“Laddering” in a Classroom Setting (Or, Learning in a Beginner Language Class when the Language Used is One You Might Not Know Too Well)

This is a problem that many people face. It can come in many flavors:

  • The 100% use-only-the-local-language immersive courses (Israel’s Ulpanim did this, and then they were picked up by other places as well, most notably in Scotland and in Wales [and in the latter they call them “wlpanim”. No joke!)
  • Learning a language in a setting where the teacher and many of the students have a language you know but may use a lot of expressions that “go over your head”.
  • Group settings which begin OUT as using a language you know, but then transfer towards using the local language and then you get left behind somehow (this is particularly relevant in college or university settings).

 

There are a number of ways to surmount these obstacles. I’ll go through each of the three scenarios described above in more detail:

 

For the FIRST situation, in which you feel as though you are struggling in the immersion setting, the key is to be vulnerable and honest. Feel free to express to the teacher that sometimes you may have issues picking up words (use the target language, of course!) Once thing I’ve done in Ulpanim is request pictures (these really help).

 

Otherwise one thing you need to do is make learning the language a source of GOOD feelings. And you can do this outside of the classroom. Ask your teacher or other native / fluent speakers you know for jokes or memes. You’ll even come to remember entire grammatical functions in this respect! (Because sometimes a phrase will be so funny that you’ll remember the entire thing FLAWLESSLY, even if you’re just a beginner….case in point, the only thing I know how to say in Afrikaans is a long and detailed curse. I don’t even know how to say “hello” [I can say thank you and please, however]).

 

Television can also be helpful towards this end, but it has to be things you REALLY like. (The same is true with YouTube or other video streaming services).

 

Now for the SECOND situation, I’ve been here before. I’ve been in German- and Irish-Language classes in which I’ve fumbled so badly I almost got the teachers very angry (and obviously with my reputation right now I can laugh about it. Literally every single hyperpolyglot, WITHOUT EXCEPTIONS, have been in situations like these).

 

The key is to latch onto the most essential information. Keep in mind the Pareto Principle (something hugely important for language learning), the idea that out of 20% of your effort will come 80% of your results. Your goal (even if you were a native speaker of the language used) is NOT to remember everything, it is to make enough gains in the class in order to “move forward”. Any progress is good. I know it can seem sometimes (as someone who struggled with language classes myself) that “everyone seems to be doing better than you are”, but trust me, this is genuinely not the case.

 

Write things down as often as you can, even if you think you misheard things.

 

Get SOMETHING. Feel free to ask your peers or instructors if necessary. And, again, don’t forget to cement your studies of the language with fun topics (see my “recipe” above).

 

Then there is the third one—turbospeed. And this is merely a combination of the two situations I’ve just outlined.

 

And one final word: the classrooms are not a substitute for the primary goal of language learning, which is making up for the childhood you didn’t have. For that, you’d largely need to do a lot of activities on your own. But it can be done. The classroom is good for building a fantastic basis in the grammar and structures of the language as well as using opportunities to use it. But it is not equivalent to installing a language package in your brain. For that, you need active usage and entertainment.

 

And nowadays, with the internet, both are readily available at no additional costs.

 

yerushalayim

 

 

 

The State of Being Able to Learn the Nauruan Language in 2019

Happy 51st Birthday Nauru!

Today I’m going to speak about my experience with (trying to) learn Nauruan, which collapsed several times due to no fault of my own.

First off, the Nauruan language does have significant boons that some smaller languages don’t have.

There’s Nauruan Wikipedia you can visit at https://na.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bwiema_peij

There’s a predictive Nauruan-language keyboard available with SwiftKey (I can’t say how good the predictions are, but it seems to be better than the Greenlandic one).

Music is readily available on YouTube and it seems that even the most translated website in existence (I am speaking about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Organizational Page, translated into 700+ languages) has a good deal of text and even audio. While a lot of material from JW does end up in Glosbe’s translation database, this hasn’t been the case with Nauruan as of the time of writing.

There isn’t a single book for learning the Nauruan language that is user-friendly. There is a German-Language Grammar that I wrote about earlier this month. It’s about as user-friendly as it gets: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=msu.31293006715589;view=1up;seq=58;size=125

It is from before World War I and it seems that the orthography is quite different from what you can find on the aforementioned Nauruan Wikipedia. (Reminder to those unaware: Nauruan was once a German colony).

The advantages to this book: the grammar is clearly laid out, there are even texts for learning and a helpful dictionary. The one disadvantage is that it is probably not going to prepare you to have your first conversation. Take phrasebooks from Lonely Planet, Berlitz or Reise Know How / Kauderwelsch. Those TRAIN you to learn things that are instantly useful within a matter of minutes. This book isn’t like that.

Then we get to Stephen Trussel’s website. His work with Kiribati / Gilbertese has not only been fantastic but actually made my studies of that enchanting language POSSIBLE (I can’t thank him enough for what he has done). Concerning Nauruan, he did put a dictionary online that I in turn converted into a Memrise course (along with some other sources).

I decided to put it online and you can access it here. It probably won’t make you fluent or make you even conversational but it may be useful: https://www.memrise.com/course/1794555/nauruan/

There are some other grammars and courses that I’ve seen referenced in scholarship, but I cannot acquire copies of any of them. Part of me was hoping to get an accessible Nauruan language learning textbook when I visited the University of the South Pacific. They didn’t have anything in the way of Nauruan language materials when I went in August 2018 (as far as I could see), but they did have Cook Islands Maori / Rarotongan and Tuvaluan stuff (again, that trip made my TUVALUAN studies possible!).

Here’s what I think needs to be done in order to make the Nauruan Language accessible. I think that there are a lot of people who will appreciate being able to learn “the language of the world’s smallest independent republic”.

  • I would like to translate that Nauruan Grammar book and hopefully publish it but I don’t know how to go about doing it and / or updating the orthography.
  • A “Hacking Nauruan Course” should be made accessible. A native speaker could throw it together in an afternoon. It should have pronouns, “to have”, “to want”, conjunctions, question words, a pronunciation guide and a sentence structure guide. It could be on Memrise, Anki, or even on a free blog. A YouTube tutorial would also be fantastic.
  • Some variety of phrasebook, even a free one, should be made available. I think the Lonely Planet Fijian guide was very well put together and I think something in a similar structure would make Nauruan less intimidating. In it should be phrases related to lodging, restaurants and other everyday topics.

 

Perhaps some may think, “well, why bother with a language with so few native speakers?”

Well, I think that in the age of great language death, a lot of people are caring a lot more than they used to. And perhaps it may inspire someone to visit the country or otherwise spread knowledge about this tiny island that others in the world deserve to know about.

Naoero eko dogin! (Nauru Forever!)

naoeroekodogin

Venturing into Languages Highly Dissimilar to Your Own: Helpful Tips

Many of you will have the feeling of beginning to learn a new language in which you recognize almost nothing. Vocabulary you know is scant, the grammatical patterns are different and you feel that the path of least resistance is to give up.

I highly recommend you don’t give up…because learning a language highly dissimilar to your own (whether it be your own native language[s] or ones you’ve already learned as an adult) IS possible. You will need to adjust your ways of thinking ever-so-slightly.

The good news is that you can harness various skills you have used to acquire your native language (or other languages you know) to learning your new language that seems as though it belongs on another planet.

Given that my native language is English, let’s look some of my languages in terms of “how different they are” from English on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 is very similar to English, 5 is very different. Keep in mind that this is NOT the same thing as difficulty per se.

 

1: English Creole Languages, Languages of Mainland Scandinavia, Spanish, German, Yiddish

2: Icelandic, Fiji Hindi

3: Hungarian, Finnish, Fijian, Hebrew, Irish

4: Kiribati / Gilbertese, Palauan, Tuvaluan, Burmese

5: Greenlandic, Lao, Khmer, Guarani

 

The further you get away from the West, the more likely you are to encounter languages that go up the scale. The languages in (1) are very tied to the west on multiple fronts (e.g. Atlantic Creoles, German, Scandinavian Languages and Yiddish all influencing American culture to profound degrees) the languages in (3) have all been profoundly impacted by Germanic-speaking cultures but still maintain a lot of distinctness. With that said, the English influence (add German in the case of Hungarian and Swedish in the case of Finnish) is undeniable in a language like Fijian or Hebrew (given that both were under British rule).

A friend of mine was diving into Korean and he found himself struggling to remember words. And that’s NORMAL. I had that experience with all the languages 2 and higher with the higher numbers requiring more of it.

That said, there ARE ways to remember words in languages highly different from your native tongue EVEN if it seems impossible now.

 

  • Make Connections Between Words in the Language

 

Instead of looking OUTSIDE the language for connections to words you already know (as would be the standard practice in Romance or Germanic Languages if you’re a native English speaker, or even Indo-European Languages further afield), look INSIDE the language.

 

In Hebrew I encourage my students to look out for “shorashim” (or root words). These are sets of letters that will encapsulate similar meanings when seen in a sequence. Like in Arabic, the letters will dance around various prefixes, suffixes and vowel combinations that will change the meaning ever-so-slightly.

 

A more concrete example is with Fijian. The prefix “vaka-“ indicates “possessing the characteristics of, possessing …”. As such, you can collect additional words by looking at words with this prefix and then learning the form of the word without “vaka-“ in the front. Let’s have a look:

 

 

Wati – husband, wife, spouse

 

Vakawati – married (vaka + wati -> possessing a spouse)

 

 

To find words that are similar in this respect, one method you could use is to have an Anki Deck of an extensive vocabulary (what is “extensive” would depend on your short- and long-term goals with the language). Look up a root in the deck and you’ll see all words that have it:

 

palopuhuja lol

 

The folks at Transparent Language have said that, minus memory techniques, you would need to see a word anywhere between five to sixteen times in order to remember it permanently. A huge advantage is that you can get exposed to one root and its derivatives very quickly in this regard.

 

Even with a language like English, you can do the same with a verb like “to take” which is idiomatically rich when combined with prefixes (to overtake), suffixes (to take over) or direct objects (to take a break).

 

Out of all of the languages I have learned, the same principle holds and can be taken advantage of.

 

  • Do the Words and Expressions You Want to Learn Tell Any Stories?

 

Let’s take the Lao phrase  ຂໍ ໂທດ (khɔ̌ɔ thòot). It would mean “I’m sorry” but it literally means “request punishment”.

 

Various languages don’t have a very “to have”, instead they would say something like “there is upon me” (Finnish) “there is by me” (Russian), “there is to me” (Hebrew, although Hungarian also does something similar sometimes) or “there is my X” (where X is a noun – Fijian, Kiribati / Gilbertese and Hungarian do this)

 

Arcane sentence structure can actually be an ADVANTAGE in some respects. Greenlandic’s mega-long words can be a great conversation starter AND something for you to remember.

 

Words, phrases and idioms tell stories in your native language too, but chances are you probably won’t be aware of them and if you do eventually, it may be after a decade or two of speaking it, if not more.

 

  • Associate Various Words with Entertainment or Things that Have Happened in Your Life

Scene: a synagogue event.

I got “Colloquial Hungarian” earlier that day. I met a Hungarian girl and the only thing I know is a basic greeting. I ask how to say “pleased to meet you” and she says “örülök hogy megismertelek”. You can imagine how much I struggled with this simple sentence on day one, much to her laughter and those looking on.

The fact is, I never forgot the phrase since. Because I associated it with that incident.

You can also do the same with individual words and phrases that you may have heard through songs, song titles, particularly emphatic scenes in movies, books or anything else you consume for entertainment in your target language.

The over-dramatic style of anime actually helped me learn a significant amount of Finnish phrases as a result of “attaching” them to various mental pictures. Lao cinema also did something similar. Pay attention ever-so-slightly to the texture of the voice and any other details—these will serve as “memory anchors”. It’s a bit like saving a GIF to your brain, almost.

  • Hidden Loan Words from Colonial Languages.

The Fijian word for a sketch / painting is “droini”. Do you see the English cognate?

It’s the word “drawing” –Fijianized.

Do be aware, though: some English loan words can mutate beyond their English equivalents in terms of meaning. Japanese is probably infamous for this (in which a lot of English loan words developed lives and meanings of their own, much like Hebrew loan words in Yiddish sometimes found themselves detached from their original meanings in Hebrew).

Another example: Sanskrit and Pali words in languages of Southeast Asia in which Theravada Buddhism is practiced. Back to Lao. The word ປະເທດ (pa-thèet) may be foreign to you as the word “country”, but you’ve probably heard the word “Pradesh” before in various areas of India, even if you know nothing about India too deeply (yes, it is the same word modified for Lao pronunciation). The second syllable in particular may be familiar to you as the “-desh” from “Bangladesh”.

Which brings me into another point…

  • Do You Recognize any Words through Proper Nouns?

 

Tuvalu is a country in the South Pacific. It means “there are eight”. The Fijian word for to stand permanently or to be built is “tu” and the word for eight is “walu”. Fijian and Tuvaluan are not the same language but they are family members. You can recognize various other words by determining what place names mean or even names of people you know (whether well-known historical characters or your personal friends).

 

Another example: Vanuatu. Vanua in Fijian is a country or a place. Tu is the SAME root that we have in “Tuvalu” (yes, the “tu” in “Tuvalu” and “Vanuatu” mean THE EXACT SAME THING!) Vanuatu roughly means “here is our country” (or “country here”)

 

Again, this is something you can do for many languages. I remember doing in in Germany as well.

 

Lastly…

 

  • Embrace the Differences in the Grammar

I was amused by the fact that the Tuvaluan word for “to understand” is “malamalama”. I posted it in a small polyglot group. A friend of mine who studies mostly languages from Western Europe and the Middle East asked me to conjugate it.

Tuvaluan doesn’t have verb conjugation. It instead puts particles before a verb to indicate tense. “Au e malamalama” -> I understand -> I present-marker understand.

Surprisingly this system (not entirely foreign to me because of having studied other languages in that family) was not foreign to me. But I learned to like it. A lot.

Feel free to tell interested friends about what makes your different language very different in terms of grammar. Some may even be intrigued about the fact that many languages don’t have an equivalent of “to have”.

There are some things that are a bit difficult to embrace, such as Greenland’s verb conjugation that has transitive forms for each pair (in normal English, this would me an I X you form, an I X him / her / it form, an I X all of you form, an I X them form, a you X me form, a you X him / her / it form … FOR EVERY PAIR).

That said, your love of your new language will find a way.

I’m sure of it!

ga

How to Learn Greenlandic: A Resource Guide

 This is the most requested piece in the history of the blog.

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Granted, I’ve been in writing retirement for a while (because I’m focusing more on my video game right now which is my life’s first priority at the moment), but in honor of Greenland’s National Day, I’ll be keeping with tradition and letting you know exactly where to turn if you want to begin your journey into the fascinating language of Greenlander Country (Kalaallit Nunaat – which literally means “to the Greenlanders their Land).

Some of you may know that I am the proud uploader of the first Greenlandic course in the history of Memrise.com. My courses are still there and encompass two very important elements:

  • Basic phrases that are useful in tourist situations (which is ALWAYS a helpful starting point) and
  • Suffixes (complete with examples). Suffixes are ESSENTIAL in Greenlandic because twenty-letter words are the norm. There are suffixes for verbs and suffixes for nouns and also suffixes that transform one part of speech into another. Like some other languages outside the Indo-European sphere, the boundaries between parts of speech are significantly blurry in Greenlandic.

 

Takulaaruk! – have a look! -> taku- (see) –laar- (a little bit, “please”, serves to make a soft command) + uk -> it.

 

In some extreme examples, you end up with words like “Nalunaarasuartaatilioqateeraliorfinnialikkersaatiginialikkersaatilillaranatagoorunarsuarooq” (Once again, they tried to build a giant radio station, but apparently it was only on the drawing board). Dissect this word in a comment and you’ll win a prize!

 

I get messages on a weekly basis on how to learn Greenlandic, and the Memrise courses in both English and Danish are a good start. (NOTE: they are accessible from the Desktop version despite the fact that the app version only offers the choices of the official courses. Memrise, you really need to fix that…)

One book that I’ve found extremely useful is the German-Language “Grönländisch – Wort für Wort” which explains the grammar very clearly and also provides a lot of useful phrases for all tourist situations. That said, I somehow feel as though the book itself isn’t going to fully equip you to speed-read the Greenlandic Language Edition of “Sermitsiaq” (a local newspaper).

For that, allow me to introduce to you one of the most useful and thorough dictionaries I have ever encountered: http://www.ilinniusiorfik.gl/oqaatsit/daka

Yes, it is Danish-Greenlandic and if you don’t know Danish you’ll probably get repetitive strain injury via copy-pasting everything into Google Translate. The dictionary includes both example words and phrases that fully illustrate how you use something.

Let’s show you an example from the book:

 

elske vb. (-de, -t)

~r ham, ~r hende asavaa (fx de ~r hinanden asaqatigiipput)

~r ham højt, ~r hende højt asaaraa

han ~r at rejse angalajumatuvoq

jeg ~r kaffe (ɔ: synes det smager herligt) kaffi mamaraara

 

I’ll translate this for you:

To love

Loves him / her – asavaa (e.g. they love each other asaqatigiipput)

Loves him / her dearly – asaaraa

He loves to travel – angalajumatuvoq

I love coffee (i.e. thinks that it tastes great) kaffi mamaraara

 

One thing to understand about Greenlandic is the fact that its verb forms are difficult. There are intransitive forms (ones that you use when there is no direct object) and transitive forms (ones that you use when there is one). Granted, languages like Fijian and Hungarian also have similar systems as well, but in Greenlandic each pair of subject -> object determiners is different.

At 4:19 in this video you can see the full conjugation of intransitive verbs:

nerivunga – I eat

nerivutit – you (sing.) eat

qitippunga – I dance

qitipputit – you (sing.) dance

Etc.

 

Later on in the video comes the “atuar-“ root which means “to read” (a word that didn’t exist in Greenlandic prior to foreign contact).

 

There is one issue with a lot of learner-ese in Greenlandic, the fact that making a jump to native level material can be VERY DIFFICULT (especially if it is very poetic material like Nanook’s song lyrics).

One thing that would be helpful is to listen to the BEGINNING of words and recognize the roots of each word first of all. In Greenlandic and other polysynthetic languages, all words have a “base” on which other words are made.

Illoqarfimmut -> to the city.

Illu is the base. And it means “house”. Qar -> to have. fik -> place where there are. mut -> towards.

“Towards the place where yon be houses.”

The language works with mathematical precision precisely for this reason. Greenlandic isn’t necessarily difficult on paper it is just very hard to get used to. But that in of itself has earned it the coveted title of “hardest language I ever attempted”. (Palauan is second place).

This thread here provides a thorough list of resources: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/18623583/Resources-for-Greenlandic-Kalaallisut

Some others I would really like to mention:

Glosbe.com is also very useful by virtue of the fact that its cross translations will ease you into reading Greenlandic even if the words seem very intimidating.

What’s more, you can also begin writing your own sentences, however simple, to gain an active understanding of the language.

Lastly there is a lot of bilingual Danish / Greenlandic material present on websites such as KNR are Sermitsiaq.

You’re probably wondering if it is possible to learn Greenlandic without Danish at all. Perhaps, but do keep in mind that a small amount of loan words as well as all numbers higher than 12 are taken straight from Danish, not also to mention that it would also be useful for your Greenland journey as well (as things stand).

Lastly I’m here to help in any way I can. I may not know the language too well, and it isn’t my best one . When I was there I usually managed basic tourist functions with ease but nothing very deep. That said I can provide help or even provide more resources if necessary.

If I have my way, Greenland-o-mania may be taking over the world before we know it!

Inuiattut ulluanni pilluaritsi! (Happy Greenland Day!)

Mother of the Sea and Me

May 2018: Sometimes Losing Focus is Necessary (and Plans for June!)

Not all plans are realized, and that’s okay. Especially given that May was considerably tumultuous for multiple reasons. For one, I needed to go into overdrive concerning “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” as well as the fact that I found myself more often without the motivation to rehearse languages and doubted myself more than I usually do.

That said, any variety of victory is to be celebrated. I devoted the first third of this month to Rotuman, a minority languages of Fiji, and it was very difficult for me to make recordings due to the fact that sometimes making a simple sentence took ten minutes that I had to cross-check from several sources. (THIS is what it is like learning a minority language with extremely few resources, this warrants its own post).

There is a new website devoted to Rotuman and I may glance at it at some point in the near future or even devote videos to it.

In addition to that, I got sidetracked a bit too often in May. Kiribati for the beginning, Hawaiian in the middle, and above all I had Fijian hogging almost all of my time to the detriment of any new “acquired” languages.

What’s more, rehearsing languages like Spanish and German feels like a dull chore (and Jewish and Nordic Languages, well, I sort of have to in order to continue teaching and so that really renews my motivation. I make no secret of the fact that I “don’t love popular languages any more than I have to”, although maybe the Jared of the future will be different in this respect).

May was a tornado for way too many reasons to count, and I got sidetracked and I did make a lot of new videos or new blogposts and that’s okay.

But this really enables me to clearly define my goals for June:

For one, I’ve decided to priority for the REST OF THIS YEAR one of my prominent heritage languages, Hungarian. 30 Minutes a day, every day (excluding emergencies, illnesses, travel, etc). If I don’t, I delete my blog. I may miss one day if I make up the minutes the previous day.

I’ll also let on the fact that it is my intention in the more distant future to raise my children multilingually (ideally in English / Spanish / Hebrew and two heritage languages from both my side and my spouse’s side). That’s a topic I’m not qualified to speak about quite yet.

For June, in addition to 30 minutes of Hungarian every day I’ll most likely choose to focus on a Southeast Asian Language (given that my Fijian is probably good enough to join the ranks of my conversationally fluent languages). The likely candidates are Lao and Khmer, the less likely candidates are Burmese and even Thai (which would be close enough to Lao to not be stressful, I can understand a significant amount of some of the Disney Animated Films dubbed in Thai because of my Lao studies). Vietnamese, while I like it, would probably be too stressful at this point, not withstanding my promise of no new languages for this year (I did study Thai previously, even with an exchange teacher, so I can re-activate it if necessary but it seems unlikely now that I’ll do so).

The biggest challenge for me right now is not only maintenance but also learning to believe my good fortune. Thanks to some unsavory encounters online I’ve actually learned to lie about my language skills–by downsizing them or claiming I speak fewer than I actually do. This is true even in person.

I also feel right around the time that there are certain languages that I “don’t feel the spark with” anymore, and I may have to drop some accordingly. I’ve noticed this happens right around the time that the seasons change.

In addition to this, I think I do need to devote at least ten minutes (if not thirty) to each of my fluent languages every week. Ones I teach are exempt from this (given that the classes count towards this quorum). This will almost certainly be time spent in public transport or waiting for it rather than anywhere else.

Here I am in Milwaukee at my grandmother’s house, bidding you greetings and wishes for success. Now I’m going to ponder as to which Southeast Asian Language I like the best. 🙂

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5 Things About Language Learning I Learned from Norwegian

Gratulerer med dagen! (Congratulations with the day!)

While Norwegians and their various expatriate / heritage communities the world over celebrate today (May 17th, the Norwegian Constitution Day) with parades, traditional costumes, hot dogs and ice cream (and much more!), here I am in rainy Brooklyn wondering how I can bring (1) exciting new motivation to learners of Norwegian and (2) an interesting perspective as an outsider that will be insightful to native speakers.

Norwegian was actually the first major European Language that I became fluent in and still is my favorite European Language. Contrary to what you may hear, there are VOLUMES of resources to learn it and even MORE to engage with the language even if you’re nowhere near Norway or any native speakers at all.

17 May 2018

 

(1) Norwegian Taught Me to Reflect on What English Was Throughout the Ages (And What It is Now)

 

With some noteworthy exceptions, English’s sentence structure is Norse in origin. One of those noteworthy exceptions is the fact that Norwegian (like almost all of the Germanic Languages) has verb-second construction. (To explain this: if a sentence begins with something indicating time, manner or place, put the verb right afterwards. In English you would say “today I will play a game” but in almost all of the other Germanic Languages you would say “today will I play a game”. Same if it were “Slowly” or “in Oslo” at the beginning of a sentence instead of “Today”).

In teaching languages of Scandinavia, I have to teach students how to recognize words from English as well as how to piece together words from pieces they already know. “Gjenskinn”  may not be familiar to you without this training, but once you learn to recognize it as “(a)gain + shine”, you can piece it to mean “reflection”.

Other Norwegian words use pieces of words that have fallen out of usage in English but survived in compound words. “Homestead” and “instead” use the word “stead” (which is a direct relative of the Norwegian word “sted” meaning a place).

«Å skade» means «to hurt» or «to damage», which you may recognize from the English word «unscathed».

The most common question I ask when going over a Norwegian text is “do you know what this looks like in English?”. Once you see exactly how similar the two are, it doesn’t become scary at all. In fact, Norwegian (and its relatives) are a lot less scary than the Romance Languages are (in my opinion). Consistently I have seen English native speakers of Norwegian as a second language be SIGNIFICANTLY more confident that English native speakers of Spanish as a second language. Yes, the pronunciation in Norwegian is harder to master, but the grammar is simpler and even the complicated aspects thereof feel intuitive for an English native speaker.

Norwegian is an excellent first choice for your first foreign language if your only language (right now) is English.

 

(2) Norwegian Gave Me a Glimpse Into the Reality of Heritage Speakers

Many a Midwesterner has had Norwegian-speaking grandparents who didn’t pass on the language to their children. As a Jew I hear often stories of Yiddish-speaking grandparents who did the exact same thing.

Especially in the United States, cultural erasure happens but sometimes the erasure only happens for one or two generations (with one of the future generations seeking to re-attach themselves to their roots).

In comparison to many people who I’ve met who learn languages to, in vague terms, “speak with many people”, the heritage speakers I’ve encountered approach language learning with an almost holy determination. Many of them see the Norwegian-American experience as truly incomplete without a language component, others want to communicate with their distant relatives from the small village from which their ancestors immigrated.

These people make me think about what motivation can do and how a genuine desire to become an “honorary” member of a community can make the heaviest obstacles in language learning seem passable.

Several of my students said that learning Norwegian enabled them to experience an alternate universe version of themselves in which their ancestors didn’t immigrate and / or passed down the language rather than replacing it only with English. With my heritage languages I would say that it is very much the same.

 

(3) Once You Learn a Smaller Language, You Actually See Its Influence in Contemporary Popular Culture Everywhere

American folk music has been deeply influenced by Norwegian airs. If you listen to Norwegian party songs like those written by Robin and Bugge or Staysman & Lazz, you’ll notice a clear similarity to American country music. Obviously the influence also happens in the other direction as well (as Americanization is something I’ve noticed in literally every country I’ve ever been in, although it was probably the weakest in Jordan).

Norwegian songs that have become ultra-famous in the greater world, like “Take On Me” and “What Does the Fox Say?” (despite both being songs in English), do have a distinctly Norwegian touch to them.

The city layouts of the Midwestern United States will give you a heavy dosage of “déjà vu” if you been to anywhere in Scandinavia at all.

Product names and idiomatic similarities are also some added bonuses you’ll get to recognize.

 

(4) The Norwegian Language Has Layers, as Do Many Languages Throughout the World.

At its base, Norwegian has Old Norse as its ancestor and primary influence. However, later on, there were other influences that entered the picture. The Denmark-Norway Union changed the language significantly. French and German influence also contributed loads of vocabulary to the language, not also to mention Latinate loanwords that Icelandic does not have. These layers also influenced regional accents. Now there are English loanwords as well and more of them entering the language by the year.

Do keep in mind that, with some exceptions, most languages are layered in a similar fashion. To be an adept language learner, be aware of the various influences in your target language and learn to tease them apart and note if you see any patterns as to where you see French loan words / Latinate words / German words etc. It will also show you that a language is a history map, something you can’t unlearn (in the best of ways).

 

(5) The Norwegian-Speaking Community Has Been Firmly Supportive of My Efforts and Those of my Friends

You’re welcome to share your stories to the contrary (and some of my students did have one or two people saying “I’m really impressed, but to be honest, why bother?”), but Norwegian speakers have been nothing but supportive of my journey and those of my friends. This was true even when I was an ABSOLUTE BEGINNER.

They provided honest and meaningful constructive criticism and made it very clear that they were happy with my efforts and curious to hear why I fell in love with this musical language. At no point did I feel that they were deliberately intending to show off their English skills at the expense of learners (as many people, regardless of native language, can tend to do).

Norway sadly has a reputation for legendarily unfriendly in some circles, but with the Norwegian language you’ll experience this culture in a way that you can deeply connect with it. And believe me, Scandinavians are not unfriendly—they’re just different from what you may be used to in regards to social norms.

 

NOTE: When I refer to “the Norwegian Language” in this piece, I am strictly referring to Norsk Bokmål. I have not studied Nynorsk yet but my reading skills in it are good.

Have YOU had any experiences learning Norwegian? How will YOU celebrate May 17th? Let us know!

The Key to English Language Immersion: An Outsider’s Perspective

May the Fourth be With You!

Okay, this isn’t a post about Star Wars. Not at all. But a friend of mine (actually, several friends of mine) wanted me to write about various roadblocks / sticking points in English-Language immersion and how to overcome them.

Often when I try to bring up these techniques in groups, sometimes there is the occasional voice that just says “HIRE A PROFESSIONAL TEACHER AND THAT WILL SOLVE EVERYTHING!”

In order to truly bring something into your life, it has to be all-encompassing. No one solution will solve everything concerning language learning sticking points, which is why part of me is vexed by the “how do you learn languages?” question. This is because people expect one or two routes to fluency when there are HUNDREDS of possible ones that intertwine various methods.

English, especially the American variety, is intimidating. The r is difficult for speakers of many languages, a lot of the vowels are perplexing for native speakers of almost anything, and an idiomatic depth that seems unparalleled given that English, in the words of one Tumblr user, is “three languages wearing a trenchcoat”.

But the English learner has one advantage that is UNPARALLELED:

Imagine if four out of every five companies on the planet had a name in your target language. Imagine if loan words in your target language were commonly used in almost all languages on the planet. Imagine if your target language was the most studied language of all time as well as, arguably, the most powerful in world history.

Perhaps the closest things that could come to it would be, French, Spanish, German, and possibly a case could be made for Mandarin Chinese or Japanese or maybe Italian even. But very little else. Finnish has five words that found their way into English (“sauna” would be one you would probably recognize), Greenlandic also has a few (igloo, anorak) and Fijian had one that comes to mind (tabu = taboo). By contrast, English loan words have been in literally EVERY language I’ve ever studied.

The key to learning a language is to engage with it, and with English it is literally more possible to engage with it than any other language on the planet, given how coveted and “necessary” it is.

There is one BIG advantage to the English learner, however, and it is something I’ve seen over and over again.

Let me put it this way:

In Sweden, there was pressure on me to have a good accent. If I didn’t, that meant that people might answer me in English without a second thought. That accent could be anywhere in the Swedish-speaking world (or even plausibly anything Scandinavian—like that one time I accidentally addressed a Swedish staff member in Danish and he responded in Swedish without flinching). Luckily I think that many Americans can manage, if not a Stockholm or Gothenburg accent, something from either Finland (as in sounding plausibly Finland-Swedish) or southern Sweden without issues.

In Myanmar, I had to get my tones right. The fact that I was white didn’t help matters at all. I also had to answer on point all of the time. Otherwise, it was a one-way ticket to English-town (or German-town, even).

In the United States, if someone has a mediocre or even bad accent in English, unless he or she is in an ethnic community (e.g. Hispanics, Mandarin-speakers, Polish speakers, etc.) they don’t run the risk of getting answered in their native language.

Learning English with foreign accents can be seen as cute, learning many other languages with foreign accents, especially Anglophone ones, can be a liability. (The only place I can think of where English-native accents could be passable was Israel, and even then it could be an issue more often than not).

There are several nodes that advanced English learners struggle with, and I’ll identify them right now:

 

  • The Finer Points of Pronunciation
  • Idiomatic Expressions
  • Irregular verbs
  • Germanic-cum-French Sentence Structure

 

The key to solving all of them is twofold: (1) make lots of mistakes and (2) imitate native speakers to the best of your ability. Pretend you are American / British / Australian / etc. Fall in love with the cultures and find things to link about them.

Let’s go into each of the nodes in detail:

 

  • Pronunciation

 

The short vowel sounds are a big issue for a lot of learners (if you need help with these sounds, put the words on the right side into Google Translate and have them read out loud):

 

Short a -> bat

Short e – > bet

Short i -> bit

Short o -> bot

Short u -> but

 

You CANNOT sound like a native English speaker without having mastered these sounds, and you’ll notice that a lot of English learners can bypass them entirely (pronouncing words like “bitch” and “beach” identically).

American English in particular has a lazy feel to it that has “legato” (or notes / sounds being drawn out). Some languages have a bit more of a “staccato” (=short quick notes / sounds) feel to it (languages like Fijian and Solomon Islands Pijin come to mind, even though they are spoken in places where English is an official language. In such countries in Oceania, you’ll notice that English speakers mimic Australian speech very well but have traces of their native accent, too).

Think about WHAT makes the sound of English different from your native language or languages you already know. Mimic the differences accordingly. That mimicry will eventually turn into a believable accent.

 

  • Idiomatic Expressions

 

This is an issue in all languages and even English speakers can be confronted with difficulties with varieties of English they’re not familiar with—even within the same country!

The key with idioms like these is to “hook” them on various memorable elements – like a product, movie scene or advertisement.

The more of these you have, the better, but keep in mind that even native speakers may not have a perfect knowledge of idioms all throughout the English speaking world and even some non-natives have introduced me to British ones I haven’t heard before!

 

  • Irregular Verbs

 

Looking at a table is, in all likelihood, not going to help you. Clozemaster in the upper levels definitely will, but exposure and immersion (or using the language in your daily life as much as you can, or in your entertainment / recreational life if you use other languages at your job) will help you.

 

Keep in mind that there are some irregular verbs that can be inconsistent across generations. One example is the English verb “to sneak”. Older people will say “sneaked” (for the past tense) but younger people will opt for “snuck”.

 

  • Germanic-cum-French Sentence Structure

 

There is a clear difference between an English non-native speaker who says “do you know what is this?” vs. “do you know what this is?”

 

This is BY FAR the trickiest thing about learning English, in my opinion. Surprisingly I also think that if some English learners took on a study or two of another language they would get a lot better at this aspect (and not necessarily if it is a one related to English via the Germanic or Romance family trees).

 

Auxiliary verbs can also be tricky. Perhaps in mimicking very informal English some learners may ask “you have a book?” rather than the more formal “do you have a book?”

 

How to get over this? Well, the first thing is to not be scared. You CAN do it and there have been a few people in my life who have been so good at English that I have mistaken them for native speakers (and they’re not all from one area of the world, mind you).

 

The second thing is to PAY ATTENTION TO THE DIFFERENCES between your native language and English. (Also pay attention to the differences between all languages you learn, it’s good discipline and it really helps in creating good grammar).

 

 

Conclusion:

 

The biggest thing that prevents people from being satisfied with their English level is the idea that they can’t get better or that it is “too much work”. You don’t work more on English, instead you work smarter. Work on English in a way that makes you happy to work with it (e.g. with material that you genuinely like). Make the presence of English in your life a source for positive feelings. That way, you will find yourself sounding like an American (or any other English-speaking nationality) before you know it!

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