Who’s Afraid of Swedish ‘n Friends? The Culture of Discouragement from Learning Scandinavian Languages and its Implications

Polyglot Facebook groups exploded last week with countless debates and personal stories about learning languages of Scandinavia via on-location immersion (or, in simpler terms, learning Swedish in Sweden very much like I did [even though I did the majority of the work after I left]).

The vast majority of the stories were discouraging for a multitude of reasons. Icelanders who wanted to use English no matter what. Danes telling study-abroad students that learning their language was a waste of time. Nearly a HUNDRED stories about people had given up learning these languages because of these attitudes.

I’d like to say two things.

First off, there’s tunnel vision at work in a lot of these. Looking back at my time in Sweden, I was met mostly with ENCOURAGEMENT to learn Swedish from native-speaking friends (especially since I told them that I was doing it for heritage reasons). But again, there were times that I screwed up with in hesitating (which WILL get you answered in English) and unnaturally slow speech (same result).

I had frustration, no doubt. I called up my parents for encouragement and sometimes was nearly on the verge of crying, wondering how I could ever learn the language of my family to read the letters of my ancestors who had passed on.

But there were also people like the learners I met in Heidelberg, staff members at stores who would use Swedish with me even if I was speaking English to my family members within earshot, and those who were pleased when I switched from ordering my groceries in English to Swedish and told me that I was going a good job.

Keep in mind that during all of this I was at a BASIC level. And another thing to keep in mind (with all of these internet horror stories hopping around) is the fact that using a language is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GAME depending on what level you’re on.

That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, yes, the attitudes need to improve. As far as the west is concerned, the day is not far when NO ONE will be impressed by good English spoken by non-natives anymore. The flipside to this is that as fewer and fewer people in the Anglophone world see a reason to learn languages, especially those outside of the mainstream, the more you’ll stand out and the more people will want to engage you because of that.

If you are a speaker of a language other than English, you have a MORAL IMPERATIVE to not switch to English unless absolutely necessary. This isn’t up for debate anymore in an age of mass language death.  No one is impressed, no one thinks it fun, and it just makes you look insecure. If you don’t like the fact that I said that, get over it. Learn to have some pride in your identity and your native language and realize that throwing away your identity for some cool American-esque one only serves the corporations destroying the planet. (And did I mention it makes you look insecure? I did. Also using multiple languages with English is okay, as no doubt I may encounter in places like Fiji should I go there later this year).

The good news is that most people are changing. The polyglot communities seem to be getting more powerful and with the Internet people are being exposed to other languages and cultures more quickly than before and realize that machine translation isn’t going to solve everything or make everything accessible.

When I was reading a lot of the Scandinavian discouragement stories in groups, I kept on thinking “why did none of this really happen to me?” In Greenland when buying things in stores, it was usually in a mixture of Greenlandic and Danish even though sometimes they might have thrown some English in their in the off-chance that they thought I was from somewhere else. (Disclosure: with the exception of speaking with friends [in which we took turns hopping between various languages], I didn’t take the English-thing personally and just continued using whatever language I was without flinching).

Then, of course, the fact that I’ve met speakers from the Nordic countries in New York and they’ve all been super-appreciative of my efforts to learn their language and with CONSISTENCY they’ve told me that they’ve been impressed. Sometimes some of them wanted to learn other languages from me, in which case I was willing to switch (I gotta do my part to keep languages alive too, y’know). But nowhere NEAR the variety of stuff along the lines of “people told me to stop wasting their time, people rolled their eyes, I needed a perfect accent in order to not get English used with me”, yada yada yada.

It has nearly been one year since I was in Myanmar and I could have easily blamed the fact that I got answered in English fairly frequently on the fact that I’m WHITE. Or I could do the mature thing and realize that I’ve encountered fluent Burmese speakers of all races and that I should have worked on my general fluidity and sounding natural rather than expecting to get answered in Burmese with simple phrasebook material.

Looking back at my time in Sweden and Iceland, I saw it as an added challenge. Getting answered in Icelandic in a restaurant was so elusive in polyglot groups that it almost never happened. I had it done consistently (with public transport it was another story because they expected me to be a tourist. Keep using Icelandic and they’ll switch, trust me on this. Again, with personal conversations = completely different game). That said, I also hear that Quebec and Senegal make Iceland seem like “the first level in the game”.

At the end of the day, I want you to read this piece with nothing but encouragement.

Getting fluency in the languages of the Nordic countries AND getting L1 speakers to use it with you IS VERY MUCH POSSIBLE. Don’t believe ANYONE who tells you otherwise. Sure, there may be some people who discourage you but they’d exist for any language community and are always in the minority.

But any language journey, no matter what language you choose, is no simple process—you need to be dynamic, inventive and persistent.

And keep in mind that, in all likelihood, you’re not reading a whole lot of success stories about language learning in the polyglot groups. But those success stories are out there and you can start writing your own!

Have fun and don’t give up!

norden

Why Learn Rarer Languages?

A lot of people with whom I have interacted online wonder why I devote time to rarer languages rather than the big languages of the UN.

It’s interesting to ponder because now matter how I think about it, learning rarer languages is a move that isn’t only justified but a possible moral imperative.

Allow me to explain:
(1) Rarer languages are usually spoken in marginalized areas. This enables you to see narratives that are more readily hidden when you only know powerful languages, in which corporate interest tends to dominate.

When I use languages like Spanish or even Swedish online, it’s clear that a lot of what I read is stuck to a capitalistic system, one that secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) revels in destruction of the planet and the enrichment of a handful of people on it.
Even in places where social democracy is present and higher degrees of equality, there is an underlying complicity in a system in which entire countries and cultures are being destabilized and destroyed.

These countries and cultures speak languages that people barely learn, and by learning these languages you bring their stories of injustice to light.

“The oppressed are always on the same side” (so I remember from a play called “The Irish Hebrew Lesson”, that featured Irish AND Yiddish [both endangered languages]).

By learning to identify with places that may be weaker economically because of imperialist meddling, you’ll be a better human and be more conscious about the destructive patterns that the system so desperate tries to hide or to get people to not think about.

(2) Rarer languages will get you red carpet treatment more easily.

Its interesting that even for a language like Danish in which the Wikitravel page explicitly discourages people from using the local language (saying you’ll “get no points” for learning it), I HAVE gotten red carpet treatment (granted, it’s because I’m fluent rather than dabbling a few words, so there’s that to offer).

Truth is, the rarer the language you learn, and the fewer people from your demographic learning it (e.g. white Jewish guys like me usually don’t learn Burmese), the more “favors” you’ll get. Free drinks. Contact information. Invitations to parties. VALIDATION.

It’s a pity that this remains a well-established secret because most people are convinced by “the system” that learning rarer languages isn’t worth it. Again, this is another diversion tactic designed to get people to ignore the areas of the world being harmed the most by contemporary capitalism.

(And it is interesting because Arabic dialects are somehow deems “useless” despite the fact that, y’know, it’s what people actually SPEAK. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of officialdom and it has its place, but the informal varieties most people never, EVER try to learn. Well I’ll be going forward with Sudanese Arabic later this year. Very well, that means more honor for me!)

(3) When you speak a rarer language, the ability to stand out among its learners is higher.

A lot of people have reached very high levels of languages like Spanish. There’s no denying that and it is an accomplishment. But because of that, you will have to be AMONG THE BEST of L2 Spanish speakers to stand out.

Meanwhile, with Finnish and Hungarian I was already standing out even when I WASN’T FLUENT. And when I, visibly non-Asian that I am, used Burmese in public in restaurants in Mandalay and Yangon, tourists STARED at me in amazement.

A word of caution: hanging on your laurels too much and / or taking the praise too seriously (even when it isn’t deserved) means that you MAY lose the motivation to improve!

 

(4) You may get untouched cultural masterpieces and influences that will stand out and make you stand out in turn.

A lot of people may be influenced by the artwork, music or culture of Western Europe or the United States, but I looked elsewhere in the world for deep inspiration and I found it in the museums of Nuuk and in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I found it on Pan-Oceanic music YouTube channels and in the music collections of the North Atlantic. In Melanesia, Greenland, Iceland, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and in the songs of my ancestors. And WAY too many other places.

The art you consume becomes a part of who you are.

Venture into art that a lot of your circle doesn’t know about, and your intrigue will EXPLODE.

(5) Those Who Think Different Have Every Imaginable Advantage

If you’re in a place like the United States, you live in a world in which conformity is the path of least resistance and a lot of people believe EVERYTHING they hear on mass media.

By doing something different, you’re emboldened to become a hero, to become a peacemaker, and to go in while myriads of people are thinking “why bother?” or “who cares?”

The conformity and the dumbing down, as things stand, is on route to continue…

…unless, maybe, YOU will be the hero to stem it back. And only those who think differently will have the courage to stand up to the system that has hurt so many. Could it be YOU?

Dysgu Cymraeg

Welsh dragon versus yours truly.

NOTE: PLEASE don’t interpret this as discouragement from wanting to learn popular languages at all, if that’s what you want! I wrote this article because a lot of people wondered “why” I focused on languages like Greenlandic, Lao, Fijian and Gilbertese for months at a time. This is why. And I hope that it will inspire you to chase your language dreams, whether they be with global languages or ones that are significantly smaller.
Onward!

The Biggest Mistake People Make at Language Social Events

come back when you can put up a fight

I have been going to language exchange events for years now (although I’ve been showing up at them less frequently in 2018 due to reasons I cannot disclose quite yet). In some respects it actually teaches me more about human psychology than it does about languages in general.

(It reminds me of the fact that, when I play Interactive Online / .io games, I actually learn more about human psychology rather than strategy as well. I will also never forget the time that someone named his/her character “press ctrl-w to go faster”.)

I’m sorry to have to say this but it really needs to be said: more often than not, seeing people interact at Language Exchange events makes me understand that most people don’t really know how to learn languages very well, for multiple reasons. I’ll go into why shortly.

If you attend a language exchange social event, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor if you want to learn (1) the local language (e.g. if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have many opportunities to learn Icelandic with natives, given as they’ll be the most commonly represented demographic) and (2) English (even if it isn’t the local language).

But concerning someone who wants to learn Mandarin or French and only speak a little bit of that and nothing else but English? You’re going to need to read this…because otherwise you may leave that event broken and discouraged, not also to mention demotivated from ever returning.

Now, you’ve come here for the biggest mistake, so here it is:

The biggest mistake that people make at Language Social Events is not seeking to make gains with their languages when they interact with native speakers.

And EVEN if there are no native speakers of language you want to speak present, feel free to bring some small books along that you can use to play “show and tell”. I did this most recently at an event aimed primarily at learners of Asian Languages (I turned out, not surprisingly, being the only person representing any learner of Southeast Asian Languages. But hey, maybe a Burmese or Lao enthusiast would show and I needed to account for that chance. Besides, I could easily learn about other people’s cultures or even pick up words from languages I haven’t been actively learning).

I had some books on my person and one of them was a Jamaican Patois book. One of my friends who was a Mandarin native speaker didn’t speak Patois and didn’t have any interest in it, but I told him that Chinese languages influenced Jamaican culture in general, showed him the book, read him a few phrases and showed him pictures of Jamaica. That way, I made gains with a language that NO ONE there spoke. I also met someone at a party who was learning Malagasy and HE did very much the same thing to me (despite having no book). I really appreciated it because I have to say I don’t know much about Madagascar at all!

But if you meet native speakers of a language you are actively learning, let me tell you what I most often see versus what you should be doing:

What you should be doing: even if you’re not fluent, ask them to help you put together sentences or even form sentences in your target language while they “feed you words” (they’ll be happy to do this, I’ve done it with English and even with other languages I’m fluent in like Norwegian with other learners). Also ask them to provide details about their language as well as sentences or cultural tidbits that are likely to impress the NEXT native-speaker you meet.

What a lot of people do instead: ask small talk questions only using English. Use a handful of pre-programmed sentences in their target language(s) and spend most of the time using English instead. Use language exchange events as a means to flirt rather than to actually rehearse languages.

The primary key is that you leave having gained something. That something could be cultural know-how, phrases that will help you put together sentences better, or tips on improving your accent. You can even make gains with languages you aren’t actively learning! (I know because I’ve done this with languages like Japanese that I’m not learning at the moment nor do I have any plans to in the immediate future. I’ve also taught people basic phrases in languages like Burmese and Norwegian that they may never see themselves learning at all).

And now one thing I would consider: even if you intend to focus only on one language, I would recommend learning at least a LITTLE bit of a variety of other languages (feel free to do this even if you have no intention to learn them to fluency). This way, you’ll actually be able to start conversations more easily.

If you’re the only one who knows any Khmer, Oromo or Danish, you’ll have people asking you about it even if they have no intention to learn the language themselves. Even if you speak only a LITTLE bit, you can actually be the “local authority” on that language (as I’ve done WAAAAY too often).

You can even use this as a means to learn how to “teach” through an L2 you’ve been working on (and you may discover vocabulary gaps along the way). Most people who show up to these events are curious people and this is even MORE true if it’s a paid event.

A lot of people use English (or English + their native language) 5/6th of the time at language exchange events and wonder why they’re not making gains and why other learners are overtaking them. It isn’t about raw intelligence, it’s about the fact that language learners that put more in get more out. And you have to put effort in from EVERYWHERE in EVERY area of your life if you want the coveted prize of “near-native fluency” or even anything close to it.

Don’t enter without a plan as to what you want and how you’ll get it. Yes, I know you can’t control who will show up (maybe that Finnish speaker will be there, or maybe there won’t be anyone with whom to practice! Who knows?) But you should prepare for a wide range of situations based on what you’ve read about the event series and how you’ve experienced it before in the past.

For most language exchange events in New York City, I’ll expect to use the Romance Languages with regularity. Speakers of Chinese languages, especially Mandarin and Cantonese, will be present with consistency, alongside speakers of Russian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, languages from throughout South Asia and Arabic dialects that will usually lean towards Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Somewhat rarer than that but still frequent are Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Persian Languages. Rarer still but showing up about once every two months or so are speakers of Nordic Languages, Turkic Languages of Central Asia (such as Kazakh and Uyghur) and languages of Southeast Asia. The rarest that I’ve encountered are speakers of African Languages, usually from South Africa and Ethiopia. Only once or twice have I encountered speakers of native languages of the Americas. I have never encountered anyone from Oceania at any language exchange event to date.

So think about who you encounter frequently and develop plans for what languages you KNOW you will practice there, what languages you are LIKELY to, and which languages you will probably NOT practice, but would LIKE TO.

Tl;dr always make gains with your L2 whenever you speak to a native speaker. Even if you’re not fluent, you can make those gains. The key is to get SOME progress on your language-learning, and you can always do that.

Have a good weekend!

Learning Endangered / Minority Languages to Fluency: Is it Possible?

Learners of languages that have little political support (like Breton or Palauan) struggle more than those who learn politically powerful languages (like French or Japanese). The reason behind this has actually very little to do with the grammatical makeup of “difficulty” of the language.

For English speakers, Fijian (a language I’m currently learning) is easier than Finnish if one takes ONLY grammar into account. Within a little more than a week I’ve mastered many of the elements of Fijian grammar and that same task for Finnish took me at least A YEAR.

Of the languages I’ve done for the Huggins International 30-Day speaking Challenge (Lao, Greenlandic, and Hungarian–I’m doing Greenlandic again in February), I would say Hungarian and Greenlandic are about equal in terms of grammatical complication but Greenlandic is harder for me in general because (1) not as much support in technology and Internet usage (2) the words are longer (3) ways to engage with the language are more scarce and (4) Greenlandic doesn’t have as many Latinate / English cognates as Hungarian does (and Hungarian has significantly fewer than its Finnic bretheren further north).

Make no mistake: learning a rarer language can seem like an uphill battle at times, and that’s without taking into account what people may say to you (if you even care what sort of reactions other people have towards your project at all…part of me has really learned to stop caring).

Finding written material in Bislama was difficult, despite the fact that it was probably one of the easiest languages I encountered (given the fact that it is Vanuatu’s English Creole with French influence). I had no shortage of listening material, however, and that really sealed my journey to fluency. That, and putting the comprehensive vocabulary (about 7000 words, including place names from Melanesia and the Bible, in the WHOLE language–as in, every known word in it) into Anki.

With multiple rarer languages, I defied the odds and got fluent. It seems that I’m on track to do it again with Fijian! But why do so many language learners struggle and fall (note that I did not say “fail”) when it comes to learning rarer languages?

Have no fear!

Mother of the Sea and Me

 

(1) A lot of people getting attached to their language-learning materials.

This is a big one, and I addressed it a while back here.

Point is, language learning materials are to be grown OUT of, not grown ATTACHED to. And even when you’re fluent, feel free to use them as a reference now and then, but fluent speakers engage the language with material intended for native speakers.

What usually happens is that people sometimes get too attached to their books and their apps and use them as a recourse to engaging with the language when they should hop into the real world of that language…as QUICKLY as possible.

 

(2) A lot of people getting attached to needing to use the language with real people.

I became fluent in Bislama without even having SET FOOT in Vanuatu or in any other country of Oceania. How did I do it? I made a “virtual Vanuatu”. I had Ni-Vanuatu radio stations playing regularly when I needed a break from teaching and had to play mindless video games. I employed dozens of other methods across language-learning disciplines.

I used it actively by singing Bislama songs to friends and even recording myself.

Using the language with real people helps, this is beyond any hint of doubt. But don’t use “I need to be surrounded by people who speak it!” as an excuse to deny yourself a language you’ve been dreaming of, and certainly not in the age of the Internet.

Fun fact: up until I met Greenlandic speakers for the first time, a few minutes before boarding the plane to Nuuk in Reykjavik, there was a TINY nagging voice in my head that tried to convince me that Greenlandic was actually a conlang that was only used on the Internet and in a handful of books (given that I had never, EVER heard it spoken or used by real people up until that moment).

Turns out, the language as it was used in Greenland was every bit as real and authentic and MATCHED UP WITH everything I learned with books, music, radio and online studies.

You can fool your brain into thinking you’re pretty much anywhere on the planet at this point with immersion even with a language you haven’t heard ONCE used by real people in person.

 

(3) A lot of people begin learning rarer languages with a losing mindset and no intention to shed it

“I’m probably not going to be fluent in this language anyhow. There’s just no way. But I’ll try it…”

Hey.

Stop it.

If you WANT to learn your dream rare language to fluency, it may take more effort and LOADS of more discipline because giving up is the path of least resistance, especially with a language that others may actively be discouraging you from learning.

But you’re a winner, right? You want to be fluent in that language, right? So why believe the dream killers or that internal voice saying you won’t do well?

 

(4) They don’t build emotional attachment to the language

One of the first things I did when I learned rarer languages successfully (Yiddish, Tok Pisin, Fijian) was FIND MUSIC that I liked in the language and put it on all of my devices and my phone.

That way, I would build an emotional attachment to the language every time I heard the song and it would, on some level, increase my motivation.

A lot of people don’t really do this. Instead they slog away at books or classes and seldom if ever do they actually “get to know” the language or the place where it is spoken.

Also for Kiribati / Gilbertese in January, I tried searching for music that I liked and my first impression was “this country has ABSOLUTELY no good music whatsoever!” But interestingly enough, I found YouTube channels that collected Kiribati music and I sampled fifty different songs. I acquired the songs I liked and I put them in a folder and there are so many Kiribati songs that I find myself wanting to hum while walking on the streets of Brooklyn that, right now, I actively needed to be REMINDED of the time in which I thought that Gilbertese music was “no good”.

Also feel free to use the national sub-reddits for smaller countries to get music or radio-station recommendations. (There may be a handful of countries with no subreddits or, in the case of Kiribati, one that is locked ot the general public. I applied to get in. Still waiting. Hey, administrators, if you’re reading this, could you approve me, please? I have videos of me speaking Kiribati on the Internet!)
(5) They don’t learn about the culture behind that language in detail.

 

Pretty much every human alive in the developed world has some knowledge of what French or Japanese culture is like. I knew very little about Papua New Guinea’s cultures before learning Tok Pisin, despite the fact that my father had stories from his time there. So one thing I did was I headed to libraries and bookstores where I found travel guides to “PNG”, and read up about what the political systems there were like, the history, the cuisine and important things that travellers to the country should know.

Without that cultural knowledge, even with global languages, you will be at a disadvantage to (1) native speakers and (2) learners who have that cultural knowledge. So get reading!

 

(6) They may believe limiting advice from language gurus, the vast majority of who have never learned endangered or minority languages and have no intention to do so.

 

And not having that intention is okay, I should add. Personally I really like learning the rarer languages and I’ve embraced it fully. I understand that not everyone has that drive.

That said, a lot of gurus in the language-blogging world may insinuate things that you could possibly interpret as discouragement from wanting to learn Mandinka or Bislama or other languages that don’t have millions of people clamoring to learn them.

Disregard any advice that makes you want to run away from your dreams. And embrace any advice that encourages you to make them real.

I think I couldn’t end on a better note so I’ll just stop with that. Have fun!

 

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

Scene: Reykjavik.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

20171023_135507

Lessons I Learned from the 30-Day Speaking Challenge in Lao in November 2017

Shortly after having returned from Iceland after the Polyglot Conference last month, I discovered the fine art of 30-Day Challenge Groups thanks to friends / Facebook Polyglot groups / general curiosity.

During November 2017 I gave one of them a spin for the first time and I chose Lao. I recorded myself speaking Lao for thirty days straight (31 October – 29 November) and I compiled all of the results here with English subtitles (Turn on Closed Captions!):

Did I accomplish fluency in Lao? Not yet. Have I gotten closer? Most certainly. Will I become fluent in Lao more easily if I did this several times? I don’t know, but I would venture most probably.

Some reflections from the journey:

 

  • A Big Portion of the Language Learning Journey is Patching Up Mistakes

 

Lao has some sounds that I didn’t manage as well in the beginning, most notably the sounds represented as “ə” or “y” in transliteration. This was in addition to me being quite careless with my tones after the first week or so (we’ll see how much “damage” that does when Lao speakers actually encounter this video for the first time, I’m imagining that I could be understandable but a bit off-putting in a sense).

But I’ve noticed that with each new recording, in addition to the Anki- and Memrise-training that I not only did in transit but also mentioned OUTRIGHT in the challenges, I had a lot of my weaknesses slip away bit by bit.

Looking back on my journeys with languages like Swedish, Hebrew and Finnish, there was a similar pattern: sometimes I would say things that wouldn’t entirely make sense, and then I would discover them and I would avoid saying certain awkward phrases or incorrect verb forms in the future.

When you rehearse a language through speaking imperfectly, that’s really what’s expected (and as much as it pains me to think about my past mistakes, I’m grateful that I continue to do something like Benny Lewis’ “Speak from Day One” method rather than this academic notion of “don’t speak unless you can do it perfectly” [which, in my understanding, would just entrench a “fear of flying” in a sense]).

 

  • No One Program Will Fix Everything

 

This is important. I signed up thinking that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that I could put Lao on my list of fluent languages by the time 2018 rolled around.

NOPE!

(Although maybe I could have if I put a LOT more effort into it, but having to maintain more than a dozen languages is moderately painful at times. Also, 2017 isn’t over yet…)

By the end of the challenge, it had occurred to me that while my grammar and idiomatic knowledge were usually on point, my knowledge of numbers, months and the days of the week were severely lacking.

That, and I still can’t read Lao as fluidly as I could, let’s say, Yiddish.

There continue to be gaps, but this program more than anything really helped me assemble my framework understanding of how Lao works and I will continue to grow on that framework in the future.

The 30-Day Challenge was noticeably helpful for the following in particular:

 

  • Sentence structure
  • Accent
  • Knowledge of the most commonly used words in conversation
  • Verb usage
  • Conjunctions

 LAO

And being able to wear a sticker with the likeness of this flag.

 

  • The Reward of a Good Deed is Another Good Deed

 

This is a quote from the Jewish text of “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of the Fathers). The idea is this: one good deed leads to a chain of good deeds, and one bad deed likewise can lead to a chain of bad deeds as well.

The same came happen for habits.

During the middle of the challenge there were tasks involved that required watching or reading media in your target language. (Full disclosure: just in case, I had to pick a Lao film with English subtitles, which was okay by me)

Because of that, I was also inspired to glimpse Lao culture in more depth, which in turn brought me to the library to read about Laos in travel literature when I had the chance.

Also after having enthusiastically plunged into the first week, I was similarly driven to complete the rest of the challenge without missing a day (well…technically…I missed the last day, but I began a day early and did the first prompt twice as a result, but Day 30 was just “pick a topic from the first week and do it over again to see how you’ve improved” and it was a choice between that and my compilation video and I chose the latter).

Quite a lot of people gave up later on or even in the middle (as commitment challenges go this is actually a common occurrence).

Knowing that I might be tempted to give up, I hooked myself in the first week, knowing that I would go the whole way if I made it a true habit.

And it seems that it will continue to be a habit because in December 2017 I’ll be doing the 30-Day Greenlandic Speaking Challenge!

This. Will. Be. FUN!!!!

kalaallit nunaat

In My Opinion, These Five Countries Have the Best Contemporary Music (November 2017)

 

I’ve tasted music from well over FIFTY different countries and at least that many languages

I’m sorry to say but, after having tasted music in a lot of the rest of the world, it seems to me that contemporary American music more often than not seems uninspired, shallow and formulaic. Granted, other places do have their share of bad music as well, but ever since college I’ve been looking abroad for musical hits and I’ve never, EVER looked back.

As of late 2017, here are the countries whose music of contemporary times (1980’s to the present) have left me significantly impressed and have changed my life. I also judge primarily for lyrical content as well as for how often I find myself humming or thinking about these tunes when I’m away from any music player or while walking in a field or down the street.

Here we go!

 

  1. Finland

 

One month from today this fascinating country will celebrate its 100th birthday!

It seemed to me in 2013 that I would just learn enough Finnish to “get by” during my venture to meet the local Jewish community in Helsinki and I would promptly forget it. Fate had other plans…

After having discovered a website that offered Finnish Language music 24/7 shortly after my trip, I got hooked. Finnish remains one of my favorite European languages and many of the song lyrics and tunes have been a potent look into what Finnishness (“Suomalaisuus”) entails.

That website, by the way still exists, and it comes with complete song ID’s for everything that plays during a 24-hour period. Check it out, it may prove fun even if you don’t speak or understand any Finnish at all: http://www.radiosuomipop.fi/

 

  1. Solomon Islands

 

I know what you’re thinking, maybe some of you have visibly said “WHAT?!!?” out loud, but Solomon Music is unbelievably refreshing and heartfelt. What’s more, a lot of the music does tend to mix together standard English, Pijin and many of the local languages of the Solomons.

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

 

 

By the way, I asked Dezine how their name was pronounced and they said it was pronounced “de-ZYN” (my understanding is that it’s a homophone with the English word “design”). Yes, I’m FB Messenger contacts with one of the best known musical acts in a country on the other side of the globe. Long story.

 

  1. Myanmar / Burma

 

I still distinctly remember the withdrawal I suffered when I went back from Yangon to New York City and the music I hear from boom boxes and smartphones was noticeably different and not in a good way. Even in very poor regions of the countryside (in Bagan I noticed that this was particularly common), I heard farmers using their smartphones to play music that seemed as though it was vaguely inspired by Chinese pop ballads and classical British radio hits.

Did I tell you about the time I found 100+ Burmese-language songs for $10 on the iTunes store?

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/greatest-hits/id1222130595

There are totally no American, Russian or Chinese cover songs anywhere in that album. Nu uh. No way. [/s]

I also hear that many aspects of the punk music scene in Myanmar have been essential in ensuring inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation, especially important given current events throughout the world but especially in Myanmar.

 

  1. Iceland

You can’t have a landscape like that and not have it inspire you on a very primal level. Sometimes I listen to bland music in grocery stores and at parties and then I listen to the likes of  Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró and I am thereby reminded that there is plenty of originality left in contemporary music, more than many people may give it credit for.

I think that every American alive will probably recognize this tune from somewhere:

And my love of Icelandic rap is literally no secret to anyone who knows me at all. Did I mention I got to see Emmsjé Gauti in concert the day before the Polyglot Conference? Be forewarned: he does demand a lot of audience participation in his events! (He even had an 8-year old boy from the audience join him on stage and sing the chorus to one of his songs!)

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Papua New Guinea

I played a family member some songs from Daniel Bilip the “nambawan hitmaker bilong PNG”. I have a distinct memory of nearly having the phone and the earphones yanked out of my hands when I tried to take it back (the music was THAT addicting!)

 

Trinidad and Tobago

Trini Carnival music is adrenalin in mp3 form. And that’s a very good thing for me. Also, in case you can’t tell, Trinidadian Creole is heavily utilized in these songs, in ways elude the understanding of the average English speaker.

 

 

Israel

At the Hebrew University in the Ulpan I have memories of doing “group singing”. They are very good memories, but the songs are plenty times more memorable.

 

 And now for the coveted no. 1 spot…(that is no surprise in the slighest to anyone who knows me…)

 

  1. GREENLAND

 

Thousands of songs throughout my life, dozens of CD’s, and the most moving music in my life has almost consistently come from one place.

 

 

Greenlandic music tends to contain poetry and musical elements that capture the magnificent feeling of the great beyond in ways that other places’ music just CAN’T.

Ever since I began studying Greenlandic in 2013 (and despite my meager progress), I listened to Greenlandic music and couldn’t get enough. A lot of the styles encapsulate the essence of the many feelings of the human experience.

Some songs have been so beautiful that when I’m listening to them on the subway staying composed is a difficult task.

My personal favorites include Nanook, Rasmus Lyberth and Marc Fussing Rosbach (who just so happens to be the author of a lot of the music for my upcoming video game). I had the chance to meet both Nanook and Marc during my Greenland trip in October (and narrowly missed Rasmus!)

And even if pop ballads and game music isn’t your thing, Siissisoq (“The Rhinoceros”) has come out with literally the best heavy metal I’ve ever heard in my life, and in recent memory they got back together after what was nearly a two-decade hiatus. (I do NOT attribute this to the fact that I wrote a fan letter to the lead singer shortly before hearing this news!)

I’ve written about Greenlandic music in detail elsewhere on this blog, have a read about it here and expect your life to be changed completely.