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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Is Fiji Hindi the Hardest Language I’ve Learned to Date? (And Resources to Learn Fiji Hindi)

While I’ve been doing some light studying of Fiji Hindi on and off since October 2017 on my YouTube channel, I only began studying Fiji Hindi in earnest about a week and a half ago, having made it my primary project for April 2018 given that I’ve become ever more comfortable with Fijian.

Yes, I’ve been getting significant pressure to focus more on Standard Hindi (mostly from people who know very little if not in fact nothing about Fiji), but Fiji Hindi it is, because it is the “language of the heart” concerning pretty much all Indo-Fijians. Standard Hindi may be useful but my first priority is ensuring that I can manage Fiji Hindi well enough (because pretty much nowhere else online have I encountered anyone doing what I’m doing with Fiji Hindi right now).

I’ve made four recordings in Fiji Hindi thus far for the 30-Day Speaking Challenge and already I’ve noticed a drastic improvement in me being able to put sentences together. That said, I still speak in a very simple manner and come NOWHERE CLOSE to being able to ask for directions / order things in restaurants using only Fiji Hindi.

The process of making those recordings, on the other hand, has been difficult for a number of reasons:

While Fiji Hindi is, from the perspective of linguistic concepts, not too difficult (Palauan and Greenlandic required a lot of mind-bending), from the perspective of resources it has been the most difficult language I’ve encountered.

At least with Fijian I had phrasebooks. With Palauan I had a good website (tekinged.com). With Kiribati / Gilbertese I had a good textbook as well as several thorough online dictionaries.

For Fiji Hindi, I’ve haven’t had as many materials that have significantly eased the process for me. There is the Glosbe Sentence dictionary, as well as the Live Lingua Project (look under Fijian for the Fiji Hindi Course!), not also to mention a series of good grammar books (available on Google) and an excellent Memrise Course.

Oh! And there’s Wikipedia available in Fiji Hindi as well (https://hif.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pahila_Panna).

For dictionaries, I use Glosbe’s sentence translations, the CTRL-F function on various books, and this dictionary which tends to be very clearly hit-or-miss (http://www.oocities.org/fijihindi/FijiHindiEnglishDict.htm). For verb conjugations there’s Wikiversity (from which I compiled this video walking you through the conjugations):

That said, a lot of these materials have been inconsistent in multiple ways (e.g. writing systems, the grammar book even uses the Devanagari script which even the Wikipedia [intended for native speakers] doesn’t use, the Peace Corps book uses upside-down e’s and the Memrise course doesn’t [and neither does the Wikipedia or the small bit of the Lonely Planet South Pacific Phrasebook devoted to Fiji Hindi]).

In a sense, this language has been very hard because even sculpting a SIMPLE SENTENCE can take multiple cross-references of all of these materials as well as using Google Search’s function to find out how legitimate (or not) a simple phrase is (to do this, use quotation marks to ensure that the EXACT combination of words you’re looking for exists somewhere. This can [and usually does] work even for languages with small internet presences!)

There’s also Fiji Indian TV (at http://www.fijiindiantv.com/ , with a lot of their videos hosted on YouTube) and the amount of English loan words used is staggering (and a friend of mine, Kevin Fei Sun of Bahasantara [https://medium.com/bahasantara] gave me fair warnings about how commonly they’re used even in Standard Hindi). I’ve been using this to ensure that my accent is…well…better…in some respect…because both in person and on YouTube I’ve had people telling me that I “sound like a white person” when I speak Fiji Hindi.

Maybe all I need is more effort and speaking practice invested in Fiji Hindi and the problem will “go away”. But if you’ve ever had this issue with Indo-Aryan Languages (regardless of what race you are), then do let me know! I’m always ready to hear inspiring stories!

After a week or two of recordings, I’ll set in place goals to ensure that I don’t have “gaps” in my Fiji Hindi vocabulary, much like I did with Fijian in February and March.

By the way, the March 2018 30-Days-of-Fijian recording WILL be up by next week!

This is the beginning of what promises to be a very exciting journey!

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All About the Burmese Language

My first Independence-Day Related post of 2018! (Well, discounting the shout-out to Slovakia I gave on New Year’s Day). Today is Burmese Independence Day and I thought it would be a good occasion to write about the language.

A year ago at around this time my parents were floating the idea of visiting Myanmar (Burma) after isolationist policies were relaxed. Interestingly they weren’t the only ones thinking this way—Sammy Samuels of “Myanmar Shalom”, a Jewish-Burmese Tourist Agency (YES, there are Burmese Jews, both in the country proper and abroad, and I’ve met BOTH!) described it as a “gold rush” when we met for the first time in May.

In a mall in Yangon that looked fancier beyond most malls in America, there were photographs of the country’s many minorities with captions about their lifestyles in Burmese and in English. My father told me that the underlying implication was that the wave of investors from China, the West and Myanmar’s immediate neighbors such as India and Thailand would threaten many aspects of local culture that remained unchanged during the years of military dictatorship.

Myanmar’s internal politics are labyrinthine and the ethnic diversity found in the country is similar to the situation that was present in the Americas before European colonization happened. (Fun Fact: Europe is the least linguistically diverse continent!)

It’s been more than half a year since I took off from Yangon and since then I’ve kept up my studies of Burmese on-and-off. It has proved to be one of the most difficult languages I have encountered by virtue of the fact that it is…different. (And Lao, for many reasons, I found significantly easier both to learn and to understand).

Here are some videos that I made about Burmese and my journey learning it last month. Sadly due to some circumstances I wasn’t able to complete the Eurolinguiste 30-Day Challenge but I’m glad I did what I did:

In any case, I turned to Polyglot Polls for potential topics to write about, and I got some topics that I’m not too qualified to write about, such as:

  • Burmese street slang
  • Tai-Kadai loan words in Burmese
  • Mon-Khmer loan words in Burmese

 

IF YOU KNOW about any of these topics in any capacity, PLEASE let me know about them in the comments.

One thing I really have noticed was the fact that, much like with languages like Yiddish, Uyghur and Tajik, Burmese takes a lot of words from a religious language, in the case, Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism’s scriptures.

Burmese native words are one syllable each, and so expressions that have more than one syllable are usually of foreign origin. It goes without saying that words like “telephone” and “Internet” are detectable English loan words, as well as many names for countries and nationalities.

But one of the first things I had to learn in Burmese (as SOON as my visa got approved), was how to ask for only vegetarian food and the word that is used is သက်သတ်လွတ် (θɛʔ.θæʔ.luʔ). There were also some other things that pointed to foreign influence that was Indo-European but clearly not European, like the fact that the word for “name” is နာမည် (næɴmɛ), which is very similar to the English word “name” (it’s a Pali word.

Interestingly I notice that the patterns for liturgical-language loan words throughout the world are quite similar (and my observations tell me that they tend to skew towards nouns and higher registers of language).

But, here are some things you need to know about Burmese, whether you may be starting to learn it or want to learn a little bit or just want to read a list of facts:

  • No grammatical gender.

 

  • You put words at the end of a sentence in order to indicate what tense it is:

 

Tense Markers DONE

These will also be DIFFERENT depending on how formal (or not) the text (or spoken word) is. On inscriptions you’ll usually see formal variants. In phrasebooks, you’ll see informal.

 

 

  • Men and women will speak differently. My first day in Mandalay I went to a bank with my father and the servicewomen opened the door and told me “mingalaba SHIN” (the “shin” at the end is a “polite particle” used by women. For those unaware: it really doesn’t have a meaning, a bit like adding “sir” or “ma’am” at the end of sentences in English. I, as a man, would say “mingalaba khimya” (using a different polite particle). Also! Polite versions of “I” will be gendered as well. ကျွန်တော် (ʨənɔ) for men and ကျွန်မ (ʨəmá) for women.

 

 

  • You will also use classifier words as well. To say “I want coffee + 4” you would say “I want four cups of coffee”. To say “I want paper + 3” you would say “I want three sheets of paper”.

 

Here are some classifier words:

Category Words DONE

  • You can usually omit the subject of the sentence if it is implied. I remember one time I was talking to a Burmese taxi driver about Burmese music and I mentioned Chan Chan (described a musician who made her career off women’s broken hearts, in a sense). He said “very beautiful”, leaving it unclear as to whether it was the music OR the singer that he was talking about. Expect this commonly.

 

  • The tones are probably the trickiest out of any tonal language that I’ve encountered (with Mandarin probably having the easiest system, in my opinion). I’ll link to various sites that can help you better.

 

One website I would recommend is this below: provides a LOT of cultural information and provides steady information where a lot of other sites are lacking. Great for learning the Burmese script as well as tones and the finer points of language:

https://www.asiapearltravels.com/language/intro_burmese.php

Another resource I would recommend for getting a very basic level is Kenneth Wong’s playlist. He has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard in my life:

Concerning books, Lonely Planet is also a good bet (when I first became enthused by Burmese in 2014, WAAAAY before I know that I would end up in the country and I honestly didn’t ever think I would end up there, they didn’t have the standalone Burmese phrasebook but now they do. I have the Southeast Asia one).

Also Reise Know How is pretty much always fantastic if you read German. In case of the Burmese one, the proceeds will go to funding children’s schools in rural Myanmar.

 

And as for USING it:

Burmese is very lively on the internet and when I was in the country I could see why. Even among some of the temples in Bagan which are crowded with homeless people, there were people using smartphones there.

What’s more, the Burmese-American communities are also noteworthy to point out (and the U.S. isn’t the only place that has these expatriate communities). They also have many ethnic minorities of Myanmar represented as well within these communities.

Burmese music is also fantastic especially when you consider the fact that, in some cases, it somewhat resembles Tom Lehrer’s confession as Lobachevsky (“Every chapter I stole from somewhere else”). Tons of Western, Chinese and Russian pop songs are covered in barely legal manners and translated into Burmese. A lot of the lyrics are also readily available embedded as subtitles in the video (so you’ll need the Burmese script for that!).

Some songs I’ve heard rendered into Burmese include “My Heart Will Go On”, ABBA, VIA Gra (Band from Ukraine popular in the Russian-speaking world), “A Million Voices” (that almost won Eurovision 2015), and many songs that I vaguely remember hearing in produce isles in the United States. (Confession: I know pathetically little about American popular music and, to be honest, I like it that way).

Anyhow, I’m happy to answer your questions or receive your expertise.

Above all, know that Asian Languages are not scary as you may make them out to be!

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