EVERY language I have studied, I have seen an influence that the language has played in English, or, alternatively, that English has influenced it. (This holds true even for minority and/or smaller languages!!!)

As a teacher of languages myself, I make a point of showing how much of the target language a person knows already, without extensive effort. I point out the various connections between that target language and English.

If you ever hear me do it during a lesson, your conception of “Americans are bad with languages” will be banished forever to the hinterlands, never to be heard from again.

For learning a language as an American, it is merely connecting the various familiarities you already have from certain popular culture phenomena or slang expressions and then you have a stable base in a language upon which you can grow fluency.

4, No American I have met has ever decried any language as “useless”.

You’d be surprised how often I get in some countries a “why would you want to learn that?” response. You’d be surprise how, when I used to speak English in some countries, there would be those that put down the local language as useless (hint: if you speak the local language well, or even not so well, no one will ever say anything bad about it! On either side!)

Americans, thanks to a general open-mindedness but also a very friendly demeanor, NEVER judge you on your language choices. Furthermore, they are never skeptical about the idea of a polyglot (some people, especially in Europe, see the idea of learning lots of language an extraordinary waste of time. I heartily disagree because the skills between languages are more transferable than you may think, especially within the same families and sub-families!).

You’ll encounter learners of the rarest languages at American polyglot gatherings (as I’ve seen last week) and you won’t hear any scorn among them. In fact, scorn will be heavily discouraged! In fact, more often than not, a rare language is seen as a thing of extraordinary pride. True, when I was in Germany and Iceland, there were those that marveled about the fact that I could understand Greenlandic (which I then forgot and am now learning again!), but the awe shown is only a fraction of the praise that Americans, polyglots or not, will shower upon you for your efforts and commitments.

You are really encouraged to pursue your dreams in this country. Language learning should be no exception.

And the only thing holding America back from being the greatest multilingual powerhouse the world has ever seen is an attitude, paid for by pseudoscience and fear.

Get rid of that, and a wonderful, new ultra-omniglot United States will come into being, unlike any other country that ever existed!