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!

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Playing Favorites? (October 2014 Edition)

One fine evening in New York that probably wasn’t as cold as it is now, I was asked on not a few occasions if I had a favorite language.

As much as I love all of my commitments, the fact is that I cannot budget everything equally (and I think that almost no one can) and therefore I (and many other polyglots) do end up playing favorites by default.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at the tag categories above.

And should you have the good fortune to have read other blogs written by those who have learned multiple languages in adulthood, expect something similar: some languages are mentioned in their writing more than others, and it is clear that the levels are not all the same and that those that are the best are likely those that they put the most time into.

IMG_3129

A Restaurant in Hania’s Old Town

That being said, I believe that there are multiple ways to choose favorites, and while I have no favorite language overall, I can say that I play favorites in specific categories.

And should you want to ask me for more categories, nothing is stopping you.

For one, most people who are not polyglots usually judge a language just by virtue of its sound. And concerning my favorite language sound-wise, there is a very clear-winner:

norsk flagg

Norsk Bokmål, as spoken in Oslo in particular, has maintained an allure for me every since I first heard it in Stockholm. The fact that it is very closely related to English in many regards gave me further incentive to commit time to the project.

One thing I noted about Norwegian Language Learners is that they tend to hop right into native-level material (even if for kids) a lot earlier than learners of many of the common “high school” languages (Spanish and French being the best well-known).

About the sound: most people from the rest of Scandinavia note that Standard Norwegian has a unique rhythm that is reminiscent of a lilting song.

Many of my Swedish friends are very much enchanted by the language and call it “magnificient” and “wonderful” and many other varieties of praise-laden names.

I was also recently asked by someone if there are localizations of well-known animated classics into Norwegian. Yes. Very much so…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIAibXgN2Lo

Then there is the system of a language, the way it works and the way words and sentences are formed. Again, a clear winner here:

kalaallit nunaat

When asked to describe how Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) works, I will usually give people examples like these:

 

Sila = weather

Silarsuaq = world, the universe (literally: “big weather”)

Anori = wind

Anorersuaq = storm (“big wind”)

Nuna = land

Nunarsuaq = planet earth (“big land”)

Nunavissuaq = continent (land + place where something is found or done + big)

Illu = house

Illorsuaq = mansion (you get the idea)

Illoqarfik = city, village (house + have + place where something is found or done)

Pinnguaq = toy (something + little)

Pinnguarpoq = he/she/it plays (The dividing line between verbs and nouns in Greenlandic is so thin that some scholars argue that a division between them doesn’t exist)

 

Much like mathematics, virtually the entire language, minus loanwords (mostly from Danish) works in this fashion. There are suffixes that all have functions that you need to learn (not unlike mathematical signs).

Greenlandic is also home to my favorite word in any language, “qaqqaqaqaaq” (there are lots of mountains).

When I described this language to my mother (who only speaks English), she told me that the language “sounds easy”.

There are only two real difficulties with Greenlandic: (1) relative lack of learning materials (especially if you don’t know Danish) and (2) the fact that it is very much different from any language that is commonly studied (i.e. don’t rely on any cognates whatsoever, unless you have studied other Inuit languages).

And here is the language as spoken by Paul Barbato, an American (watch the other videos in the channel for the backstory):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4cyMEOkhU4

Another important aspect is taste, and this time there is no clear winner, and I would tie Danish and Yiddish for first place:

Much like German and Dutch, Danish is also heavily insulted by many just by virtue of its sound. Drunk Norwegian is one of the tamer names I’ve heard, with the harshest being the unfortunate but memorable “Danish sounds like vomiting”.

Of the languages of Europe that are spoken by more than 1 million people, the two that are most closely related are Danish and (Standard) Norwegian. The written languages in particular are very close, but as one of my Swedish friends said, “I can read Danish, but when spoken, it sounds as strange to me as Chinese”.

As to Yiddish, it is probably the West Germanic Language that gets insulted the least but made fun of the most.

I have written on both of them here and here.

And now as to the languages that changed my life the most:

Two-way tie with two honorable mentioned: Greenlandic and Yiddish, and honorable mentions Finnish and Modern Hebrew.

Greenlandic enabled me to glimpse the culture of an island that everyone on the planet is familiar with but tend to not think of as a place where people live. The “push-pull” between the Inuit and Danish spheres of influence is a source of creative tension that powers the entire culture of the country. I myself am vegetarian and I dread the thought of seal meat. What I do not dread, however, is the world that opened up to me as a result of my venture and how it changed the way I see everything in the Americas in particular.

Yiddish is also a tension between many European elements and the cultures of the holy tongue (as far as Yiddish is concerned, this is a blend between Hebrew and Aramaic). It also enabled me to understand my culture in a way that most Jews today just cannot fathom, not just as texts or politics or prayers but as a way to taste life—a flavor concocted from too many lands to list.

As to Finnish, J.R.R. Tolkien taught himself the language and likened it to a wine cellar that few people venture into. The languages that he (make that “we”) created share influences from this language (What’s it with Finnish enthusiasts creating artificial languages? There must be something in it…as we would say, “katsokaa itse!” [see for yourself!]).

But most people associate Finnish with “being difficult” and little else.

And it is a shame…because Finnish has a tendency to be quite absurdly logical most of the time. I have never heard Hebrew described as an immensely hard language…

As for Modern Hebrew itself, it is a cultural salad, not unlike Yiddish, Dutch, and Estonian (and definitely many other languages about which I have scant knowledge).

Before Modern Hebrew, the language was merely something scriptural, something used for prayer.

After Modern Hebrew, it became the result of a grand experiment as to what would happen if you took a holy language and let it travel the world for a long time.

The result makes you think more about how a language can evolve, and where our languages are going and where they could go.

Quite a thought…