Do You Need the Presence of Native Speakers in Your Life to Learn a Language?

I should definitely begin by saying two things:

  • The presence of native speakers in your target language can only do good things, except if they are monumentally discouraging you to learn their language (which almost all of them are not).
  • You absolutely DO need to hear native speaker VOICES in order to learn a language, what this article is about is whether you actually need human beings.

I considered not writing this article, but given that there are so many people that rule out languages they want to learn because they worry they won’t encounter native speakers anywhere, I thought this needed to be written.

In a significant amount of the languages that I speak fluently, I have never conversed with a native speaker of the language. Let’s count them:

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I HAVE used with Native Speakers:

 

English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Finnish, German, Spanish, Breton(!), Irish, Icelandic, Greenlandic (phone conversations only), Polish, French, Welsh, Ukrainian, Russian, Northern Sami (!!!!), Myanmar / Burmese, Tajik, Slovak, Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have NOT used with native speakers:

 

Pijin, Bislama, Cornish (okay, that one time with the guy who spoke a few words, but he wasn’t a native), Scottish Gaelic (okay, same situation as Cornish, but he spoke more than a few words), Guarani, Tahitian, Mossi (although I met a possible native speaker once but before I knew this language existed), Tongan, Rapa Nui, Palauan, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Bileez Kriol

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have used with other speakers of the language, but NOT natives:

 

Tok Pisin, Faroese, Lao, Trinidadian Creole (second-generation people with roots in various Caribbean nations, this situation is unbearably complicated!)

 

And this list becomes even more iffy when you take into account that, in some areas, it matters that you are a FLUENT speaker rather than a native. This is especially the case for Creole Languages, that function as mini-Global Languages in the areas that they are spoken (which explains why in places like Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin is more widely spoken than Standard English. This is true wherever Creoles are spoken, in my understanding).

To write for Finnish Wikipedia, it is pretty much required that you be a native speaker or have your work edited by one (same for English or many other languages, actually). However, for Tok Pisin Wikipedia, it is just required that you are fluent, you don’t need Tok Pisin to be your native language.

And now to return back to the topic at hand!

You CAN learn a language very well or even to fluency without ever having encountered a native speaker in your target language ever. (I’ve done it several times.)

That said, I should issue warnings and pieces of advice in the event that you’d like to undertake this route. But sometimes this route is necessary. Maybe you really want to learn a language that you just can’t get exposed to except through the Internet. I highly encourage that route, as long as you keep the following in mind:

 

  • Listen Intently to the Way that Native Speakers Talk!

 

You may be able to learn a language without encountering any real-life native speakers, but you WILL have to encounter VIRTUAL native speakers at one point (e.g. your target language spoken on the radio, used in movies or in other forms of online media). To that end, you’ll need to listen intently:

How do the people who speak this language formulate their vowels? How do they deal with syllable stress? How are various consonants (such as r or t or the equivalent) pronounced differently than in languages you already know well? What accents that you recognize resemble the one you are listening to?

The best thing to do is to imitate the voices you hear. In some cases you may have some learner audio. In the event that you don’t, you can almost ALWAYS find samples of the language online (spoken or sung or what-have-you) and imitate that by repeating the syllables one after the other.

You learned your first language with mimicry, and don’t be afraid to learn your 2nd or even your 19th with mimicry as well.

 

  • Practice Conversations with Yourself

 

I can walk into almost any language exchange in the world and find an opportunity to give a stump speech about myself in a language like Spanish. At least where I am, I don’t have that luxury for Bislama or Breton.

So what did I do?

I practiced talking to myself as if I were introducing myself to someone. You can even have a little dialogue in your head, but this is not recommended unless you are under very dire circumstances (e.g. stuck in a job where you cannot talk unless you absolutely must). Write down words that serve as gaps in your vocabulary and look them up later.

To find out if your sentences are correct, compare them to what you can find in your textbooks or online (or, in the case of the rarest languages, Bible translations, which also exist for too many other languages to list, literally everywhere).

Feel free to also bounce off sentences in the language you are learning off of like-minded friends. Ask them to do the same if they are learning…well, any language at all, to be honest.

 

  • Double Your Exposure with Media for Languages that You Don’t Rehearse in Conversation as Often

 

If you want to become conversant in this language, good news: there certainly is a way. But you need to listen to your language even more intently and with increasing frequency.

When I was learning Tok Pisin and Greenlandic in the elementary stages, I acquired a LOT of musical tracks in both languages and had them crowd my SIM-Card. The practice I wasn’t getting at polyglot events was made up for with exposure to the language I had during my commute or just while walking down the street.

You’d be surprised about how much passive vocabulary you can really acquire from this (you’re going to have to look at dictionaries from time-to-time and see how many words are vaguely familiar with the “Oh! I remember hearing that word in a song once!” flavor).

You may not have exposure to native speakers to hone your accent, but you do have recordings, and they can be as equally useful. (And besides, a lot of people don’t really imitate native speakers that well anyway or put a lot of effort into accent development unless they have to. This laziness is just how humanity is most of the time).

 

  • Record Yourself!

 

Absolutely essential. And if you have the courage to put your recordings of you speaking your target language on a video site, all the more power to you. And you can even find Reddit communities where your target language is spoken and they can give you feedback a lot of the time. That’s how I became world-famous all over Palau!

If you can compare your recordings to that of native speakers, either talking or singing, that is even better!

  • If you find close-up videos of native speakers talking, imitate their mouth movements.

 

I don’t think that requires much further explanation.

 

  • Having trouble with a sound you don’t know? Find guides. Or just fake the sound until something like it comes to you.

 

You may want to learn a language with that guttural q or click sounds but don’t know how to pronounce it. Guides will help you, even if you can’t find native speakers who can.

Or another thing you could do is somehow try to find the mouth-movements that closely mimic them. You’d be surprised to learn that you can actually train your mouth to learn new sounds well into your adulthood and for the rest of your life!

I’ve coached singers to sing in Greenlandic and they managed the hardest sounds of the language (q and ll and rr) with great ease once I told them what to do with their mouth. Even if you can’t find a native speaker, you can find a guide somewhere because a lot of these sounds are more common in languages throughout the world than you think (Those sounds I just mentioned in Greenlandic are not unique to the language at all, appearing in dozens if not hundreds of others!)

  • In the Event of a Tonal Language, Rehearse Tones with Ruthless Imitation in the Same Way as (1)

 

People who want to try to say that tonal languages are not suitable for self-study are lying. It may indeed be HARDER, but with enough training your love will conquer all.

The key is to repeat very often. Very, very often. Like a piano piece you have to memorize for a recital. This is essential.

 

Conclusion:

 

Learning a language without any native speakers to talk to in-person is a challenge, but it definitely is possible with discipline. A lot of people say “I need native speakers to talk to and to help me develop my accent”.

That might have been true in earlier days, but nowadays recordings from speakers of your favorite language are more accessible than ever! So the primary issues would be (1) expose yourself to the language very, very often and (2) imitate the language very, very often and (3) record yourself to see how you measure up for native speakers.

And who knows? Maybe you will actually encounter a native speaker of your dream language one day, even if others are telling you that the chances of meeting one are “almost none”!

Don’t believe the haterz. You deserve the life you want!

yerushalayim

My Journey Through the Danish Language and How It Changed Me Forever

dansk i graekenland

We sure did!

It’s Danish Constitution Day, and I thought it would be a good idea to write something of a different flavor in honor of this (quasi) national day.

I began studying Danish in 2013. Being a novice polyglot at the time, I turned to the Internet for advice and virtually none of it was encouraging and even less of it was encouraging about the prospects of a foreigner learning Danish. And even less of that for a foreigner whose native language was English.

Being honest: when I heard the Danish language for the first time, I was not too enchanted by it. I thought it would be something I would “pass” on, in favor of Swedish and Norwegian.

This was in addition to the fact that I was heavily intimidated by the prospect of the pronunciation of the language, in which, as I like to tell my friends and students, “half of the language is not pronounced”.

I’ll pass, I thought, although sometimes, even then, I was feeling masochistic and I would try watching some things in Danish on the Internet and see how little I would understand.

And then in encountering Danish people in my travels (and Danes travel a LOT!), somehow I was enchanted by the mentality, the accent, the culture, and a dozen other factors I still can’t articulate. (And “in my travels” I mean “on the plane on the way back from Sweden to the United States”).

I already had a significant amount of Norwegian under my belt, although I wasn’t fluent yet (that would come in due course, however). One reason this was important was that I didn’t really need to learn Danish from word lists and books the way that I had with Norwegian and Swedish previously.

(Note to those unaware: Danish and Norwegian are very, very close in their written forms, a handful of times I’ve speed-read a Facebook post and didn’t even know which of the two it was until I chanced upon one of the orthography differences. I’ll give you one such difference: the –tion at the ending of international words is kept in Danish but transformed to –sjon in Norwegian. This is also a sign that I may be speed reading too quickly.)

As a result of having my Norwegian experience, I could immerse myself in Danish freely, while keeping track of (1) differences I encountered in the writing systems, (2) differences I encountered in word choice (“måske” in Danish means “maybe”, but a Norwegian speaker would opt for “kanskje”) and (3) the way certain Norwegian words that I could recognize became changed when pronounced through Danish (pronouncing “v” as something like an English “u” sound is something that some Indo-European languages do, Ukrainian, Slovak and Latin as taught in some classics departments have something like this as well. Danish does this with regularity as well).

Thanks to me sight-reading food labels in Sweden (which are commonly translated into Finnish and / or Danish), I recognized a lot of words and orthography patterns before I even started.

Given how different the pronunciation was from any other language I had encountered, I thought that immersion was the only way to even get a decent Danish accent (and by “accent” I mean “ability to actually pronounce the words in a way that is even half-way normal for a native speaker of the language”). I was so right about that.

Now, let’s pivot back to the discouragement.

The idea that there were so many expatriates online that struggled, that said that Danes demanded that they spoke English instead, that they got told off by locals that there was “no point” to learning the language, and dozens of other horror stories.

(Granted, this happened only once or twice to me in Sweden, interestingly, and usually once I brought up the fact that I had to know the language for heritage reasons [reading the letters from my deceased family members] this usually made people [somewhat shamefully] retreat from the idea that Swedish was or is “useless”).

Thanks to these stories, I was under this impression that my pronunciation had to be nigh-perfect, otherwise I would get laughed at and made fun of.

Thanks to these stories, I also was feeling more masochistic, the idea that I should take on a hopeless project, and even if I didn’t succeed, write about it someday.

I just kept going. Kept imitating the people on the screen, kept looking at phrasebooks to get good pronunciation tips, kept reading and realizing that Danish wasn’t nearly as hard as the Internet (or I) had imagined it to be.

Sooner or later, the slurring and the glottal stop actually became normal for me.

In Greece as well as in Germany I encountered non-native speakers of Danish who picked it up from their friends or living in Danish-speaking areas. This was a huge boost to my confidence (although a lot of them said that they were in the minority but…yeah, people who pick up the local language in places that are not English-speaking countries tend to be the minority anyhow.)

And then, later on, I actually encountered native Danish speakers who were actually not only not making fun of me but actually conversing with me like a normal person! And actually complimenting my efforts! And only in this past year have I been told that my Danish was “fantastic” and “unbelievably impressive!” J

 

2015-07-06 11.22.31

A victory pose, if e’er there was.

What’s the big lesson of all of this? Apparently it was the Internet horror stories that emboldened me, rather than turned me away (as what also happened with my journey to Iceland in 2015).

The various people who would “hate” me for speaking their language I never ended up encountering. The people who would belittle my attempts I didn’t cross path with (okay, there was that one time, but it wasn’t a native speaker).

SIMPLY PUT: I IMAGINED IT.

However, the legends of “Danish being harder to learn than Chinese” did help me in one regard: they caused me to put a lot of ungodly time into exposing myself to the language, and, as I tell my students, the more you invest in a language, the sooner you can get fluent and feel a full member of the culture!

2014 was the year I had my first conversations in Danish, and I deem it no coincidence that having acquired Danish led me on a road to my polyglot awakening. Simply put, I put pessimism in its place, and my willpower and desire to succeed and turned it away.

Granted, I still have a while yet to go. Sometimes my mom encouraged me during my Myanmar trip to “practice with the Burmese people at the hotel” and sometimes I was too paralyzed with fear of judgment in order to do it. Sometimes I still have that paralysis in talking to native speakers of even my best languages, worried that somehow I’ll slip up for that my nervousness will get the better of me, or that I have to live up to a Michael Jordan-like reputation that I honestly don’t think I deserve.

But one day, I know, these fears will go the way of the ones that I had imagined along this journey I had described.

And this is Jared Gimbel, telling you that your fears, whatever they are, will disappear soon in due time.

I’m here to help.

jared gimbel pic

Don’t worry, be happy

“That’s All One Word?!!?” Learning Introductory Greenlandic

 

Before I begin, let me clarify by saying that yes, Greenlandic is a real language. Known also as “Kalaallisut” or “West Greenlandic”, it is an Inuit Language with Danish influence (and some English influence as well), spoken primarily in Greenland (obviously) but also by some in Denmark and, most assuredly, other places as well.

Greenlandic is best known for being a “polysynthetic language”, and the only indigenous language of the Americas that has sole official status in a country. (Can you guess which one? I thought so!)

For those of you to whom the term “polysynthetic language” doesn’t really mean anything, imagine something like Magnetic Poetry—in which you can assemble your own poems from magnet pieces of words.

Now imagine that, instead of assembling sentences or verses with words, that you assemble words from word pieces. That’s a polysynthetic language for you.

Let me demonstrate with something right out of Kauderwelsch’s “Greenlandic Word for Word”, which is in German, but this part is translated by yours truly:

 

Qaqqaliarniarpunga

Qaqqa/liar/niar/punga

Qaqqa(q) = Mountain

Liar- = travel, go on the road

Niar- = Intend

-punga = “I” Verb, intransitive

“I would like to wander around in the mountains”

 

If you guessed that this could sometimes result in really, really long words, you couldn’t have been more right. The idea of “this is why Germans don’t play Scrabble” is comparatively tame in comparison with what you will encounter on your Greenlandic journey:

Nalunaarasuartaatilioqatigiiffissualiulersaaleraluallaraminngooq

“It seems that they were well into the process of talking about founding an association for the establishment of a Telegraph Station”

(Courtesy of the Greenlandic House in Copenhagen)

My first encounter with the Greenlandic Language resulted due to my addiction to travel literature that came to manifest when I was in Stockholm. While visiting Connecticut, I went to the local library and looked at a guide to Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. The language section hereby treated me to this gem:

Image

I didn’t know it at the time, but eventually that line about typewriters would become a running joke in my family, with some people calling Greenlandic “typewriter” or “the typewriter language”.

Reading through the word list, I was entranced—it would be fair to say that it was love at first sight. Within seconds I was dreaming that a day would come in which I would have conversations in this most exquisite language, and hopefully be able to call myself fluent.

Then I got the book out of the library and read almost all of it (especially the part on Greenland). Thereupon did I copy the Greenlandic glossary in the back and created Memrise’s first-ever Greenlandic course for English speakers (even before the Greenlandic category was established on that site, which it now is).

Finding some Greenlandic media was easy enough because a lot of it is in one place: knr.gl. There is news, radio, sports, movie reviews, movie trailers (mostly in English with Greenlandic subtitles), video game reviews, and, of course, children’s programming. KNR, which itself stands for “Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa” (literally, “The Radio of the Land of the Greenlanders”), truly gives you a good glimpse of a culture that many spend their whole lives never thinking about.

Greenland also has an extraordinarily noteworthy musical tradition which has, predictably, reached Denmark with often a lot more than modest success. Don’t expect to find a lot of these songs even in Danish translation, if you can even find the Greenlandic lyrics at all. I find Greenlandic music exciting, tense, modern, and extremely good at a wide range of expression techniques.

The responses I get when I tell people that I can speak a bit of Greenlandic—they are indeed interesting. Usually they fall in line with something like this:

 

“Greenlandic? Is that even a real language?”

“How many people speak it?”

“Is it Indo-European?”

 

And my personal favorite:

 

“How many people live in Greenland…like…three?”

 

In response to hearing it, either from me or, even rarer, from KNR or a song, I hear things like this:

 

“That doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before!”

“I’m not even going to try to repeat that…”

“WHAT?!!?”

 

And of course, when seeing written Greenlandic, I almost invariably get this (or the equivalent):

 

“That’s all one word?”

 

I had been learning Greenlandic somewhat non-seriously on-and-off up until about a few months ago, when my M.A. Thesis was largely complete and I also was on semester break. Afterwards I began pursuing it with more seriousness, despite many people wondering why I could be devoted to something that was, for them, so strange.

Now for some of my hang-ups with Greenlandic so far:

 

(1)    Resources are scarce. This really goes without saying, and this is coming from someone who reads Danish fairly/very well, depending on his mood. If you don’t have Danish in your language arsenal, you are even more out of luck. But given as all numbers in Greenlandic that are higher than 12 are borrowed from Danish, not also to mention much Greenlandic technical jargon (some terms have both a Greenlandic neologism and a Danish equivalent), you’ll be tempted to dive into that world sooner rather than later, and you Greenlandic journey will be that much easier because of it.

 

(2)    The “q” sound is something I still struggle with regularly. Its sound, to me, sounds like “Ah-k-huh-r” when slowed down a lot. Almost everyone who learns this language struggles with it, although there are also problems with the “rl/ll” sound, which is probably like “d-l-German ‘ch’” which slowed down. The single “l” smacks of “dl” in English, but the d is very slight.

 

Hopefully these approximations can ensure that you don’t struggle with these sounds as much as I did. If it makes you feel any better, there are only three real vowel sounds in Greenlandic: a, u, and i. The letters “o” and “e” are shifted formed of “u” and “i” that come about in the fusion of polysynthetic word components.

 

(3)    Spoken comprehension comes hard. Inuit languages are very different from almost anything you may have encountered (unless you have studied another Inuit Language—as you may know, Greenlandic is the most commonly spoken member of the family, the most commonly studied, and the one in least danger of extinction). Consistency and constant media exposure will be your friends here…as they would be with learning any language at all…

 

(4)    A directory of common suffixes does not yet exist for free—and I think every student of the language would require it. There are dictionaries to be found, without question, but with over 20,000 words in the most comprehensive ones, and almost no resources devoted to the “most common words” (or pieces), you may be out of luck in finding a quick way to find a list of words that will prove most useful to you. The Kauderwelsch Guide, mentioned above, is definitely as good as it gets.

The plus side is that there are cultural institutions in Greenland and in Denmark that would be more than willing to help you on your journey and answer, with a few internet searches, most of your questions about Greenlandic and Greenland.

It will be interesting for me to reflect on this piece as I continue on the journey (or give it up, which doesn’t seem likely at this point), but as for now, I am looking forward to the day in which all of Greenland’s musical glory and intriguing culture is a lot less of a mystery.