June 2017: Improve Reading Greenlandic + Learn Krio!

With the Myanmar venture completed, I now turn my sights to June, as well as the intention to have a different Language-Learning or Language-Maintenance related task each month.

Speaking of Language Maintenance, stress related to my video game design has caused me to set aside Tuesday and Saturdays to intense Language Maintenance—to the exclusion of all other days (which will just be flashcarding and other apps when I’m on the subway or what-have-you). I’ll see what this actually ends up doing to my routine.

Anyhow, for June, two missions!

 

  1. Improve my Reading Ability in Greenlandic substantially

 

My ability to write in Greenlandic, oddly enough, is almost non-existent (although perhaps once I get something like a predictive-text keyboard with it, that will actually change, maybe). Casual conversation and tourist things—pretty much whatever is in “Grönländisch Wort für Wort”—is my forte, although I really wouldn’t call myself consistently fluent in Greenlandic at all.

Going through that book endlessly isn’t going to help, what I think I’ll actually need to do is go through intense reading exercises, not involving song lyrics that have translations on the side (I’ve probably memorized everything from Nanook’s songbook by now after three years of listening to their music constantly).

I have three weeks, and I’m going to commit a half-hour per day to reading Greenlandic and using the “gloss” treatment on them (which was something I inventing in teaching classes).

The gloss treatment is, namely, that I take an article, and do the following:

  • Each sentence gets its own paragraph
  • All words that I haven’t encountered before (or, in the case of what I do for classes, that the student is unlikely to have encountered before, or rarer still, that I haven’t seen) get highlighted.
  • After each paragraph I provide the glosses. (In my classes, I often white out the definitions with MS Word on Screen Share, often I’ll get them to guess the words first, a helpful memory technique, by the way, sometimes provide hints or cognates, and then I’ll reveal the definition)

 

greenland asanninneq

 

Here’s my plan:

  • For the first week, I’ll focus on Facebook posts (from fan pages, people who I follow, or friends) in Greenlandic.
  • For the second week, I’ll do song texts that are NOT translated into English, and I’ll choose songs for which the texts are available but that I’ve never seen a translation for
  • For the third and final week, I’ll use news stories while deliberately IGNORING the Danish translation that often accompanies stories in Greenlandic (Fun Fact: in Greenland a lot of signs, etc. are translated in both Greenlandic and in Danish, same for articles, but in the Faroe Islands this is a lot less prevalent)

 

And here is the only Greenlandic dictionary I will ever need, with the comprehensive vocabulary of 18,000+ terms: http://www.ilinniusiorfik.gl/oqaatsit/daka.

Also, one piece of fantastic news that I neglected to mention on this blog: I’m going to be presenting at the Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik in October 2017, and apparently one of the presenters is the head advisor of the Greenlandic Language Secretariat, Per Langgård. Imagine something like “Mr. Greenlandic” and you’ll understand why I remain in absolute awe (and, what’s more, even more motivation for me to perfect this language as much as I can).

I’ll give an update at the end of each week (on the 7th, the 14th, and the 21st).

 

  1. Because I always have to be learning some other language somehow…Krio! Of Sierra Leone! Long Overdue!

salone

Back in 2015 I got a gift for Hanukkah (as I was coming out of Lyme Disease, or so it seemed at the time). I decided that, when I got better, I would commit to learning a language for family reasons, namely Krio. It followed that a printed and bound version of the Peace Corps book (or one of them, anyhow) would do the trick.

Yes, I am very well aware of the fact that the book by itself will not make me fluent, but it occurs to me that without the Internet I wouldn’t be anything close to a real polyglot at all.

My parents words in Sierra Leone before I was born, and sometimes even recalled a word of Krio or two. After having picked up three other English Creole Languages in my lifetime (the Melanesia trio of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama), I thought it would be a “relaxing” project to try this one.

At some point in my life I would also like to learn the following for family reasons: Hungarian (slated for this year at long last and after dozens of lazy attempts), Swahili, Arabic of Sudan and Navajo (my Grandmother’s family spoke Hungarian and you can probably guess where my parents worked for the other three. Fun fact: I was actually conceived on the Navajo Reservation!)

I’ve worked through about thirty pages of the Krio book and I can say that I’ve mastered the grammar (Creole Languages are not known for having very complicated grammar at all…)

What’s more, given as this is my first African language (I know, long time but it finally came!), I’ve been amazed on every level given how many elements of Krio carried over to American English (no doubt through the African-American experience, which also had similar ingredients from too many local African languages to count, much like Krio has from Yoruba, Arabic, Twi, etc.)

This is going to be a welcome break from languages with very complicated grammar systems (Finnish, Greenlandic, Hebrew) or pronunciation schemes (Irish, Faroese). It will also be very helpful as a confident builder, not also to mention that I find that languages from outside the European bubble are more likely to change my outlook on life.

Will let you know how it all goes!

jared gimbel pic

Portrait of a soon-to-be Krio speaker.

Are Some Languages Harder Than Others?

Ah, yes, one topic guaranteed to get clicks!

IMG_2906

Helsinki, 2013

I should begin by mentioning the previous “schools” that I am aware of concerning the ranking language difficulties. Keep in mind that for this article I have primarily native English speakers in mind, without taking into account other languages that they may know to whatever degree:

 

  • Most well-known is the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, captured in way too many infographs throughout the web so I won’t post the extensive list here. The short version: Romance Languages and most Germanic Languages are the easiest, Swahili Indonesian and German a bit harder, most languages in the world are hard but not the hardest, which would go to the Chinese Languages, Korean, Arabic and Japanese.

 

(I’ve heard that “Arabic” in this case actually indicates either “MSA” or “extensive knowledge of all dialects”, surprisingly, not clear what a lot of people mean by “Arabic” when they say it, even in the Language Learning World [ESPECIALLY in that sphere, come to think of it!]. That said, I played around with some Arabic dialects for tiny tastes here and there but nothing devoted. No interest in learning MSA at the present moment).

 

The gist of the list is this: easier languages require less time to speak at a good level. I see some validity in this. No doubt between learning a language like Galician (a sibling of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese that didn’t go on and take over the world) and Gujarati (an Indo-Aryan language spoken on India’s westernmost coast), I and almost anyone with a knowledge of English would find it easier to “sprint” with Galician, even as a monolingual native English speaker.

That does NOT mean that sprinting with something like Gujarati is impossible, only that it requires more mental focus or, in some cases, mental gymnastics (prepare for either a lot of out-loud repetition or heavy-duty memory techniques!)

The biggest weakness of the list, in my opinion, is that it isn’t too extensive and that it just covers primary official languages without going further. Curious to see where Irish or Greenlandic or Tok Pisin, or even Haitian Creole, would stack up!

 

  • The Benny Lewis school (which, to be fair, really helped me get over some of my difficulties with languages like Finnish and Hebrew), the idea that all languages are equally difficult and that some languages that are touted as “difficult” actually are simplified in other regards.

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of the English speaker, Lewis’ argument has some validity, as anyone who has ever TRIED a “hard” language with this mindset and succeeded can attest to.

One thing that frustrates me is the idea that often people read a lot about a “hard” language online. These tend to read like fact-lists of grammatical phenomena, but rarely if ever are they actually written about someone who has actually learned it. (And in the rare case that it is, as I may have seen on finland.fi or the like, it actually DOES contain encouragement).

The attitude presented as such is vital. It can help people who are struggling with a language very dissimilar from English (such as what I have with, let’s say, Welsh or Burmese at the present moment).

It also manages to magnify the fact that, yes, there are some portions of “easy” languages like Spanish that are actually insanely difficult when actually looked at. (Spanish verb conjugation is a page, but Burmese verb conjugation is a paragraph, if not actually a few sentences).

 

BUT!

There is something missing from both of these ideas, and its one that I’ve almost never encounter anyone else bring up before, which is why I needed to write this, and that is…

 

A Language’s Political Power Makes It Easy to Engage With.

 

Careful!

Engage with =/= learn!

If I wanted to, I could live my entire life in French somewhere. My computer is available in it, almost all major video games and other software programs on the market are available in it, there’s dubbing, and more political support than a language could hope for. In short, one of the most powerful languages on the planet.

A language like French, German, or Mandarin is the easiest to engage with. If you want to start putting what you’ve learned to practice, you can start within seconds. In some globalized cities, you can even just walk outside and encounter native speakers.

A notch beneath is a national language of (what is usually) a particular country or a handful of countries. Swedish, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese would fit squarely into this category. Often there is a lot of tech support available in this language, although not a lot of (or ANY) film dubbing (and having film dubbing, outside of those for children’s programming, usually ensures that it is one of the most powerful languages on the planet, Ukrainian would be the exception that proves the rule, in my opinion).

These are easy to engage with online but not AS easy as the ones that will flood you with lifetimes’ worth of material within seconds.

Sometimes included in this category are some regional languages of very powerful states (e.g. a handful of regional languages of India, Indonesia or Spain).

Then comes the genuine minority or regional language, varying a lot in their positions, or certain local languages that, while commonly spoken where they are, often are deemed “less prestigious” than European colonial tongues (Tok Pisin and Tetum from East Timor come to mind immediately). Other examples would include Breton or Faroese.

While the Internet still provides tons of materials for languages like these, especially if they’re from Europe, you’ll notice that it is a lot scarcer. What’s more, some languages, like Quechua or Cornish, have an extraordinary dearth of programming, but hopefully the future will change that.

Then come local languages such as those spoken within even smaller communities than that. I have only met a handful of people EVER that have managed this task, and often by becoming a genuine friend of these communities (these are languages that, I would say, would exist on Wikipedia but their respective wikis would be very, VERY small! Imagine languages of small indigenous communities. Some Melanesian musicians, such as Sharzy from the Solomon Islands or Daniel Bilip from Papua New Guinea, will lapse into such languages)

 

But hold on, Jared! Certainly you don’t mean to say that Bislama (the third category) would be harder to learn that Japanese (first category)

No.

But often your ability to rehearse and get better at a language makes it easier to maintain and easier to get a vocabulary.

So how does this tie into difficulty?

Allow me to explain:

I refer to some of my languages that I have “activated”, which means that I have mastered basic elements of grammar, can conjugate basic and general verb forms in a past, present and future, understand how adjectives work, understand how cases work (if the language has cases) and how articles and sentence structure function.

Once you get a very good grasp on these, then having the language is a bit like a “bicycle skill”, one that you never truly forget even if you haven’t done it in the longest time.

Case in point: I abandoned Russian and Polish for several years but throughout all of this time I could distinguish verbs from adjectives and make them fit grammatical in sentences.

Once you have “activated” a language in this manner, and acquired a core vocabulary of 300 words or so, then it comes the time to improve it.

Improving it is going to be easier for a more politically powerful language.

In short, the list that I provided above is a difficulty on how to improve, whereas the FSI’s list actually determines difficult to activate.

Two different types of learning, both radically different difficulty levels. One can be very easy in one and absolutely impossible in the other.

Have fun activating and improving!

 

Dysgu Cymraeg

RAWR! said the Welsh Dragon! And yes, that’s cartoon me in the picture!