10 Lessons I Learned from Language Immersion in Greenland for a Week

Two Languages (three if you count English which I used at time). One city. A lot of ice and friendly people. Was it a success? MOST DEFINITELY!

I’ve been studying Greenland on-and-off since 2013 when I first encountered that Lonely Planet book that described the Greenlandic Language as “the result of a small child banging on a typewriter”.

Cupid’s arrow to the heart. Photographed the entire language section of that guidebook, page by page. Put the words into Memrise. I thereby made the site’s first Greenlandic course which ultimately ended up in the language  being included in the OFFICIAL LISTING OF LANGUAGES IN THE APP!

Then there’s Danish, which I’ve been studying / speaking since 2013 as well. Frightened to speak it fearing judgmental native speakers until I encountered some people who spoke it in 2014 (native Danish speakers as well as L2 speakers from Germany). Then I realized there was nothing to be scared of.

Greenlandic: Weak although impressive on some level. Certainly a lot better than my Burmese was earlier this year (although I think my Burmese is SLIGHTLY better than my Greenlandic now, truth be told). I managed some tasks impressively, some with difficulty, and I have absolutely no ability to speak in Greenlandic about deeply serious or philosophical topics (but ONE DAY!)

Danish: Conversationally fluent to professionally fluent, depending on my mood and who I’m talking to. There is one thing, however. Sometimes I still feel frightened and judged when I try to speak certain languages with strangers. This results in “cymbals banging in my head” which can significantly deter my ability to think of vocabulary at the right moment. But surprisingly, I’ve IMPROVED as a result of being here.

So how did I do? For one, I managed almost ALL of my business that could be done in Danish or Greenlandic in those two languages. In conversations with friends I think I managed a good balance between Greenland, Danish, and English (hey, it’s fair that I share my native language with them, too!) Especially in the second half with Danish, I expressed myself without any issue and had absolutely no glaring issues with being answered in English after the second day!

Above all, GREAT SUCCESS! I also learned a lot of words as well and gained insight into the dynamics of bilingual societies (this is the first time I’m doing immersion in a place with TWO local languages, although no doubt Danish is significantly less prominent in more rural areas of Greenland outside of the major cities)

Yes, I know I was on a break, but I thought it would be important for me to write at least SOMETHING because I’m here in Greenland for the first time:

 

  • In a multilingual place, expect rapid changes in switching languages at times.

 

This was fun. I’ve heard of people going to places like Montreal or South Africa or other places where multiple languages are used between people and in the public sphere. I wasn’t sure what sort of dynamic to expect, but interestingly I found that the dynamic between many Greenlanders involved hopping between languages in conversations sometimes (this might be especially evident as far as families that may have different first languages among them). My host family used Greenlandic, Danish and English with me, sometimes switching throughout the conversation, and sometimes I even overheard some people doing the same. Granted, with probably about the same frequency you’ll encounter people sticking to one language at a time.

 

There are SO many dynamics to be taken into account with this that it probably would take more than a week to fully investigate and delve into them.

 

  • Don’t take being spoken to in English personally, especially if it occurs at a time in which the person who you are speaking to is aware that you are from an English-speaking country.

Imagine this: you hear that somebody is from a place where your L2 or L3 or L28 is spoken. Great success! So you begin speaking in the language of that place, believing that, in so doing, you will demonstrate cultural appreciation and a willingness to show that, on some level, you care about where they came from.

 

That’s how some of the people who “answer in English” may be thinking!

 

I’ve noticed that usually a shift to English tended to occur in Greenland not so much when I messed up (usually I just rebounded and continued in the target language, especially with Danish) but rather when (1) somehow they found out I was from the U.S. (either I told them or something on my personal information made it clear, etc) or (2) they were aware of the fact that I was American beforehand (even if I had communication with them in other languages in the past. Note: my written Greenlandic is tremendously weak, although I’m hoping that predictive text and better learning methods will help me in the future).

 

In the other Nordic countries, conversations are being had about the threat that English is posing to their language. In Iceland this is particularly strong (I feel). In Greenland, it is my understanding that this conversation isn’t even had as far as English is concerned (I think a lot of the debates center on Greenlandic vs. Danish). Danish was (and is) 1000x easier to learn and to maintain than Greenlandic is (and this is more to do with political power of these two languages than anything else). But given that I was willing to learn and converse in BOTH, it actually sent a message to people that I really, REALLY cared about Greenland, its people and its culture (learning one language for a trip is cool, but two?)

 

I can imagine that a lot of Greenlanders want to feel global and globally connected. To that end, I am willing to use English with them to some degree, as long as I can use the other local languages as well. I used English at times, but never to the degree that it became a detriment to my “language learning mission”. (In Iceland, I strove / will strive to avoid English as much as I can).

 

What’s more, there are some immigrants to Greenland (Yes, they exist!) who speak neither Greenlandic nor Danish, and I sometimes encountered these folks behind service counters. In one Thai restaurant in Nuuk I even saw the menu in Danish that was coded with number-and-letter combinations, possibly to get over any language barrier than may be involved.

 

  • If you’re headed to a multilingual place (that is to say, a place with more than one LOCAL language. Nuuk qualifies [with Greenlandic and Danish] and while Reykjavik does have many English-speaking denizens, Icelandic is the ONLY local language there), get advice beforehand (or as soon as you can) about what sort of languages you should use in which spaces.

 

Also if you can determine what language a certain waiter or celebrity or person you’re meeting speaks, use that to your advantage as well.

 

On the way from the airport I was told that it was wisest for me to usually use Danish while buying things (which I did). But obviously using Danish was not 100% suitable (or even 50% suitable) for EVERY SINGLE SITUATION that I encountered in Nuuk. Simply put, there were situations in which knowledge of Danish wasn’t essential in the slightest, and Greenlandic was.

 

Again, among people who speak both, you are welcome to use both, especially in casual conversation. I would gather the same would hold for any other bilingual area.

 

  • Don’t Overthink Your Mistakes (or Anything Else)

 

No, just because you messed up that one word doesn’t mean you’re a failure. No, just because somebody began speaking English to you that one time doesn’t mean you’re a failure either (this happened once or twice to me by the way). And for the love of everything that is holy, don’t belittle your accomplishments!

 

Especially if you’ve come from a family of over-achievers and perfectionists (a bit like mine used to be), you may hold yourself to a standard that is way too high. Don’t expect yourself to be an angel. Believe me, even the best of polyglots out there aren’t angels either, even if it may seem like that in their videos. I sure know I ain’t!

 

  • If you’re starting to feel doubt, think about how far you’ve come and how FEW people have attempted what you’re doing.

 

Surrounded by native speakers of languages that I spoke to varying degrees made me self-conscious at times. My perfectionism (which exists in my heart even though my brain knows it should be gone) also did not help. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be taken as a “serious” polyglot by masses of people on the Internet, or even if I really DESERVED to present at any polyglot conference at all.

 

And this is DESPITE the fact that I manage MOST of my interactions during this trip without ANY English. (Even though I did use English because, again, I don’t want to be greedy. I understand that people see me as a resource in a country where non-Danish foreigners weren’t even allowed to visit until 1953 [!!!])

 

I also took for granted the fact that I could read all of the signs, all of the menus, all of the everything (in Danish – note that the vast majority of these things in Nuuk are actually bilingual Greenlandic / Danish).

 

  • If the language you’re speaking is threatened or perceived as threatened, you have advantages with its speakers (and getting help from them) on many, MANY levels

 

Greenlandic-speakers see their language as vulnerable, and UNESCO agrees with them. Against the mini-giant that is Danish and the ultra-global-giant that is English, it seems that Greenlandic sees itself stuck in a magnificent clash of outsider cultures (well…these two cultures…).

 

When I began speaking to Greenlandic speakers in places like pubs and restaurants and my host family, I got every single possible variety of positive reaction and tons of continued encouragement. Greenlandic speakers are probably among the most helpful native speakers I’ve encountered for any language ANYWHERE!

 

I got business contacts, high fives, hugs, compliments, in-depth conversations and plenty, PLENTY more. And this is with my manageable-in-tourist-situations-mostly Greenlandic.

 

The only languages I remember getting this sort of red carpet treatment for were (1) Icelandic, (2) Hungarian and (3) Polish (and even [3] was very selective. Some people reacted with utter joy and others were a tad confused. I should say that Poland is a FANTASTIC environment for language immersion with JUST the right amount of English usage vs. usage of the local language that is helpful for whatever you’re doing!)

 

  • Don’t assume other people are judging you (or will judge you) for speaking their language.

 

Greenlandic people usually don’t show their emotion at all—EVEN in comparison to other Nordic countries. As an American, I found this extremely jarring and almost strange. Anyone who knows American culture even on a surface level knows how “obsessed with feelings” we are.

 

Sometimes I was tempted to think that people were displeased with me, and then I remembered that the cultural mentality is extremely different in comparison to the United States.

 

And one person went so far as to even tell me that the idea that “speaking Danish -> Greenlanders will judge you as a bit of a colonial invader” wasn’t actually that true at all.

 

Point is, a lot of people “not being nice to you” or “not liking you” may actually be…imagined…

 

On the other side, in the United States we have the reverse problem, being too kind to people with whom we do not really want to interact with. And I think, to a degree, that’s significantly more dangerous. But onto the next point…

 

  • Pubs and gatherings are great places to help you with language learning. Keep in mind that they serve different ends.

 

Pubs -> great for finding people that will help you with individual words or gaps in your vocabulary. You may encounter some people who may be very carefree due to alcohol and they’ll (1) be forgiving of your mistakes and (2) compliment you way too much. If you’re a beginner and you feel up to it, I would make evenings like this a priority.

 

After all, I think the Polyglot Bar and Mundo Lingo also really helped me especially with French which I learned almost ENTIRELY through this method! (even though sometimes I fear that I speak it not quite as well as I would like and it is NOWHERE near my strongest language and sometimes I’m definitely not fluent!)

 

Gatherings -> great for having serious conversations and also rehearsing new vocabulary that you may have memorized in response to the theme of the event. It’s also a true measure to see how spontaneous you really can be and you’ll encounter speakers of many languages at larger gatherings. Great for advanced learners especially who want to go from good or very good to divinely invincible.

 

  • Over time, you’ll grow into a persona with a language you’re proficient or fluent in

 

Imitate the people. Note what they do. Learn to behave a little more like them. Pretend you are them. You’ll be able to grow into fluency a lot more readily with a language in which you have a persona. How does your native-language self compare to the sort of people you see around you? Note the differences and act on them. This may actually happen naturally as a result of being around people.

I had someone tell me that over the course of the week I was looking “progressively more like an Inuit”. Make of that whatever you will!

 

  • Your goal isn’t to be mistaken for a local. Your goal is to communicate.

 

Okay, maybe you DO want to be mistaken for a local, but obviously if you haven’t visited the country or if you haven’t developed deep in-person friendships with people there, there will probably be something in your body language or in the way you speak that will give it away.

 

I look vaguely Asiatic (probably my Jewish background) and I look vaguely Nordic (probably my Swedish-American background) but I don’t really look like I’m Inuk in the slightest. I don’t dress like Greenlanders do (and I was told this to my face, Greenlandic people really liked my fashion style and said that I looked like a “super-manly American cowboy”. No joke!)  I don’t look like a “typical Dane” either, regarding both my fashion and my physical appearance.

None of that mattered in the slightest because my pronunciation in both Greenlandic and Danish were good (so I’ve been told) and in the case of Danish I got all of what I wanted to say said almost all of the time (except when my nervousness got the better of me and in both cases it was when I was speaking to people whom I had seen on TV, concerts, etc.).

 

I think the one thing I need to work on is internal self-doubt and freezing up sometimes. I think that’s really preventing me from being at my best consistently using foreign languages. And I guess that’s probably gonna be part of my New Year’s Resolution for 2018 (COMING SO SOON?!!?)

Greetings from Nuuk,Greenland!

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