Polyglot Report Card, for September 2014 (Part 1)

I hereby take the time to reflect on where I am in my various language journeys, where I could improve, if I am falling back, and what plans I may have.

I will be as honest with myself as I can.

First off, I should begin with English, my native language, the one that you are probably reading this article in.

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I actually have a significant problem with speaking English, more than I had expected (surprise, surprise!!!)

In no small part does this have to do with the fact that I had seen my American accent as something to “get rid of” and/or disguise (In my experience, Israelis and Swiss have “American radars” that are very difficult to fool, Germans are about average difficulty, Greeks above-average difficulty, Scandinavians below-average difficulty, and the easiest time I had disguising my accent was among Americans [no big surprise there]).

Not only that, I still pepper my English with some foreign expressions (mostly from German, Finnish or assorted Scandinavian, mostly Danish), and I have to force an American accent most of the time. I should have foreseen this outcome: I kept this side to me so actively bottled up that when I need it to fit in, it still won’t come out, even with effort!

That isn’t even to mention the fact that sometimes I speak English with the sentence structure of other languages, German being the worst offender and Greenlandic a close second .

(For those of you interested in what “speaking English with Greenlandic sentence structure is”, it is when I pause at various points in the sentence depending on when the words would break off…and Greenlandic words are very long indeed… An example: “there is my computer on the table” would be “on the table…my computer is there”.  )

What I intend to do: immerse. Immerse, immerse, immerse. Do I really have to resume watching television in my native language? Has it really come this far? We’ll see…

Next up is Yiddish, the first non-English language that I genuinely felt I became good with…

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Deitschmerish (the mixing of German and Yiddish) had become a bigger problem than I had anticipated. Mental discipline was enough for me to prevent myself from speaking Deitschmerish most of the time, but at the end of the day I may need to refresh some vocabulary, a process that is WAY long overdue…

The words of the holy tongue (loshn-koydesh) really dealt me the opportunity for my Yiddish to “hold its own”.  Thanks also to German and being constantly cognizant of the differences between German and Yiddish (and Dutch figures into this somehow as well…), I was capable of “slacking off” without practicing and still being able to maintain most conversations. But I really shouldn’t be lazy…but it seems that I came to the right city to practice this language!

As to German, this is the one language I had struggled the most with, and I had difficulty having a conversation in German until about March/April 2014 (at that point I had been living in Germany for a year). Sometimes I also felt very self-conscious, not also to mention my nagging desire to love understudied languages more (gotta live with that…).

I had encountered SO much discouragement and so many roadblocks and reflections and bouts of self-conscious worrying to get to that point, but luckily I have had more than enough success stories with conversational German (during my last semester) for me to be confident now. And now is what counts the most.

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Thanks largely to my “Deunglisch”, I may need to give spoken German a break for a while…but given how many written materials in German are in the library in which I am currently writing this blogpost, I think I can manage some other skill developments.

And now for Team Scandinavia, and I’ll try to be quick:

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Swedish: Depending on who I am with, I can either speak Swedish very confidently or sometimes I’ll worry a lot. I think part of this comes from the “fear of being answered in English” that I had to put up with in Stockholm during my learning phases (my fear of being answered in English in Germany shrank to next to nothing, even when I was there only for a few weeks…)

In all of my languages, I am constantly building vocabulary (even with English, thanks largely to the bizarre Faroese vocabulary lists filled with culinary…um…intrigue?). Even better: when I look at a word in one of the Scandinavian Languages, I’ll compare it to the other two. This works wonders for my memory, interestingly.

The “sj” sound is more natural now than I ever thought that it would be, but I feel as though it will never be perfect (one time I got it down just right! The way a native speaker would!)

Television has worked wonders for me mastering the rhythm of the Swedish Language, I just imagine how certain characters would say the words that I’m thinking (with my musical muscle-memory) and then I duplicate that rhythm. This has never failed me.

What I should do: (1) keep on the journey and (2) realize that I worry too much and (3) stop worrying so much. I’m not a beginner struggling to order cinnamon buns anymore.  That was nearly two years ago.

Danish: My Greenlandic and Faroese adventures have required me to bolster my ability to read Danish and it really shows when I can read a text out loud without flinching. The Stød is now very natural for me, but sometimes I’m still self-conscious about what many Danes might think of my accent (or sometimes even the fact that I chose to learn the language, or that I have this thing for the Danish colonies).

Encountering a group of Danes in the NYC subway system the other day, it occurred to me that, in comparison to many languages, Danish, as spoken by native speakers, isn’t spoken very quickly.

I have two primary goals with Danish: (1) learn slang better (as I may need them to learn Greenlandic and Faroese slang) and (2) stop worrying so much about what native speakers might think if I open my mouth. Come to think of it, I haven’t received discouragement for learning either Danish or Norwegian. From anyone.

Norwegian: Now that I look back over the past year, it is clear that I have spent the smallest amount of time with Norwegian.  

Not surprisingly, I can read Norwegian articles very well (thanks to the whole Danish/Norwegian being very similar). I feel a lot more confident with my accent in Norwegian than I am with either of the other two Scandinavian Languages in question, and I’ve fooled many a non-Norwegian into thinking that I was from the country when I let loose a few words.

I really try not to play favorites with my projects, but I still find that Norwegian is the most beautiful language in my collection and I should use that as a motivation to maintain it.

After all, I really find that I have the least anxiety about Norwegian, but I really wish that I could speak it more often with real people. But hey, I’m in New York right?

And last but not least among my conversational languages…

suomi

I had pumped so many hours into Finnish and I’m proud of it. I’m a far cry from being seen as a Native speaker with higher education, but I’m okay with having a good command of the casual language. From my time in Finland (back in November 2013 when I felt that I really didn’t know it that well), it seems that Finns are readily impressed by genuine foreigner attempts to learn their language (when I write “their language”, I am also being cognizant of the Fennoswedes).

But thanks largely to Finnish being very far from English, I don’t get lots of vocabulary “for free” the way I do with the Germanic or the Romance Languages. I have to maintain the language with extra effort. If that means watching more TV in Finnish than devoting it to other ones, then so be it.

Right now I’d really like to use Finnish to strengthen Estonian and Northern Sami. It would also be interesting for the day in which I take Hungarian very seriously.

My biggest weakness with Finnish? I sometimes struggle with the written language. More than I should. Wikipedia obviously isn’t a problem in this regard, but some other written material is, including, surprisingly, internet comments…

Next time I will write about the almost-conversational languages in part 2!

Cracking Tough Phonemes

Depending on your choice of language(s), there comes a time in which there is a certain sound that your mouth simply cannot manage…or so it seems.

Perhaps you may have heard of science (however questionable) that says that your mouth is fully formed by a certain age, and if you don’t collect a sound before then, then your chances of learning it are hopeless…

Well, here’s the thing: hopeless barely ever exists in any case, and if you have been struggling with a certain phoneme, this post will save you!

Here are some of the more troubling phonemes, in no particular order of difficulty (even if I were to rank them, it would be very meaningless indeed):

(1)    Swedish “sj-“ sound (discovery of the week: the Flemish “g” sound resembles this sound closely, although the same cannot be said of the “g” sound in Dutch which is spoken in the Netherlands)

(2)    Portuguese nasal vowels (ã, õ) and “m” at the end of words, which functions as “ng” in English, only pronounced nasally.

(3)    A host of other Portuguese vowels (áâàéêíóôúü)

(4)    Polish nasal vowels (ą, ę)

(5)    German “ch” sound, typified by the word “Ich”

(6)    Russian “ы” sound

(7)    Learning the distinction between hard and soft consonants in Russian

(8)    Dutch “ui” sound

(9)    The “th” sound for many non-native English speakers (sound also appears in Greek)

(10) Welsh “ll” sound

(11) Greenlandic (oh boy…), “q”, “rl” and “ll”.

(12) The swallowing of consonants at the end of words in Greenlandic. Danish carries a similar system in its phonology.

(13)Some may have trouble with any variety of guttural “kh” sound. Interestingly Hebrew is the one language best known for this, but similar founds appear in Dutch, German, Yiddish, and Russian. Swedish, Polish, and Greenlandic roughly qualify for things that sound similarly. (This is an abbreviated list, so feel free to add more in the comments…)

(14) On top of that, there are the various ways in which the letter “r” is pronounced and rolled in languages around the world. I’ve heard that there is even a training course at the University of Heidelberg that teaches you how to roll r’s properly in various languages, which, I gather, are the more commonly studied European ones.

You think that it might be too late to change your accent, yet alone learn a new sound…but thankfully I had a music teacher in high school who told the following story:

At one point he invited Buddhist monks to perform their chants for the school audience. Afterwards, he asked them if they could teach him, but they said that they could only do so if he were to initiate into their order.

Now, my teacher was dead-set on learning how to replicate this sound, and so he practiced it endlessly in the car, and on stairwells, the same way that I practiced the Danish stød during my adventure over the course of the past year. At one point, it just…stuck…he found himself able to replicate this chanting voice and became well-known throughout the school for using this Buddhist monk chant to imitate a Martian voice—one highly reminiscent of a cartoon character.

This brings me to one of four possibly ways I found to get over a sound I was struggling with..

(1)    Shower technique

 

This is exactly what my teacher did. This is what I did with two sounds in particular: the Swedish “sj” sound, which I sometimes still botch (although rarely) and at other times it comes out almost perfectly (and a handful of times flawlessly), and…well, the stød…that glottal stop you might have heard about…the Danish’s language’s signature move, as it were…

 

Just try and try and try it, and then it may stick. Not guaranteed to work every time, but sometimes if you feel that little else may work, sheer repetition will do you wonders, and the more often you do it the more likely you’ll be able to do it.

 

(2)    Singing technique

 

I mastered the pronunciation of two languages with singing. One of these was Russian, which I learned as a college student but then forgot after years of relative/complete disuse. The massive amount of mp3’s I gathered enabled me to learn songs, and when I sung along with them, it worked wonders for my accent reduction.

 

Last year the Ramat Gan chamber choir (from Israel) visited Heidelberg. Many of the members spoke with Israeli accents when I spoke to them, but when they were singing American gospel songs, the accents completely disappeared…as if by magic!

 

I similarly adjusted to Greenlandic pronunciation with songs as well. Only a few days ago was I teaching somebody some Greenlandic love lingo and he was struggling with the “rl” sound (as I remember doing). I could have tried to learn it by repeating it over and over again, but I did feel that singing Greenlandic songs made it that much easier for me to learn this sound—and trust me, I’ve seen people burst into laughter upon hearing these sounds only once—just to give you an idea of how foreign they may be for some Westerners.

 

(3)    Immersion technique

 

Familiarizing yourself with the rhythms of a language may extend to some sounds as well. Thanks largely to having Duolingo repeat Portuguese words to me very often, the nasal vowels were not particularly strange (neither were the rest of the members of the Portuguese “vowel zoo”, for that matter). Living in Poland and being surrounded by the language meant that the nasal vowels in that language just grew on me, and I have since noticed them in English spoken with a Polish accent (very easy to notice if you listen for it).

 

This shouldn’t encourage you to learn by osmosis. That won’t do you any good.

 

The truth of the matter is this: surrounding yourself with the language will only do you good if that is your target language.

 

(4)    Get help from a friend

 

My list above was largely geared towards sounds that would be hard for English speakers. There are some sounds that may be awkward for native speakers of other languages (Norwegian “å” comes to mind). The “repeat after me” technique is used as a standard among language teachers and may be just the thing you need. Just don’t feel too discouraged if you don’t get it on your first try. Your friend may very well tell you after a few tries that you said it just like a native!

 

That, and you may get an interesting trick about how to “unlock” a certain sound that you may have been struggling with a lot. (Elsewhere on this blog I detailed my rather naïve anatomy of the “stød” but also of the Greenlandic “q” sound).

 

There may also be other sounds that may exist in your native language, but you are unaware of it. For example, one of my professors, himself from Russia, told me that the “ы” sound exists in some English dialects in the word “milk”. I have also heard that the Dutch “ui” sound also exists in some English dialects as well.

 

 

In any case, a final sentence before I dismiss this class: never, ever, ever give up. And don’t let “science” about language learning tell you what you can or can’t do.

 

Just do it.

Why Learning Scandinavian Languages is Worth the Effort

“Why do you need to learn Swedish? Everyone speaks English here…”

That’s what a librarian at the Great Synagogue in Stockholm told me when I was doing research and told her that I was learning the language.

The irony of this statement is that I was, at that same moment, surrounded by books that were written in Swedish and Danish magazines that were obviously not going to translate themselves.

I’ve gotten a good deal of encouragement by my desire to study the Nordic Languages in detail (Nordic comes to include Finnish, whereas Scandinavian does not). Interestingly, I entered the “high gear” for this study while living in Germany (and after having been to Stockholm not once but twice!), and not while living in Scandinavia.

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Alongside some encouragement, I’ve also met some puzzled people who wonder why I don’t study something more “useful” like French or Chinese.

I have read too many Language blogs that haven’t addressed the ideas that I’ve come up with, so I’m going to have to write them here:

 

  1. “They All Speak English” is NOT true!

I, like many people, came to Stockholm during the first week expecting everyone to be fluent in English. To be fair, there were many people who spoke with extraordinary skill to the degree that I would have guessed they were Midwestern American rather than Swedish.

But now comes the bubble bursting: Yes, English is widely spoken, but not by all.

Some people are surprised when I tell them the fact that I encountered not one but TWO people who didn’t speak English in Stockholm (but who did speak Swedish)—and that was only during my first week! Both of them did not appear to be ethnically Swedish, but it should be known that if you are expecting everyone in Scandinavia to be fluent in English (or even to have some knowledge of it), expect to be disappointed.

I remember going to a big supermarket in a far-flung corner of the city. I remember asking something about asking a staff member where carrots could be found. He didn’t speak a word of English, despite numerous hand-gestures.

Only across the street from where I studied there was a newspaper store, with ice cream and other treats, and the owner didn’t speak any English at all, responding to me in Swedish which I did not yet understand.

By no means do I intend to detract from the very good English skills that I have heard. But what needs to be said is that “most” does NOT equal “all”

  1. You will speak closely related languages better

 

Many people do not understand how, thanks to the Norse Invaders, the surrounding languages were accordingly impacted. Knowing a Scandinavian Language will help you with English, German, and the West Germanic Language family as a whole, and even more so with the other two members of the Scandinavian trifecta.

 

You may also learn how to speak English with a Scandinavian accent, which is something that many people actually really like (and you are likely to sound smart while using it).

 

Reference points for remembering words in the other languages come more easily. If you speak English as your first language, the Scandinavian Languages will help demystify German and make it seem more “normal”. If you learn Danish, expect to learn secrets of English pronunciation that may get you mistaken for a native.

 

And once you have one of the three, the other two may come to you with little effort.

 

  1. The Scandinavian Languages enable you to study other languages that cannot be readily accessed only with English

 

If you want to learn any of the Sami Languages, it is necessary that you know Norwegian, Finnish, or Swedish—or preferably all three. If you want to find English-language resources for Sami Languages, you’re out of luck, although no doubt you will find something.

 

If you want to learn Greenlandic, know that every number higher than twelve is expressed exactly as it is in Danish, not also to mention many Danish import words in the language—more than English import words.

 

For learning both of these, English itself will not suffice, and neither will German. The technology and the databases are in other languages, the ones of which I’ve been talking about this whole time.

 

  1. The Signs are Not Translated, and it helps to be able to Pronounce Street Names Correctly

 

Never will I forget a student project in Copenhagen (featured in the Economist, I believe) in which there were non-Danish speakers who had such trouble pronouncing the main street names that they affixed machines nearby that would read the names out loud to them.

 

That was when I was entering my honeymoon phase with the Danish Language, and I figured, “my, wouldn’t that be useful?” Now, I know that I need no such thing. Yes, Danish pronunciation takes a while to get used to, but it is nowhere near the level of confusion that English pronunciation endows upon the average learner.

 

If you learn the languages, then you will remember street and place names more easily, and even if you ask for directions in English, if you can’t pronounce the names, you are most definitely out of luck.

 

  1. An extraordinary Confidence Builder for an English Speaker learning his/her first foreign language!

 

If you think that the Romance Languages will come easy to you—well, the Scandinavian trifecta offers simpler grammar and more English cognates than can be found in Spanish. The only real drawback can be the fact that the pronunciation and the rhythms can take some time to get used to (and this is true with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish alike).

Swedish in particular has a perplexing “sj” sound that may require some adjustment time, and the Danish “stød” is purported to be the stuff of nightmares. Rest assured that you will unlock the mysteries of both with enough willpower, confidence and commitment, should you so desire.

In the event that you might be convinced that “they will just speak to me in English anyway”, try this:

Use complicated sentence structure, spice it up with some colloquialisms, and, of course, speak confidently and firmly. Sometimes you may need to make it clear that you have progressed beyond phrasebook material, but most of the time just speaking with fortitude will work.

Even in the worst case situations, you will definitely find friends who will be willing to help you and speak the languages you want.

If you are interested in any of the three (or all of them), there are so many ways to get started!

Endless television programs for kids have been dubbed into the Scandinavian Languages (don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise!), and you can prepare for media exposure very quickly after a handful of exercises, worksheets, or textbook chapters.

Lycka till, allihopa! (SE)

Lykke til, alle sammen! (DK/NO)