Speaking Greenlandic as a Foreign Language in Greenland: What Was It Like?

Scene: Reykjavik.

It was more than four years since I first discovered the Greenlandic language at a library in rural Connecticut in April 2013.

October 18, 2017 marked the first time that I heard Greenlandic spoken in person. Oddly, it was actually not the first time using Greenlandic with a real person (that was December 5th, 2016, the day before my interview with KNR [the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation] but it was a mix of Greenlandic and English and it was on the phone. I used English in that interview, with an interpreter with KNR who did an EXCELLENT job, but I also made sure to use some Greenlandic in the interview as well.)

We boarded the plane that was headed to Nuuk and I was excited but also weighed down by travel and, yes, the nagging thought that I was gonna SCREW EVERYTHING UP (I did end up accidentally responding to a Danish-speaking captain in English at one point, but with each year I realize how I shouldn’t take minor-slip ups personally. Looking back at the whole trip, my usage of Greenlandic and Danish was a huge success, despite the fact that I wasn’t fluent in Greenlandic at the time).

Here are some stories to illustrate what sort of reception I got:

  • The Captain asked in English what sort of nationalities were represented on the plane. I said, in Greenlandic, “Hello everyone, I’m American” and I got treated to a planeful of “wow” ‘s and even some applause. Whether that was the fact that Americans are a rarity in Greenland or because I was using Greenlandic as a foreigner is anyone’s guess.

 

  • I stayed with a host family in Nuuk. The mom knew I was coming from the USA so she addressed me in English and in the middle of the journey I suddenly switched to Danish without warning and then Greenlandic (she was very impressed with both, so I recall). She told me that I spoke Greenlandic better than almost all of the foreigners that live there (!!!) I asked her what language I should use to order things in. I was told to use Danish or English most of the time while in Nuuk, Greenlandic in smaller settlements.

 

  • In moving in, there was the daughter present and when I began using some Greenlandic I got a dumbfounded blank stare as though I had revealed myself to be a divine being. She pretty much asked me why on earth I would do it. I explained that I liked Greenlandic music and then showed my Reise Know How book that had helped me throughout my Greenlandic Language journey.

 

  • Sometimes I messed up with Greenlandic with my host family, in which case people would usually switch to Danish with me. People also wanted to use some English with me sometimes. Which was okay. I’ve learned to not take it personally as long as I’m not the one that uses English to the detriment of showing respect to the culture or “expecting people to know my language”.

 

  • When I met some of my celebrity idols at Katuaq, I used Danish and English and I made an effort to use some Greenlandic but for some reason it wasn’t ideal at the time. I had the opportunity to meet the well-known Greenlandic actor Qillannguaq Berthelsen and he told me that I pronounced his name very well. I was so curious to hear what name he goes by with people who can’t pronounce “Qillannguaq” and he told me he goes by “Q” with such people. When I met Marc’s family I was capable of understanding a lot of what was said between them but I made sure that I got the chance to use some Greenlandic with him and his family while he and his friends got the chance to use some English with me. However, I did have some significant troubles understanding Greenlandic without the subtitles when I saw the movie. I really liked the movie, it was one of the funniest I have EVER seen and fantastically put together, by the way.

 

  • In meeting Nanook (one of Greenland’s best-known musical acts), Frederik (one of the lead singers) told me that I spoke Greenlandic well, Christian (the other lead singer of Nanook) said that he was “amazed” with my linguistic abilities (do you understand what it is to me to meet one of my your favorite musicians and the first words he says to you is “I remember you!” Oh, I didn’t mention that I had chat exchanges with both of them prior to visiting the Atlantic Music Shop in Greenland. I got Nanook albums and gear and wore a Nanook T-Shirt during my Polyglot Conference Presentation, exactly as I told Nanook that I would). With the two of them I remember going back between Greenlandic, Danish and English. Everyone’s happy that way. J

 

  • For buying museum tickets I used exclusively Danish although just in case I made sure to use some Greenlandic if I heard a staff member using it.

 

  • For asking directions I used Greenlandic and I only got one response in English (very heavily accented English from a new couple that had just moved to Nuuk). I got lost in Nuuk during my first hour (I went to Nuuk Center to get food and I couldn’t find my way back to my host family. It was then that I saw the Northern Lights for the first time. )

 

  • The bar. Oh wow. I got SO many positive responses that it was unbelievable. People telling me that my accent was amazing and that I was super-talented and that they had “heard about the guy who learned Greenlandic in a week” (that wasn’t Daniel Tammet, who I met a matter of days afterwards in Reykjavik, but Paul Barbato, who went on to become the host of the super-successful “Geography Now” YouTube channel. His Greenlandic video, how I ended up discovering him, was openly teleprompted with audio provided from a native speaker, if I recall correctly. Nothing wrong with that!). It was in pubs like these that I had a lot of opportunity to practice and I got nothing short of a red-carpet treatment. Imagine speaking your target language and getting, in response, a very enthusiastic “QAA! QAA! QAA!!!!!” (WOW! WOW! WOW!!!!!) I’ll never forget those sort of reactions. Ever.

 

  • With taxi drivers I used some Greenlandic as well, and part of me remembers getting discounted on account of it. Not also to mention my language skills getting me free rides and other fun stuff. One taxi driver was perplexed why this American kid recognized almost every Greenlandic song that came on the radio. I can’t even do that in the UNITED STATES!

 

 

 

Granted, my nervousness sometimes held me back and it wasn’t absolutely perfect all of the time. But I did make gains and hopefully I’ll learn to teach myself how to not hold back and not have self-doubt in the future. That’s what 2018 is for, right? And 2019. And 2020. And the rest of my life. And your life for yourself!

What were YOUR immersion experiences like, especially with languages that most people don’t study? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. I also completed the “30 Days of Greenlandic” challenge earlier today (I rushed it because of a surprise video I’m making!). I’ll post the compilation of recordings as my last video in 2017!

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