6 Reasons You Should Consider Learning Modern Hebrew (Even if You’re Not Jewish)

Llun Jared Gimbel.

Today is Israeli Independence Day, and yes, it is a Hebrew phrase that has caused many a foreigner to struggle pronouncing it: “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”. For those curious, it is just the literal translation of “independence day” (yom = day ha = prefix indicating “the” “atzmaut” = independence, abstract nouns, or verbs that can be expressed as nouns, often end in “-ut”)

Like so many other students in the Ulpanim, I struggled with Hebrew, and even more strongly I struggled with Israeli culture, that my father told me would be very similar to that of the U.S. but my experience in the country indicated that it was anything but.

I have to actually start writing a listicle in honor of “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”, so I will segway into reason no. 1.

 

  1. Israeli culture is refreshingly human.

 

In the United States, I often feel that a lot of people hide their emotions, hide their true feelings and often are considerably difficult to read. A lot of this may have to do with Hellenism combined with various forms of Protestant theologies, indicating that “showing emotions is bad” (in the Nordic Countries with the possible exception of Iceland, this is very much the case, as well as German-speaking countries in Europe)

Israel has very much the opposite problem, in which the directness is perceived by many westerners as “rude”. Many Israelis also believe that this is unique to their country in particular, but I’ve seen in this most of southeastern Europe as well as in Poland.

Israelis will become your friends more easily, they will ensure that you become a better person, and they will criticize you honestly and sometimes maybe a bit too strongly. This may be  harsh at first, but after a lot of time in Israel and heading to a place like Connecticut, you’ll probably think (like I did) that you are surrounded by “softies”.

Many of them will be forthright about their political opinions and even if you disagree with everything they say, they will still be your friend. After all, as one of my friends put it, “I have friends from both the extreme right and the extreme left. If we all stopped talking to each other, the country would fall apart in a week”.

Israel, on one side, does have the army culture, but in many other areas it is anything but a nation of conformists. A go-getter attitude that “sticks it to the man” is something that motivated me to do things like start this blog and start putting videos of myself online.

Speaking of videos…

 

  1. Israeli Comedy is what All Other Comedy Wishes It Could Be

Have yourself a look:

If you spend your time among Israelis, you may find your sense of humor sharpened to a degree you didn’t even think possible. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to find humor in everything, even the things that Americans wouldn’t even dream of joking about. It goes without saying why the Israelis needed to develop humor since before the state was founded.

Learning Hebrew only makes it more possible with being able to interact with this brand of humor in its most authentic form.

In a world growing ever more fearful, we need more laughter. If you want to laugh, there is seldom a better choice than with the Hebrew of contemporary Israeli TV, Radio and print media.

  1. Hebrew is a gateway to learning how languages work outside of the Indo-European bubble.

 

As a seasoned polyglot I seem to divide languages into two categories (and no, I’m not talking about “Disney’s animated films are dubbed in this language” vs “These same films are not dubbed into this language”).

The Indo-European Language family is confusing, enchanting and mesmerizing. Not only that, the VAST majority of  languages that people study are on the Indo-European spectrum, which goes from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all the way to Iceland.

Hebrew was my first non-Indo European Language, and the more I’ve come to studying non-Indo European Languages, whether they be something like Finnish or even further afield like Greenlandic or Burmese, I’ve noticed that they provide an exquisite quality that Indo-European Languages just simply can’t provide, whether they be something commonly studied like Spanish or even something a lot more rarely studied such as Gujarati.

Especially online, people tend to make would-be polyglots very afraid of non-Indo European Languages (Hebrew and Turkish and Finnish and Mandarin Chinese have very few words in common with English, unlike French, which does! French = eezy! Hebrew = hard! Be afraid! Ha ha ha!)

Ancient Hebrew is a glimpse of a language that existed way before Indo-Europeans proceeded to influence virtually every language out there (although there are a handful of words in common with Indo-European Languages of the Sea People).

Contemporary Hebrew is a great way to “test the waters” to see how a non-Indo European Language works (hint: a lot of them still have a lot of Indo-European influence). There might be a lot of struggling in learning how the language functions with verbs and prefixes and suffixes, but later on you’ll find tons of expressions taken mostly from Yiddish, Slavic Languages, English and French.

You may find yourself so enchanted by it that you may want to learn other languages that aren’t Indo-European as well! A highly rewarding experience!

 

  1. Israeli Music is Like Daydreaming in mp3 form.

 

Not a lot of songs that make you actually want to get up and do chores, right?

If you like nostalgic tunes that bring you back to your childhood living room, or need a hugging feeling once in a while, Israeli music will have a lot of that! (Not also to mention dance tunes and heavy metal, but that’s for another time!)

Check. Out. This. Channel. Now.

  1. Israelis travel EVERYWHERE

What I am about to say is not an exaggeration:

I have encountered Israelis in every country I have EVER visited.

Just got out from teaching a Hebrew class, and during that class I remember my meeting with an elite from Hillel International.

He told me a joke:

Scene: Peru

He asked his Quechua-speaking tour guide: “What are the most populous nations on earth?”

Tour Guide: China is first place, and then the United States, then Israel. I see Israelis everywhere!

Israelis are probably the world’s most seasoned travelers, and if you wear a yarmulke or other Jewish identifier or sign that you speak Hebrew in public, prepare to get “Shalomed” very often! In Berlin, this happened to my brother once every five blocks. Not a joke!

You’ll be able to get yourself free drinks or travel advice and compliments wherever you bring your Hebrew. Even if it isn’t good enough yet, you’ll definitely manage to open up people, as is the case with any language.

Most Israelis will also be really happy to help you learn Hebrew, even though there may be a few others that may have become disenchanted with the various vexations and “drama” of the culture. Once I even got told “let’s continue this conversation is English, because I speak English better than you speak Hebrew” (These are in the minority! I promise!)

  1. You can use your knowledge of Hebrew to be a peacemaker

 

A lot of Israelis (not the majority) have this understanding (possibly because of the school system) that the world hates them, and that they don’t win Eurovision because of anti-Semitism and that they are a point of derision throughout the whole world and no one wants their country to exist.

I’ve told ton of people from throughout the world (yes, even from the Arab world) that I speak Hebrew and that I have lived in Israel. It’s primarily the government policies that are the issue, not ordinary people, the language(s) or the culture (all of which are very much admired, actually! Same with all other countries that have their governments “appear in the news” very frequently)

I’ve seen some of my non-Jewish friends studying in Israel and it has been tough for them, no doubt. If you are a non-Jew (full disclosure: I’m an Ashkenazi Jew myself), and find yourself enchanted by Israeli comedy or the Bible or Israeli tourists or the beaches in Tel-Aviv, let people know! Tons of Israelis want to meet you and be friends with people like you!

Who knows? Maybe Peace will come to the region (or other regions) because of people like you!

And maybe the journey to world peace will begin with your journey to learn a language!

Who knows?

 

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.

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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!

“It is Never Too Late”: How Successful Language Learners Engage the Question of Age

Between the area where Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic intersect, there is an area called “Lausitz” (in German) which is also the home of the Sorbian / Wendish peoples, who speak not one but two Slavic minority languages in Germany (“Upper Sorbian” and “Lower Sorbian”).

(For those curious: the name is “Łužica” in Upper Sorbian and “Łužyca” in Lower Sorbian)

In one of my first exposures to this minority culture, there was a montage (on one of the Sorbian cultural websites or so) of various Sorbian people saying in the Sorbian Languages, German that it is “never too late”.

This is the attitude that any learner requires and should attain.

By contrast, many of my American friends (including members of my own family) believe that the only true way to have gotten good at a language was merely to “start earlier”.

If only it were that simple…because if that were the true solution, it would have been implemented already by everyone to maximum effect!

This should be said: Anglophones are not the only ones that learn languages in school and then forget how to use them completely…I’ve seen people make confessions of this sort everywhere I have been. Even those fluent in a number of languages in the double-digits!

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The idea that childhood usage = adult usage can be refuted by noting the case of the Kindertransport, Jewish children adopted by other families from Nazi Germany, many of whom forgot to use German entirely. I’ve even encountered people in my age demographic who have forgotten their native language completely as well!

Well, then…you may say…certainly starting earlier means that you speak with a perfect accent, right…? Right?

That may be the case, but also ask anyone who has worked with accent training for singers and accents…

Once you learn how to position your mouth and tongue accordingly, you can imitate any sound on the planet, regardless of what you may have heard about your mouth taking its shape at age 10 (or so) and refusing to morph any further (or learn any new sounds).

These positions can be learned. And there is one thing I tell anyone who says that he or she is “not a language person”:

If you can imitate a voice, you can do any accent.

I’ve heard countless young people imitate their co-workers and peers on the streets of Manhattan. Certainly they have no excuse as far as the accent is concerned.

There is one argument that I will concede to the “earlier = better” crowd. In a way, it makes the racking up of hours in your target language easier. Learning a language isn’t exactly about early exposure nor is it about courses taken. It is the amount of hours plugged into the task.

Here’s the good news for you folks reading this on the internet:

Thanks to the Web, your chances to get your hours for your target language are extraordinarily common, more than your parents certainly would have ever had it when they were your age.

There are many reasons that people that undertake language projects don’t reach their goals. Having started too late in life isn’t a serious issue. The list of serious issues will come in another article (and I hope that language teachers especially will be reading it).

To conclude, there is one thing…ONE mindset, that American society will need to adopt it ever it seeks to overcome its reputation as notoriously monolingual…and it most definitely is capable of it…

Learn from the Sorbs, and repeat after me…and them:

It is Never Too Late!

P.S. Ah, I found that video!

Your Questions about Cornish: Answered!

kernow

No, this flag is not a set of four black buttons. This is St. Piran’s Flag, which is the national symbol of Cornwall and also of the Cornish language.

Ever since my last blog post as well as earlier I got a number of questions about the Cornish language from a variety of people, and here is where they will be answered!

  1. Cornish? Where do they speak that? Like…Cornwall?

 

Right you are! And before you go ahead and ask “isn’t Cornwall a part of England, and can’t you just use English when you go there? And isn’t Cornwall so tiny that it isn’t worth the effort?”

In response to that first bit, you go ahead and try telling Cornish people that see what happens. I wrote about the unique history of Cornwall here. The existence of Cornwall predates the existence of England, and the Cornish Language has been described by some as having “ancient roots”. Make of that whatever you want.

Cornish is a language that you have to conscientiously search for its speakers, and most of them obviously reside in Cornwall, and a few in other areas of the United Kingdom, especially London. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there are curious souls like myself who have been intrigued by the story of Cornwall and its revived language and seek to embark on a journey to learn it.

And believe it or not, it still is used in some public ceremonies! Not also to mention that there are signs in Cornish in Cornwall and workshops held in Cornwall, London, and even some areas of the United States.

As to tiny, Cornwall is actually larger than Luxembourg, and is a popular vacation destination that has been name-dropped in lots of literary spheres—from Shakespeare to the recent Broadway production of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Only two days ago in Barnes and Noble at Union Square did I see an entire travel book devoted to just Devon and Cornwall (Devon borders Cornwall to the East).

Land’s End? Cornish. Penzance? (Pirates, anyone?) Cornish. Truro (mentioned briefly in the first episode of Black Mirror?) Cornish. And also a place known in English as the “Scilly Islands”.  This is an abbreviated list.

  1. Don’t like only five people speak it?

A more common variation of this question is “don’t like only two hundred people speak it?”

If you count native speakers, then yes, the numbers are somewhere in the hundreds. But after being dead for quite a while (although there are few that debate the idea of Cornish having died at all), it is better than nothing.

And…AND! This doesn’t include the non-native speakers! And there are thousands of them that are not only actively producing a literary and musical culture, but actively solicited for it!

If you want a language that will give you employment opportunities that few even know exist, consider learning a language with few speakers. One person at a polyglot gathering told me that “the fewer speakers there are of a language, the more that language is deemed important by its speakers”.

Perhaps this was a jab at language revivals or attempts to save endangered languages (not the first time!), but the fact remains: if you speak a rare language, even as a non-native, expect employers to hunt you down! (I, of all people, should know.)

  1. What’s the point of learning Cornish if so few people speak it?

 

Allow me to introduce you to the book that started this whole bonanza, Henry Jenner’s Handbook of the Cornish Language. This book came out in 1904, and the preface reads as follows:

 

“This book is principally intended for those persons of Cornish nationality who wish to acquire some knowledge of their ancient tongue, and to read, write, and perhaps even to speak it.  Its aim is to represent in an intelligible form the Cornish of the later period, and since it is addressed to the general Cornish public rather than to the skilled philologist, much has been left unsaid that might have been of interest to the latter, old-fashioned phonological and grammatical terms have been used, a uniform system of spelling has been adopted, little notice has been taken of casual variations, and the arguments upon which the choice of forms has been based have not often been given.

The spelling has been adapted for the occasion.  All writers of Cornish used to spell according to their own taste and fancy, and would sometimes represent the same word in different ways even in the same page, though certain general principles were observed in each period.  There was a special uncertainty about the vowels, which will be easily appreciated by those who are familiar with Cornish English.  Modern writers of all languages prefer consistent spelling, and to modern learners, whose object is linguistic rather than philological, a fairly regular system of orthography is almost p. xa necessity.  The present system is not the phonetic ideal of “one sound to each symbol, and one symbol for each sound,” but it aims at being fairly consistent with itself, not too difficult to understand, not too much encumbered with diacritical signs, and not too startlingly different from the spellings of earlier times, especially from that of Lhuyd, whose system was constructed from living Cornish speakers.  The writer has arrived at his conclusions by a comparison of the various existing spellings with one another, with the traditional fragments collected and recorded by himself in 1875, with the modern pronunciation of Cornish names, with the changes which English has undergone in the mouths of the less educated of Cornishmen, and to some extent with Breton.  The author suggests that this form of spelling should be generally adopted by Cornish students of their old speech.  The system cannot in the nature of things be strictly accurate, but it is near enough for practical purposes.  Possibly there is much room for controversy, especially as to such details as the distribution of long and short vowels, the representation of the Middle Cornish uueeu sometimes by î, sometimes by ê, and sometimes by eu or ew, or of the Middle Cornish y by ie, or y, or occasionally by an obscure ăŏ, or ŭ, and it is quite likely that others might arrive at different conclusions from the same evidence, though those conclusions might not be any the nearer to the sounds which the Cornishmen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries really did make.  As for grammatical forms, it will be seen that the writer is of opinion that the difference between Middle and Modern Cornish was more apparent than real, and that except in the very latest period of all, when the language survived only in the mouths of the least educated persons, the so-called “corruptions” were to a great extent due to differences of spelling, to a want of appreciation of almost inaudible final consonants, and to an intensification of phonetic tendencies existing in germ at a much earlier period.  Thus it is that inflections which in the late Cornish often seem to have been almost, if not quite, inaudible, have been written in full, for that is the author’s notion, founded on what Middle Cornishmen actually did write, of what Modern Cornishmen were trying to express.  For most things he has precedents, though he has allowed himself a certain amount of conjecture at times, and in most cases of difficulty he has trusted, as he would advise his readers to do, to Breton rather than to Welsh, for the living Breton of to-day is the nearest thing to Cornish that exists.

Why should Cornishmen learn Cornish?  There is no money in it, it serves no practical purpose, and the literature is scanty and of no great originality or value.  The question is a fair one, the answer is simple.  Because they are Cornishmen.  At the present day Cornwall, but for a few survivals of Duchy jurisdictions, is legally and practically a county of England, with a County Council, a County Police, and a Lord-Lieutenant all complete, as if it were no better than a mere Essex or Herts.  But every Cornishman knows well enough, proud as he may be of belonging to the British Empire, that he is no more an Englishman than a Caithness man is, that he has as much right to a separate local patriotism to his little Motherland, which rightly understood is no bar, but rather an advantage to the greater British patriotism,  as has a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, or even a Colonial; and that he is as much a Celt and as little of an “Anglo-Saxon” as any Gael, Cymro, Manxman, or Breton.  Language is less than ever a final test of race.  Most Cornishmen habitually speak English, and few, very few, could hold five minutes’ conversation in the old Celtic speech.  Yet the memory of it lingers on, and no one can talk about the country itself, and mention the places in it, without using a wealth of true Cornish words.  But a similar thing may be said of a very large proportion of Welshmen, Highlanders, Irishmen, Manxmen, and Bretons.”

 

Well, as far as I know, I am not Cornish, but there might be some traceable ancestry. After all, I do have some British roots…and then there are those who want to understand the Celtic Languages as whole to a higher degree, especially since Welsh and Breton are related to Cornish very closely (although they are not mutually intelligible).

An attraction to a language is not something to be logically explained. End of discussion.

I’m going to write yet another blog post at some point about the vocabulary, grammar, and the sounds of Cornish, but I wanted to use this in order to get some questions answered.

 

And here’s one article from the BBC that contains the following gem, to sum things up:

 

“Contemporary written Cornish is also continuing to develop in quantity and quality. There have been a number of literary publications which have developed the essay, the short story and poetry in Cornish. More recently novels have been produced, along with an increasing amount of children’s publications. In terms of output and publications per head of language users this may constitute a record even higher than Icelandic. Texts from medieval times, especially drama, have also been revived in modern performances, allowing plays enjoyed centuries ago to find new contemporary audiences.”

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/multilingual/cornish.shtml

 

I have 11 days to become fluent in Cornish. Can I do it?

“I Read an Article That Said…”

Too often do I encounter people who bring to me scientific “proofs” that it is impossible to learn a language beyond a certain age / impossible to learn X amount of languages / impossible to get a native-like accent beyond a certain age.

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This frustrates me to no end, because these studies only act to discourage people from even trying. And even when people  do try, if these studies are taken seriously by people, then the learners will be holding themselves back, and severely so.

A few days ago I was told by someone that it was impossible for the brain to learn more than nine languages. The fact is that there are people with human brains who can process 9+ languages, and I have seen and heard it happen (with people other than myself, obviously), so obviously such an idea holds no weight because demonstrable phenomena in the real world disprove it.

In both my other blog and this one, I find myself in constant struggle with forces from mass media that serve no other purpose aside to shut doors on people’s dreams.

I myself had thought that I would never be a true polyglot because I believed those studies at one point. Now I don’t believe them and neither should you.

Among people who have spent time in countries other than the United States, the idea that learning a language is impossible beyond a certain age is just simply not believed. All who are reading this (or have the ability to read this) should take a similar stance.

Among scientific literature journals, there are lots of opinions to be found that can prove almost anything. Earlier this year I found a quote from a Norwegian linguist that said that Greenlandic was the world’s hardest language (on account of the dizzying amount of suffixes, or so he says).

Actually having studied Greenlandic, I find many words in the language to make more sense than equivalents in a Germanic language like English or Danish, and this is precisely because of the suffix system that was derided as being “impossible” in the study.

What am I trying to say here?

There will be some teachers that will open doors for you, and there will be others that will close doors for you.

Too often in the United States do I see that doors are being closed for language learners.

My job is to open them to you.

Will you come in?

Where in the World are the Faroe Islands?

Upon mentioning anything about the Faroese Language, I always expect to get asked, “where is that spoken?” Upon mentioning the Faroe Islands, I expect to get asked, “where are they?”

My go-to answer, before we go any further: a group of 18 islands (17 of which have people living on them), which are located roughly between the North of Scotland and Iceland. They have their own postage stamps and are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark but are self-governing and have their own language (Faroese) although knowledge of Danish is also common there (as is knowledge of English in some circles).

Here they are:

føroyar

Most people in the United States (and a good deal of folk elsewhere) that I have spoken to have absolutely no idea where they are. This is why I thought I would write this post in my own words and develop my own introduction to the culture and image of the Faroe Islands, and why such things became a hobby of mine.

Disclaimer: as of the time of writing, I have not visited the Faroe Islands, although one day I definitely hope to.

Wherever you are on the islands, you are no further than five kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean.

I will use this point to drive into the various images that the Faroe Islands has when abroad. One of these is sports.

There are about 47,000 people who live on the Faroe Islands, even though there are more people than these who have knowledge of Faroese (mostly in Denmark).

The Faroe Islands have a football (soccer?) team that is internationally recognized and, as such, represents the country at large-scale events like the World Cup and the Euro Tournament. Given their relative size to many of the other countries of Europe, you can imagine the sort of things that are said both by the Faroese and their opponents whenever the Faroese National Team wins a game.

One of my friends in Germany told me that the Faroese National Team is not composed of professional players, but rather people from other professions that choose to undertake the sport as a hobby. Not only that, but soccer balls are weighted to avoid the likelihood that they will be kicked into the Atlantic Ocean.

Another thing that the Faroe Islands is stereotypically known for is rainy weather, and a guidebook I read yesterday in the Columbia Bookstore advised that visiting the Faroe Islands at any other time than summer was ill-advised unless you are a “meditative” type.

Because the islands themselves are not suitable for farmland, although are suitable for grazing sheep, the traditional food of the Faroe Islands has been consistent largely of sheep, birds, pilot whale meat, rhubarbs, and other slight fauna capable of growing in such an area. (Side note: the coat of arms of the Faroe Islands actually depicts a sheep).

baa

When I bring up the whale thing, I usually get asked in disbelief…

“They…eat…WHALES?!!?”

Which brings up to another popular image of Faroese Culture, the Grindadráp, or the hunting of pilot whales, which is what the Islands are best known for in some circles. (Do not put that word into Google Images unless you have a strong stomach! You have been warned…I’m serious!)

For those of you who would prefer a less graphic introduction to this side of the culture, I redirect you to this cartoon, courtesy of Scandinavia and the World.

I’m glad we are away from that topic.

The islands are also known for being quite heavily Christian, with many Faroese language textbooks teaching the primary source text about how Saint Ólav converted the Faroe Islands to Christendom. The national holiday of the Faroe Islands themselves is Ólavsøka, a two-day National Holiday (July 28th and 29th) named in his honor. There is also a beer associated with this festival as well.

Everything on the islands is closed on these days. I remember one time I brought this up in a conversation, and I was asked, “how many things are there that would be closed? Three stores and one church?”

On a side note, the Lonely Planet guide mentioned something about homosexuality being legal on the islands but that discriminating against them isn’t against the law. Moving on…

Lastly, before I go into the language and some of the history, I should mention the fact that the Faroe Islands, in circles where they are known, are renowned for a noteworthy beauty worthy of a fairy-tale land and untouched by hordes of tourists. (I’m certain that the fact that it rains very often in the Faroe Islands could very well be a cause!)

Now, I have already written a bit on the Faroese Language here. As an introduction for those of you who might not click on it: Faroese is related to Icelandic but is quite distant in terms of its pronunciation and is not mutually intelligible (except sometimes on paper).

The grammar is of noteworthy difficulty and the pronunciation takes time getting used to. If you know another Germanic Language (especially a Scandinavian one), then Faroese will become a lot easier to come to grips with and the secrets of pronunciation of the other Scandinavian Languages won’t be secret anymore (the “g” before front vowels in Faroese [e.g. “I” or “E”] is pronounced like an English “j”, and in Swedish it is pronounced as an English y but with a hint of the Faroese “g”. This is just one example).

And this is the flag:

foroyar

It was recognized by Winston Churchill during World War II (he was the first to recognize the flag internationally) as a result of Denmark falling to Nazi Germany and the Faroe Islands (along with Greenland and Iceland) being occupied by Allied soldiers. Flying the Danish flag wasn’t acceptable any longer and so the “Merkið” (as this flag is called) became the substitute and stuck until the day. April 25 (note: Denmark fell to Nazi Germany on the 9th) is thereby “Faroese Flag Day”.

The Faroe Islands also has a broadcasting service that is only in Faroese, and you can see it here.

And allow me to sate the likes of you with some music. It may remind you of some Scottish music and points, and I am reminded of what TV Tropes said about the genetic makeup of those who inhabit the islands: the majority of the female genes are Scottish and the majority of the male genes are Norse. Draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, are you going to close the page or are you going to treat yourself to beautiful songs you’ve probably never heard before?

Here you are:

Vit síggjast!(See ya!)

 OH…I will announce the new language in the next post! It has fewer native speakers than any other native language I have studied to date. This is your clue.

To Continue or Not to Continue?

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The end of the semester is upon me and many other students in the U.S.

I look back at the past year and I see the projects that I started, the languages that I forgot as well as those which I fortified.

Earlier this year I thought that I would be learning Romansh (a minority language in Switzerland) and while I did make progress I found myself disenchanted and chasing other things.

On the other hand, my growing obsession with the Greenlandic is something that really caused me to think about what makes me continue a project, as opposed to starving it.

This needs to be said: I am still frustrated by the fact that I don’t consider myself fluent in Greenlandic yet, despite listening to the music and the news every day, and speaking exercises (especially for people who want to hear what the language sounds like).

Back when I was in college, I had an obsession with Slavic Languages (although I still believed the lie that fluency wouldn’t be possible to achieve an adult, a falsehood that deserves to “go its way” for good [to use a Norwegian idiom]).

However, in the past few years my Russian has been turned on / off, but remains very weak, and I seem to have forgotten almost everything in Polish (which I never knew to a good conversational degree anyway, despite having lived in the country).

I remember one vivid incident from someone’s birthday party (in Germany) in which I tried to speak Russian with someone who proceeded to tell me that “you do not speak language of empire! You speak language of empire with Polish mistake!

That was probably the least provocative thing I heard that evening…from him, at least.

When people ask me why I forgot pretty much all of the Russian that I knew, I usually point to this incident. (Thanks to a few encouraging people, I have managed to dredge a bit of what I have, but it is a far cry from any sort of fluency…you know who you are. Большое спасибо!).

I remember a number of times in the past year when I walked away from an interaction saying, “That’s it! I’m going to give up (Language x) forever!

However, looking back, I realize that it takes a long time to seriously forget a language almost completely (and forgetting a language completely is impossible!)

Looking more realistically at the situation, it seems that the main reason that I forget languages is merely because I want to devote time to other ones.

It isn’t really that I lose interest in the language or culture, but rather than another language or culture waltzes in, enchants me, and demands more and more of my time.

But what exactly is this “enchanting me” thing about?

Rarely if ever is it about the actual sound of the language (I consider Norwegian to be one noteworthy exception in this regard).

If a language enchants me enough to demand more and more of my time, it is usually for the following reasons:

  • Positive reinforcement from peers. I get asked lots of questions about Greenland and Greenlandic by virtually everyone. People of all ages are very intrigued by my interest in the language and culture and want to know how exactly I got into it. I associate this knowledge with very positive feelings and a sense of belonging, probably more than knowledge of any other language.

 

  • Media. What really gets me hooked on a certain language project after I learn a bit of it is the music, the news, the revival efforts, the podcasts. If I find shows and songs that I really, really like, this also acts as positive reinforcement. At some point the language ceases to be about vocabulary lists and exists in your mind only as an incarnation of materials for native speakers. Those materials, as well as people to whom you speak, are the real reason that I or anyone else undertakes these projects to begin with.

 

  • Cultural Mentality. This is definitely difficult to explain. It is puzzling to understand why a certain sense of humor or body language associated with various cultures would appeal to you, but with the language comes that side to yourself that is created, and supplants itself in your identity sphere, most markedly in your dealings in your native language. Among all language learners I have seen that the languages that they commit themselves to are carried with a desire to be initiated into the cultural mentalities of their respective cultures.

 

You may not be able to get a foreign passport with ease from any country, but this is just as good, and while it may take a lot of work it is a lot easier than many of you may believe it to be.

 

And now for something exciting…

 

It seems that some languages of mine are on their way out, but I have been enchanted by a new language that I will begin to study and continue to study over the break.

 

I bet that none of you will possibly guess what it is…

 

Post on it soon!