How to Get a Really Good Accent in Your Target Language with the Help of Only One Word or Phrase

My tactic revolved around a quote from Bruce Lee which said that he feared not the man who practiced 10,000 kicks, but rather one kick 10,000 times. Come to think of it, it has been a while since I picked up a quote dictionary.

I blame quote infographics on Facebook.

Unrelated fact: when I was in high school I had this “quote of the day” feature in my creative writing classes, which I recall shamelessly having ripped off my peers at previous institutions.

Moving on…

rgmf

When I was in Paris, I remember that one of my sibling travel companions kept on saying the phrase “les hommes d’équipage” (the ship crew) aloud in a dramatic voice at vaguely regular intervals (there was no occasion that called for the recitation whatsoever). It apparently had some unclear connection to a poem about an Albatross that escapes me.

I had heard “les hommes d’équipage” about seven times a day on average, and interestingly said travel companion had a very convincing accent indeed, without even trying, after a significant amount of recitations of the phrase.

True story: sometimes I catch myself saying the phrase out loud, too. Even now!

Now during the few weeks between Paris and New York, in which I found myself in my parent’s place alongside all of my siblings (first time in a long time), the habit rubbed off on me too. When in very, very casual conversations with my family members, I would throw in a phrase with virtually no context and with a very non-American accent indeed.

Except for this time the phrase was Greenlandic, and the words were “Kalaallisut oqalusinnaavit?”(Can you speak Greenlandic?)

It probably was annoying to them as “les hommes d’équipage” was during my Paris venture, but I certainly managed to experiment with a different Greenlandic-sounding accent every single time, until I got one that stuck and made sense.

And once I had that accent for the two words, I was capable of splicing the accent onto the rest of my speech in that language.

I speak a number of languages but my accent strength in them is not equal.

And here’s why not:

Because I haven’t had this accent training drill with a phrase in all of them.

One thing I used to do with Danish was say the word “Hvad?” (what?) at points in conversations with my family members and some friends when the English “what?” was appropriate. As a result, I practiced this word many, many times indeed, and even if my Danish accent or my ability to replicate the stød is not perfect, it certainly became a lot better.

Now that I think about it, I really should be doing this more often…

So here’s what you do:

  • Identify a certain phrase or word in your target language that sticks with you.
  • Make it a bit of an inside joke / exclamation / etc. and get in the habit of using it. If you don’t want to do it in public, then just feel free to use it when frustrated at your computer, etc.
  • Let the word or phrase grow on you, and then one time, you’ll find yourself having said the word with an accent that sounds perfect.
  • Now you have the accent. Try using it on other words in your target language, and possibly even in your native language / other languages to ensure that it sticks.
  • It may not be utterly perfect and may require some refinement, but…voila! There you are.

Happy practicing!

Mixed-Up Polyglot-Ville

Not all news in my language endeavors is good. Last night at the Polyglot Bar I felt as though I deliberately dealt a sub-par performance.

How? Well, for one, I caught myself mixing up Spanish and Portuguese, and in Portuguese I kept switching between the European and the Brazilian varieties without able to distinguish them well.

ay yay yay

Up until my New York City residence time, I only used various Portuguese’s with native speakers (e.g. the guy who lived in my building in Heidelberg who had a Portuguese flag visible through the window, Brazilian friends, and so on). Now that I am dealing with students, I should probably keep in mind to use the Brazilian accent only, but sometimes slip-ups happen. And it is a lot easier to mix up the two Portuguese’s than it is to mix up Spanish and any variety of Portuguese.

My Dutch attempts were better, but I still felt as though I was sometimes grasping for simple words. And between German and Yiddish I did something interesting: I used as many words from “Loshn-koydesh” (“the holy language”) as possible with speaking Yiddish, to ensure that not an ounce of Deitschmerish would have a hope of creeping in. But having to juggle them jointly still was an issue.

And this is very odd when I consider the fact that, while I did use some Norwegian and Danish at the Swedish conversation hours in Heidelberg, I didn’t actually mix up the languages. And even if I accidentally did, then it certainly didn’t elicit any reactions from anybody in any direction.

Looking back as to my beginnings with the Scandinavian Language, I remember Ulf, a priest in the church of Sweden, giving us a rundown as to how Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian differ from each other in terms of their pronunciation and register. And this was before I even considered learning any of these. As a result, from the very beginning, I but these in different groups, and my accents between the three are cleanly cut and I have been told this summer that my Scandinavian accents are impressive, especially the Norwegian one.

So, I have a problem:

I mix up Spanish and Portuguese and the West Germanic Languages (German, Yiddish, Dutch, and yes, English)

What am I going to do about it?

Interestingly in JTS’ Yiddish sessions I never mix up Yiddish with German or Dutch (I only created “Holandyiddish” last night)

Maybe I just had a bad night. But I’m not going to use that as a cop-out.

My plan:

I have to create a zone for the various accents, the way that I learned to do with the Scandinavian Languages since the beginning. Back when I first learned Spanish in high school, I didn’t really have any “accent zone”, nor did I even know the concept. Now I know better.

So…this means that I have to consciously speak aloud to myself (or, better yet, with others) and make sure to use a European Spanish accent ONLY. Thanks largely to watching dubbed cartoons, I can be cognizant of the differences between European and Latin Spanish and adjust my speech accordingly.

Now for the Portuguese, it is a bit difficult. I will have to force myself into speaking like a Portuguese person and like a Brazilian, and tease out the zones so far so that there is no overlap. Again, the only way that I am going to manage this is by talking out loud.

I remember how I learned the Danish Stød by practicing it on while crossing the street but also in the shower, getting dressed, etc. I will have to use that time in order to rehearse these accents accordingly. This is a problem that I have, but it is capable of being fixed with discipline.

I also have to develop stronger association with these languages.

I have a confession: when I speak Norwegian, it is only a matter of a few seconds until I think of Max Mekker, the infamous Big Bird equivalent from Sesam Stasjon (Norwegian Sesame Street). Let’s be honest: he probably taught me more Norwegian than anyone else.

max mekker with magic wand (ep. 36)

Because of this, I am not tempted to let Swedish or Danish into the Max Mekker Zone. It just doesn’t work.

Maybe I should watch the Co-Productions from Brazil and from Iberia, then? Worth a shot…

The mixing up of Germanic Languages occurs less and less often, but I think the Romance Language one requires instant address.

Speaking of Romance Languages, I do have some good news:

It took me a while, but I met someone at the Polyglot Bar last night—an American enthused with the Italian Language, and he managed to get me having my first Italian Conversation with my DuoLingo knowledge and occasional feeding of words and told me that my accent and that my word choice was very good!

I’m nowhere near confident, but it gets an upgrade!

Benvenuto, Italiano!

italia

Unfortunately, I might need to knock Portuguese down a notch on my language list until I’m more disciplined. So it isn’t among my best languages anymore (until I get more disciplined, that is).

Estonian is also showing remarkable signs of progress. This is because I have been studying it due to false hopes that Estonians would show up to the Polyglot Bar (lots of people told me that they had friends or acquaintances who spoke it), not also to mention its similarities to Finnish which makes it easier for me.

Anyhow…I’m ending the article here, but I’m raising a toast to my Spanish, Portuguese, and Brazilian accents…and no more mixing up things in Polyglot-ville!

I Am Not Talented

Too often during the past few days (actually, more like every single day, on average of about three times), did I hear “some people have a talent for languages, I guess you do have it and most people don’t”.

I’m going to be mighty quick about this post.

I am not talented.

There is no such thing as a “talent for languages”, this is merely a cover for people not willing to apply themselves. I know that this sounds harsh, but let me put it this way:

The real reason I mastered the Danish “stød” was not because I had this musical gift that I had from birth.

The real reason was, in mid-2013, I really envied people who could make that guttural stop properly, and so I practiced it in the shower and while crossing the street. I read about it. I watched television in Danish for a significant amount of hours. I read blogs on how to improve my pronunciation.

This wasn’t an issue of talent.

The fact that I had learned Finnish and Greenlandic the way I did doesn’t indicate talent either.

Ask any of my family members.

They will tell you how much TIME I put into the endeavor, until I managed to retrieve results.

And believe me, both of these languages were extraordinarily frustrating for me! (Actually, pretty much all of them were, even the “easier” ones like Norwegian).

But while I did give up some of my languages due to the “chemistry” dying down, I kept on going with those that I really cared about.

Only this morning did I show up for a Hebrew class and was told that I was too high a level to continue being there (I was actually sent out of the class right before a dialogue exercise and told to speak to the department).

I was struck by the Language Class in the fact that the teacher spoke very slowly, as opposed to immersion, even from children’s television, which went on playing regardless of whether or not I understood every word, and certainly didn’t care if it was going “too fast” for me.

Now back on topic.

I’m just going to say this emphatically.

I am may be proud of the fact that I commit my time to this, but I do not believe for a second that this is because I have a talent.

If anything, this is because I’m willing to put an extraordinary amount of time into my projects until I see a return.

You can be a speaker of many languages, just like me.

All you need to do is care.

Care enough, love what you do, and apply yourself.

Isn’t that easy?

Polyglot Report Card, for September 2014 (Part 1)

I hereby take the time to reflect on where I am in my various language journeys, where I could improve, if I am falling back, and what plans I may have.

I will be as honest with myself as I can.

First off, I should begin with English, my native language, the one that you are probably reading this article in.

usa

I actually have a significant problem with speaking English, more than I had expected (surprise, surprise!!!)

In no small part does this have to do with the fact that I had seen my American accent as something to “get rid of” and/or disguise (In my experience, Israelis and Swiss have “American radars” that are very difficult to fool, Germans are about average difficulty, Greeks above-average difficulty, Scandinavians below-average difficulty, and the easiest time I had disguising my accent was among Americans [no big surprise there]).

Not only that, I still pepper my English with some foreign expressions (mostly from German, Finnish or assorted Scandinavian, mostly Danish), and I have to force an American accent most of the time. I should have foreseen this outcome: I kept this side to me so actively bottled up that when I need it to fit in, it still won’t come out, even with effort!

That isn’t even to mention the fact that sometimes I speak English with the sentence structure of other languages, German being the worst offender and Greenlandic a close second .

(For those of you interested in what “speaking English with Greenlandic sentence structure is”, it is when I pause at various points in the sentence depending on when the words would break off…and Greenlandic words are very long indeed… An example: “there is my computer on the table” would be “on the table…my computer is there”.  )

What I intend to do: immerse. Immerse, immerse, immerse. Do I really have to resume watching television in my native language? Has it really come this far? We’ll see…

Next up is Yiddish, the first non-English language that I genuinely felt I became good with…

idishflag

Deitschmerish (the mixing of German and Yiddish) had become a bigger problem than I had anticipated. Mental discipline was enough for me to prevent myself from speaking Deitschmerish most of the time, but at the end of the day I may need to refresh some vocabulary, a process that is WAY long overdue…

The words of the holy tongue (loshn-koydesh) really dealt me the opportunity for my Yiddish to “hold its own”.  Thanks also to German and being constantly cognizant of the differences between German and Yiddish (and Dutch figures into this somehow as well…), I was capable of “slacking off” without practicing and still being able to maintain most conversations. But I really shouldn’t be lazy…but it seems that I came to the right city to practice this language!

As to German, this is the one language I had struggled the most with, and I had difficulty having a conversation in German until about March/April 2014 (at that point I had been living in Germany for a year). Sometimes I also felt very self-conscious, not also to mention my nagging desire to love understudied languages more (gotta live with that…).

I had encountered SO much discouragement and so many roadblocks and reflections and bouts of self-conscious worrying to get to that point, but luckily I have had more than enough success stories with conversational German (during my last semester) for me to be confident now. And now is what counts the most.

deutschland

Thanks largely to my “Deunglisch”, I may need to give spoken German a break for a while…but given how many written materials in German are in the library in which I am currently writing this blogpost, I think I can manage some other skill developments.

And now for Team Scandinavia, and I’ll try to be quick:

norden

Swedish: Depending on who I am with, I can either speak Swedish very confidently or sometimes I’ll worry a lot. I think part of this comes from the “fear of being answered in English” that I had to put up with in Stockholm during my learning phases (my fear of being answered in English in Germany shrank to next to nothing, even when I was there only for a few weeks…)

In all of my languages, I am constantly building vocabulary (even with English, thanks largely to the bizarre Faroese vocabulary lists filled with culinary…um…intrigue?). Even better: when I look at a word in one of the Scandinavian Languages, I’ll compare it to the other two. This works wonders for my memory, interestingly.

The “sj” sound is more natural now than I ever thought that it would be, but I feel as though it will never be perfect (one time I got it down just right! The way a native speaker would!)

Television has worked wonders for me mastering the rhythm of the Swedish Language, I just imagine how certain characters would say the words that I’m thinking (with my musical muscle-memory) and then I duplicate that rhythm. This has never failed me.

What I should do: (1) keep on the journey and (2) realize that I worry too much and (3) stop worrying so much. I’m not a beginner struggling to order cinnamon buns anymore.  That was nearly two years ago.

Danish: My Greenlandic and Faroese adventures have required me to bolster my ability to read Danish and it really shows when I can read a text out loud without flinching. The Stød is now very natural for me, but sometimes I’m still self-conscious about what many Danes might think of my accent (or sometimes even the fact that I chose to learn the language, or that I have this thing for the Danish colonies).

Encountering a group of Danes in the NYC subway system the other day, it occurred to me that, in comparison to many languages, Danish, as spoken by native speakers, isn’t spoken very quickly.

I have two primary goals with Danish: (1) learn slang better (as I may need them to learn Greenlandic and Faroese slang) and (2) stop worrying so much about what native speakers might think if I open my mouth. Come to think of it, I haven’t received discouragement for learning either Danish or Norwegian. From anyone.

Norwegian: Now that I look back over the past year, it is clear that I have spent the smallest amount of time with Norwegian.  

Not surprisingly, I can read Norwegian articles very well (thanks to the whole Danish/Norwegian being very similar). I feel a lot more confident with my accent in Norwegian than I am with either of the other two Scandinavian Languages in question, and I’ve fooled many a non-Norwegian into thinking that I was from the country when I let loose a few words.

I really try not to play favorites with my projects, but I still find that Norwegian is the most beautiful language in my collection and I should use that as a motivation to maintain it.

After all, I really find that I have the least anxiety about Norwegian, but I really wish that I could speak it more often with real people. But hey, I’m in New York right?

And last but not least among my conversational languages…

suomi

I had pumped so many hours into Finnish and I’m proud of it. I’m a far cry from being seen as a Native speaker with higher education, but I’m okay with having a good command of the casual language. From my time in Finland (back in November 2013 when I felt that I really didn’t know it that well), it seems that Finns are readily impressed by genuine foreigner attempts to learn their language (when I write “their language”, I am also being cognizant of the Fennoswedes).

But thanks largely to Finnish being very far from English, I don’t get lots of vocabulary “for free” the way I do with the Germanic or the Romance Languages. I have to maintain the language with extra effort. If that means watching more TV in Finnish than devoting it to other ones, then so be it.

Right now I’d really like to use Finnish to strengthen Estonian and Northern Sami. It would also be interesting for the day in which I take Hungarian very seriously.

My biggest weakness with Finnish? I sometimes struggle with the written language. More than I should. Wikipedia obviously isn’t a problem in this regard, but some other written material is, including, surprisingly, internet comments…

Next time I will write about the almost-conversational languages in part 2!

Cracking Tough Phonemes

Depending on your choice of language(s), there comes a time in which there is a certain sound that your mouth simply cannot manage…or so it seems.

Perhaps you may have heard of science (however questionable) that says that your mouth is fully formed by a certain age, and if you don’t collect a sound before then, then your chances of learning it are hopeless…

Well, here’s the thing: hopeless barely ever exists in any case, and if you have been struggling with a certain phoneme, this post will save you!

Here are some of the more troubling phonemes, in no particular order of difficulty (even if I were to rank them, it would be very meaningless indeed):

(1)    Swedish “sj-“ sound (discovery of the week: the Flemish “g” sound resembles this sound closely, although the same cannot be said of the “g” sound in Dutch which is spoken in the Netherlands)

(2)    Portuguese nasal vowels (ã, õ) and “m” at the end of words, which functions as “ng” in English, only pronounced nasally.

(3)    A host of other Portuguese vowels (áâàéêíóôúü)

(4)    Polish nasal vowels (ą, ę)

(5)    German “ch” sound, typified by the word “Ich”

(6)    Russian “ы” sound

(7)    Learning the distinction between hard and soft consonants in Russian

(8)    Dutch “ui” sound

(9)    The “th” sound for many non-native English speakers (sound also appears in Greek)

(10) Welsh “ll” sound

(11) Greenlandic (oh boy…), “q”, “rl” and “ll”.

(12) The swallowing of consonants at the end of words in Greenlandic. Danish carries a similar system in its phonology.

(13)Some may have trouble with any variety of guttural “kh” sound. Interestingly Hebrew is the one language best known for this, but similar founds appear in Dutch, German, Yiddish, and Russian. Swedish, Polish, and Greenlandic roughly qualify for things that sound similarly. (This is an abbreviated list, so feel free to add more in the comments…)

(14) On top of that, there are the various ways in which the letter “r” is pronounced and rolled in languages around the world. I’ve heard that there is even a training course at the University of Heidelberg that teaches you how to roll r’s properly in various languages, which, I gather, are the more commonly studied European ones.

You think that it might be too late to change your accent, yet alone learn a new sound…but thankfully I had a music teacher in high school who told the following story:

At one point he invited Buddhist monks to perform their chants for the school audience. Afterwards, he asked them if they could teach him, but they said that they could only do so if he were to initiate into their order.

Now, my teacher was dead-set on learning how to replicate this sound, and so he practiced it endlessly in the car, and on stairwells, the same way that I practiced the Danish stød during my adventure over the course of the past year. At one point, it just…stuck…he found himself able to replicate this chanting voice and became well-known throughout the school for using this Buddhist monk chant to imitate a Martian voice—one highly reminiscent of a cartoon character.

This brings me to one of four possibly ways I found to get over a sound I was struggling with..

(1)    Shower technique

 

This is exactly what my teacher did. This is what I did with two sounds in particular: the Swedish “sj” sound, which I sometimes still botch (although rarely) and at other times it comes out almost perfectly (and a handful of times flawlessly), and…well, the stød…that glottal stop you might have heard about…the Danish’s language’s signature move, as it were…

 

Just try and try and try it, and then it may stick. Not guaranteed to work every time, but sometimes if you feel that little else may work, sheer repetition will do you wonders, and the more often you do it the more likely you’ll be able to do it.

 

(2)    Singing technique

 

I mastered the pronunciation of two languages with singing. One of these was Russian, which I learned as a college student but then forgot after years of relative/complete disuse. The massive amount of mp3’s I gathered enabled me to learn songs, and when I sung along with them, it worked wonders for my accent reduction.

 

Last year the Ramat Gan chamber choir (from Israel) visited Heidelberg. Many of the members spoke with Israeli accents when I spoke to them, but when they were singing American gospel songs, the accents completely disappeared…as if by magic!

 

I similarly adjusted to Greenlandic pronunciation with songs as well. Only a few days ago was I teaching somebody some Greenlandic love lingo and he was struggling with the “rl” sound (as I remember doing). I could have tried to learn it by repeating it over and over again, but I did feel that singing Greenlandic songs made it that much easier for me to learn this sound—and trust me, I’ve seen people burst into laughter upon hearing these sounds only once—just to give you an idea of how foreign they may be for some Westerners.

 

(3)    Immersion technique

 

Familiarizing yourself with the rhythms of a language may extend to some sounds as well. Thanks largely to having Duolingo repeat Portuguese words to me very often, the nasal vowels were not particularly strange (neither were the rest of the members of the Portuguese “vowel zoo”, for that matter). Living in Poland and being surrounded by the language meant that the nasal vowels in that language just grew on me, and I have since noticed them in English spoken with a Polish accent (very easy to notice if you listen for it).

 

This shouldn’t encourage you to learn by osmosis. That won’t do you any good.

 

The truth of the matter is this: surrounding yourself with the language will only do you good if that is your target language.

 

(4)    Get help from a friend

 

My list above was largely geared towards sounds that would be hard for English speakers. There are some sounds that may be awkward for native speakers of other languages (Norwegian “å” comes to mind). The “repeat after me” technique is used as a standard among language teachers and may be just the thing you need. Just don’t feel too discouraged if you don’t get it on your first try. Your friend may very well tell you after a few tries that you said it just like a native!

 

That, and you may get an interesting trick about how to “unlock” a certain sound that you may have been struggling with a lot. (Elsewhere on this blog I detailed my rather naïve anatomy of the “stød” but also of the Greenlandic “q” sound).

 

There may also be other sounds that may exist in your native language, but you are unaware of it. For example, one of my professors, himself from Russia, told me that the “ы” sound exists in some English dialects in the word “milk”. I have also heard that the Dutch “ui” sound also exists in some English dialects as well.

 

 

In any case, a final sentence before I dismiss this class: never, ever, ever give up. And don’t let “science” about language learning tell you what you can or can’t do.

 

Just do it.

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

dansk i graekenland

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

Hej allesammen!

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

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

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

[TANGENT]

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

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

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

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

[/TANGENT]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This might also be roughly familiar to some to you:

Held og lykke!

Why Learning Scandinavian Languages is Worth the Effort

“Why do you need to learn Swedish? Everyone speaks English here…”

That’s what a librarian at the Great Synagogue in Stockholm told me when I was doing research and told her that I was learning the language.

The irony of this statement is that I was, at that same moment, surrounded by books that were written in Swedish and Danish magazines that were obviously not going to translate themselves.

I’ve gotten a good deal of encouragement by my desire to study the Nordic Languages in detail (Nordic comes to include Finnish, whereas Scandinavian does not). Interestingly, I entered the “high gear” for this study while living in Germany (and after having been to Stockholm not once but twice!), and not while living in Scandinavia.

norden

Alongside some encouragement, I’ve also met some puzzled people who wonder why I don’t study something more “useful” like French or Chinese.

I have read too many Language blogs that haven’t addressed the ideas that I’ve come up with, so I’m going to have to write them here:

 

  1. “They All Speak English” is NOT true!

I, like many people, came to Stockholm during the first week expecting everyone to be fluent in English. To be fair, there were many people who spoke with extraordinary skill to the degree that I would have guessed they were Midwestern American rather than Swedish.

But now comes the bubble bursting: Yes, English is widely spoken, but not by all.

Some people are surprised when I tell them the fact that I encountered not one but TWO people who didn’t speak English in Stockholm (but who did speak Swedish)—and that was only during my first week! Both of them did not appear to be ethnically Swedish, but it should be known that if you are expecting everyone in Scandinavia to be fluent in English (or even to have some knowledge of it), expect to be disappointed.

I remember going to a big supermarket in a far-flung corner of the city. I remember asking something about asking a staff member where carrots could be found. He didn’t speak a word of English, despite numerous hand-gestures.

Only across the street from where I studied there was a newspaper store, with ice cream and other treats, and the owner didn’t speak any English at all, responding to me in Swedish which I did not yet understand.

By no means do I intend to detract from the very good English skills that I have heard. But what needs to be said is that “most” does NOT equal “all”

  1. You will speak closely related languages better

 

Many people do not understand how, thanks to the Norse Invaders, the surrounding languages were accordingly impacted. Knowing a Scandinavian Language will help you with English, German, and the West Germanic Language family as a whole, and even more so with the other two members of the Scandinavian trifecta.

 

You may also learn how to speak English with a Scandinavian accent, which is something that many people actually really like (and you are likely to sound smart while using it).

 

Reference points for remembering words in the other languages come more easily. If you speak English as your first language, the Scandinavian Languages will help demystify German and make it seem more “normal”. If you learn Danish, expect to learn secrets of English pronunciation that may get you mistaken for a native.

 

And once you have one of the three, the other two may come to you with little effort.

 

  1. The Scandinavian Languages enable you to study other languages that cannot be readily accessed only with English

 

If you want to learn any of the Sami Languages, it is necessary that you know Norwegian, Finnish, or Swedish—or preferably all three. If you want to find English-language resources for Sami Languages, you’re out of luck, although no doubt you will find something.

 

If you want to learn Greenlandic, know that every number higher than twelve is expressed exactly as it is in Danish, not also to mention many Danish import words in the language—more than English import words.

 

For learning both of these, English itself will not suffice, and neither will German. The technology and the databases are in other languages, the ones of which I’ve been talking about this whole time.

 

  1. The Signs are Not Translated, and it helps to be able to Pronounce Street Names Correctly

 

Never will I forget a student project in Copenhagen (featured in the Economist, I believe) in which there were non-Danish speakers who had such trouble pronouncing the main street names that they affixed machines nearby that would read the names out loud to them.

 

That was when I was entering my honeymoon phase with the Danish Language, and I figured, “my, wouldn’t that be useful?” Now, I know that I need no such thing. Yes, Danish pronunciation takes a while to get used to, but it is nowhere near the level of confusion that English pronunciation endows upon the average learner.

 

If you learn the languages, then you will remember street and place names more easily, and even if you ask for directions in English, if you can’t pronounce the names, you are most definitely out of luck.

 

  1. An extraordinary Confidence Builder for an English Speaker learning his/her first foreign language!

 

If you think that the Romance Languages will come easy to you—well, the Scandinavian trifecta offers simpler grammar and more English cognates than can be found in Spanish. The only real drawback can be the fact that the pronunciation and the rhythms can take some time to get used to (and this is true with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish alike).

Swedish in particular has a perplexing “sj” sound that may require some adjustment time, and the Danish “stød” is purported to be the stuff of nightmares. Rest assured that you will unlock the mysteries of both with enough willpower, confidence and commitment, should you so desire.

In the event that you might be convinced that “they will just speak to me in English anyway”, try this:

Use complicated sentence structure, spice it up with some colloquialisms, and, of course, speak confidently and firmly. Sometimes you may need to make it clear that you have progressed beyond phrasebook material, but most of the time just speaking with fortitude will work.

Even in the worst case situations, you will definitely find friends who will be willing to help you and speak the languages you want.

If you are interested in any of the three (or all of them), there are so many ways to get started!

Endless television programs for kids have been dubbed into the Scandinavian Languages (don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise!), and you can prepare for media exposure very quickly after a handful of exercises, worksheets, or textbook chapters.

Lycka till, allihopa! (SE)

Lykke til, alle sammen! (DK/NO)