New Languages Challenge!

ay yay yay

Before 2014 is up, I intend to undertake serious study of two languages, one of which is popularly studied and the other of which very much is not:
(1) They are both the official languages of one nation each
(2) The nations they are affiliated with share the same colors in their flags
(3) The nations begin with the same letter in most European Languages spelled with the Latin Alphabet
(4) One of the languages is endangered
(5) Take one of the countries’ languages and translate the other country into that language. One possible result of this word will sound like a word (not the nicest one) associated with that other country (and that word is in English).

Maintaining languages will be a hard business, and I intend to fall behind on those that may not be important to me when I undergo my next transformation in New York City. Right now I cannot say which ones they will be, simply because I do not know.
One reason why I took up studies of rare languages more seriously upon getting my acceptance letter to JTS is because I realize that New York is a very linguistically diverse area—one that will give me chances to practice languages that I cannot even in ultra-multinational Heidelberg.
I will announce my plans for the rest of July and August in another post, to come very soon.
For kicks, I’m throwing in another language as well, although I may not intend to learn it to fluency on the long term:
This language has been described by my current textbook as a mixture of French, Polish, and Chinese (as far as phonetics are concerned).
That’s your only clue.
So, what three languages are these? Have a guess!

The Power of the Filter

Yesterday I encountered a middle-aged couple at a grocery store. At first I couldn’t make out what language they were speaking. I thought that it was Dutch at first, entertained the idea that it could be Frisian, then possibly even Scots English, until I made out the words to be…the standard English language that I had learned for almost all of my life.
Whenever I watch television or listen to the radio in Danish, I have to be careful if I go outside if I’m in a German-speaking area. The two languages sound very similar in their accents at times (although definitely not the same), and it makes my personal language filter very uncomfortable.
Even stranger: when I find myself studying one of my very rare languages (let’s take Northern Sami), and then I go outside on the street, sometimes I hear a language and I process it as though it were Northern Sami. Then I think to myself, “there’s no way they could have been speaking that…”
I know I’m not the only one who sees the usage of multiple languages like an automobile’s gearbox. Sometimes it can be easy to switch from one filter to another, but sometimes it takes time, or maybe even a few seconds to adjust. This can happen even when the language being switched to is one’s native language.
This is particularly frightening between languages which sound very similar (in my current collection, the combination of German and Danish are the worst offenders, although at other times in my life it seemed that some types of Iberian Spanish and of Modern Greek resembled one another in terms of phonemes and rhythms, and Estonian and Finnish sound almost the same to an untrained ear…or sometimes even exactly the same…)
But back when I was adjusting to multilingual life, I would be harsh on myself for not switching my filter at will. Then I found out that I was very far from the only one—and I think that it is particularly the case with those who have studied a lot of languages.
The filter exists not only with hearing, but also with speaking as well. Usually I need to collect my thoughts and pause for a second or two before I switch. Interestingly I find that the need for this little moment almost disappears when I am speaking very closely related languages and switch between them (Norwegian/Danish or German/Yiddish). But switching from English into Finnish requires a brief moment of “mental gymnastics”.
I don’t really know what else there is to be said on the matter. Sometimes the filter adjustment period can be very easily truncated, and it also depends on what languages you’ve been practicing or using. The most important thing, however, is to not to be discouraged if you take just a few moments in order to change your linguistic gearbox. In fact, if anything, it may be a sign of a busy and active mind!

Rhythm, Vocabulary, Music, and a Song in Estonian

Yesterday evening and this morning I was browsing through my musical collection in order to ease telltale signs of slight infirmity (thankfully I’m a lot better now…)
A certain gem of my collection was the following song (although possibly not everyone will call it a song):

The song, which is in Estonian—although I can’t possibly classify it as either sung, chanted, screamed, or spoken—almost represented Estonia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013, “Meiecundimees üks Korsakov läks eile Lätti”, translates to “One Man of Ours from Korsakov went to Latvia Yesterday”

The lyrics are probably about as deranged and eccentric as the costumes you may see, and deals with the man in question having his bones broken one after another. I was reminded by Daniil Kharms’ stories which I first savored as a sophomore in college.

My family members didn’t particularly like the song and I imagine that many of you won’t be enthused by it either. BUT this post isn’t about this song, it is about a revelation I had about vocabulary learning, which is partially indebted to this demented but possibly brilliant…yes, I will say it…masterpiece.

The rhythm of the lyrics managed to induce a certain catchiness, despite the fact that the lyrics weren’t particularly sung nor was the melody anything of particular note. Perhaps it was some variety of modernistic ritual chant…

It was very easy for me to memorize the long title of the song, largely as a result of the fact that it was repeated in the song very often but also as a result of the primal rhythm which somewhat resembles a very excited heartbeat.

Later on that day I found myself looking at my Greenlandic phrasebook before going to bed. Awfully long words, I thought, how am I going to memorize everything in this book…
…and then it came to me…

…what if I used that rhythm from “Meiecundimees”, or a similar-sounding one, in order to commit these words to memory?

“Naalagaaffeqatigiit”…the Greenlandic word for the “United States of America”, a very important word for me to remember…so how did I memorize it?

Upon chanting it several times, I’ve noticed that it stuck, very much like the longer song title did.

Afterwards, I tried it with a number of other words as well, but I didn’t want to “stuff” my memory too badly before the night was up.

With most Indo-European Languages, I could manage to make out cognates and remember them that way. This was even true when I found myself committing Northern Sami vocabulary to memory (I could just search for cognates between the Scandinavian Languages or Finnish).

The only way I could do that with Greenlandic is with the modern words that came from Danish. “Beta Versioni” doesn’t strike me as too hard to remember. But for most of the words with Inuit origins? No way…

…and that is how music became necessary.

I imagine that many of you would seek to study more commonly studied European languages, and in that case you may already have methods of memory that involve tying them to languages you already know.

Chinese and Japanese with their systems of characters call for another set of memory methods altogether, but the fact is that with Greenlandic I found myself alone, without too many colorful resources or speaking partners.

So when all else fails when you need to remember something, or are just seeking to learn new words…remember my lesson…

…and face the music…