Polyglot Report Card, for September 2014 (Part 2)

The First Part of this report card is here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/polyglot-report-card-for-september-2014-part-1/

Next up is a language with two flavors, Portuguese.

as armas

brasil

I cannot lie, I really like European Portuguese and I am quite passionate about it (although not as passionate as I am about many other languages).

In fact, I say this with a hint of guilt, I like it a LOT more than I do Brazilian Portuguese, despite the fact that it could be said (as a friend of mine has) that “European Portuguese isn’t a separate language. It’s only a really annoying accent”.

In any case, I’m not really where I want to be with either of them (except for when it comes for understanding Brazilian Portuguese, thanks a lot to Duolingo…)

I may be tempted to “throw television at the problem” in order to make it go away, especially for European Portuguese which is less commonly studied. At present I’ve been watching something in EU Portuguese on average of once every week, as opposed to my Duolingo studies in “Brasileiro”, which I try to make daily.

My plan:

Brazil: Complete the Duolingo tree (and the end is within sight). The problem: sometimes it really feels like a chore for me and my hand hurts from typing. The three-heart system can also be particularly stressful—probably the most stressful “game-like” experience I’ve had is with Duolingo.

Portugal: Once I complete the tree, I’ll use Portuguese media to measure my progress. That will be another diagnosis, but if European Portuguese really isn’t much more than a “really annoying accent”, then this spells wonderful things for me, despite of some cries of “two separate languages”.

The pronunciation of both is definitely not a problem for me anymore. Not only that, but I can switch between them with minimal effort. I couldn’t do this when the year began.

medinat yisrael

I really got lazy with Modern Hebrew and it really is all my fault. I got lazy with Spanish as well. Given how these were the languages which I had plugged the most time into earlier in my life (because of school), I really felt that, on some level, I had been “force fed” them. Because of this, it is difficult for me to feel “passionate” about them, and sometimes my conversational ability can range from good to troublesomely bad, depending on how I feel.

How do I get that passion back?

ay yay yay

Well, for one, we’ll see what JTS’ Hebrew classes do to me in a few days. Hopefully I can put it together and get to convincing conversational ability between then and now. I can’t allow myself to become a victim of my “mood swings”.

As for Spanish, well, there are plenty of Latin American conversation partners, including one of my best friends who is Puerto Rican. Then there is also immersion, which I hadn’t used in high school because I was too naïve (nor did I really have the time for it back then, given the dreadful testing culture…)

The same way that I learned the Scandinavian Languages with a lot of media immersion, I have to realize that I must do the same with the Romance Languages. It may be boring at times because I feel like I understand everything (when what I want is ACTIVE control of the language), but if I want to maintain this language that’s what I have to do. Portuguese by itself and expecting Spanish to remain in place just by virtue of the connection isn’t going to work.

Worse off than Spanish is Dutch, and I came across the odd realization in Paris that I can understand Flemish accents more easily than I can those from the Netherlands (odd…they’re the same language, that’s what everyone tells me…)

 

vlaanderen

That “ui” sound is the least of my problems. My knowledge of Dutch grammar is rusty and I don’t think that my accent is at all that good. I’ve been using the immersion technique with Dutch for a while now but I think that I’ve hit a brick wall…

I can understand a good deal of television and even more of the written language. But what do I need to do for active control of the language that I can be proud of?

not orange quite surprising

I may need to turn to Memrise or even Duolingo’s Dutch course (even though my plate is very well full on both). Reading the Transparent Dutch blog certainly wouldn’t hurt, especially in regards to those past participles that I sometimes draw blanks on, not also to mention those odd situations which leave me wondering whether or not I should use German sentence structure in Dutch.

And last but not least, a new member of the almost conversational family, having graduated from the lower tier:

kalaallit nunaat

Words cannot describe how proud I am about the fact that I can talk about myself and my hobbies in what is probably my favorite language at the moment.

For those of you who have dealt with me personally over the course of the past few months, you may instantly know that I am talking about Greenlandic, an Inuit Language with Danish influence which has been described by many as notoriously difficult, possibly even the world’s hardest language. But I digress.

According to Per Långgard, the teacher probably best known for Greenlandic for Foreigners courses (in both the English- and the Danish-speaking words), there are very few foreigners who have full working proficiency in Greenlandic (according to my recollection, the amount of foreigners who have done so could fit into a small classroom!)

I’m nowhere near that level, I don’t know if I would commit my Greenlandic studies to that degree, but the fact is that I have a very good firm basis in the prefixes, the suffixes, basic verbs, and what makes the language different from all of the other languages that I have studied.

My weakness: the written language, and this may in part be due to the fact that Greenlandic isn’t supported by either Google Translate nor Facebook (although there is a Wikipedia in Greenlandic).

I can’t go around translating songs quite yet, but I can get the gist of every article and song or TV episode that I see with no help from Danish or English. Something for me to be proud of!

Also, if any of you know any Greenlandic Speakers in the New York Area, send ‘em my way.

 

This series ain’t over yet! Tune in later on for Part 3!

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.

Your Handy Guide to Never Being Answered in English during your European Travels…Ever Again!

Image

Skansen, Stockholm–taken by me, as with all photos on this blog except when otherwise noted.

The feeling of trying to speak the local language and being answered in English has given me more ego-crushing blows than almost anything else on my intellectual journey. I realized in retrospect that a lot of said ego-crushers can be very easily avoided!

And therefore this post is to ensure that you can realize what I did and ensure that you not go through this similar downtime. However, I cannot tell you that it is going to be super-easy…

The most important thing, above all else, is to be convincing. This means that you have to employ the following methods:

(1)    You must speak without hesitation. Using pauses is okay, but you must employ an air of confidence in your speech. Don’t feel like you are shaking upon the words coming out of your mouth. Possibly smile (if it makes you feel better) and deliver your request as firmly as you can, and if you are a tourist, you may want to set aside any anxieties you may have.

 

(2)    Which do you think is more likely to be more convincing:

 

“Excuse me, where is X?”

 

Or…

 

“I arrived to this city a few minutes ago and I think that I’m lost, I want to go to X, do you know where I could find it?”

 

Without question, the second answer (in any language) communicates a willingness to speak the language and not an “I flung open Google Translate for a few minutes on the train while the connection lasted” mentality.

 

Don’t prepare the genuine phrasebook material. Okay, use that as a starting point, but if you want to be answered in the local language you may need to use more complicated sentence structure.

 

Confidence by itself may be enough, and even when I was in Stockholm and still putting on my polygot shoes and getting them to fit, I usually wasn’t answered in English while ordering in Sweden as long as I firm enough. But in those rare cases in which being firm just won’t cut it, using complex sentences definitely will…and surprisingly, I don’t think that it is much work!

 

(3)    One thing that people may tell you that honestly doesn’t matter: even if you are easily identifiable as an English speaker, you can still pull yourself off as a local!

I’ve done this in Stockholm’s Systembolaget every time I was in the store. For those of you who don’t know what Systembolaget is, it is the state-owned alcohol store chain in Sweden—any alcohol higher than 5% may only be sold at one of these chain stores.

 

You need a passport or a valid ID in order to purchase something. I had one of two choices: either my American passport, or my Swedish Residence Card (both indicated that I was a foreigner)

 

Guess how many times I got answered in English after handing over the American passport while using a few words of Swedish? Zero! Even after I got the passport handed back to me!

 

I’m used to saying that there were only two countries that I visited in which I was regularly identified as a foreigner on sight: Israel and the Netherlands. But in these countries, as well as any other, this needs to be stressed: trying to use the local language will only bring you good results!

 

(Interestingly, while I have learned French as a child, I have forgotten it, nor have I visited Paris, although I have heard multiple accounts, from foreigners, of a certain degree of language chauvinism coming from French people. I should say that my French-speaking friends, whom I hold very dear, are supportive of my very slight attempts to mangle their language via oral repetition. I can’t comment on these things as of the time being, but when the time comes, I will definitely write a post on it…)

 

(4)    Another thing that may help is, if you have trouble grasping the local accent, use another accent that is very clearly not English.

 

Back when I was struggling with the German Language (and who doesn’t struggle with the German Language? Or with any other, for that matter…), until around March 2014, I put on a host of Scandinavian accents to disguise the fact that I was not German (I mostly used an Eastern Norwegian accent for this purpose). Interestingly, at times I heard that my accent sounded like that of a native!

 

I do not recommend using this tactic among your friends, however, who may insist that you speak in your normal voice. However, with servicepeople (waiters, flight attendants, etc.) their primary goal is making you feel at home, and they will address you in your language if they feel that will make you the most comfortable.

 

Speaking of flight attendants…

 

(5)    I used this tactic on many flights, especially with Finnair, Lufthansa, and KLM: when the flight attendants address you in English (they do that to everyone), address them in the local language instead. Even if you stutter, you’ll be convincing just by virtue of this. Just don’t mangle your speech too much.

 

During my flight to Helsinki, I used this to pass myself off as a native Finn instantly! Not a single one of the stewardesses spoke English to me during the whole flight, even though I didn’t particularly understand their quick chatter amongst themselves (note: not all Finns are reticent and super-quiet).

 

(6)    If you are with a person who doesn’t speak the local language, and you do (even not very well), it is very easy to convince servicepeople (and others) that you are the local who is guiding them around town. Use this to your advantage if you can.

 

(7)    The rarer your language is, the more likely it is to get others to speak your language with you when you are outside the country that the language is spoken.

 

I don’t think that I speak Dutch particularly well (yet…), but interestingly I felt it was easier for me to get Dutch people to talk a bit with me in their language when I was outside the Netherlands than when I was in it (…them?).

 

(Interestingly, I feel that with Flemings it was the reverse, I’ve been told that my accent indicates that I had learned the language in the Netherlands [I did so in a bunch of places, but not really in the Netherlands nor Belgium]).

 

(8)    You should really keep yourself to using complete sentences, filler words, and a pinch of slang. These make you convincing. Just using incomplete sentences and standard phrasebook material won’t do you well if you want to be convincing. If you are at that point, it is easy to fix it, even just by using Google Translate and a notebook.

 

(9)    If you are in a country with lots of immigrants that learn the local language (Sweden is the example par excellence, as there are immigrants, from various countries, who learn Swedish before even touching the English language), you are in luck, and it is a lot easier for you to be addressed in the local language, because they understand the struggle with learning more than most.

 

(10) The most important lesson of all? Don’t be discouraged! If you are getting answered in English, this is a problem you can fix. Just read through my guide again and take it to heart. These principles hold true everywhere—in Italy, in Belgium, in Malta, and everywhere else I can name, both where English is widely spoken and where it may be a rarity.

 

What are you waiting for? Don’t use the “they’ll just speak English back to you” as an excuse! If you want to learn languages from countries with such reputations, don’t let it stop you! Now get learning!