Why I Learn Kiribati / Gilbertese, and Why I Think Other People Should, Too

Day 5 of 2018 and it seems that my goals are coming into place. Already my Hungarian and Gilbertese have been making fantastic progress, in both grammar and vocabulary.

Today’s task for Mango Language’s 31 Days of Language (for which I chose Gilbertese, despite the fact that it isn’t yet available on Mango Languages) is to relate what place your language is spoken in and what it is known for:

Kiribati is the only country that has no overseas territories that is located in all four hemispheres (in the Pacific Ocean) and is the first country to “see” the near year on any given year.

Kiribati

What’s more, it is also known (by virtually ANYONE who knows about the islands at all) that they are at EXTREME risk concerning climate change and rising sea levels, with the under 30 generation projected to be the last generation to live on the islands before relocation (if current trends continue).

The videos that I’ve seen of rural Kiribati are very, VERY much unlike Brooklyn, often more closely resembling structures (and sometimes clothing) of bygone eras (or what most Americans would consider to be bygone eras. Sadly, in some Native American reservations there are even worse conditions).

No wonder I am the ONLY person I’ve not only met in person but met online who has even tried to learn the language. The one thing that people associate with Kiribati is something most people don’t want to think about. And in the West, there’s that guilt present knowing that decisions favoring petroleum (more relevant to North America, of course) have led to the wholescale destruction of HUMAN habitats and, unless we do something, it may lead to the destruction of entire countries. Indeed, in some respects, that destruction is already here.

No language has broken my heart as harshly as Gilbertese has. Despite the fact that there are music channels that show that there is a vibrant human culture that even people who have never heard of Kiribati can relate to, I have to live with the reality that the people here feel as though their country has spit them out (or is on the verge of doing so). Reading Lamentations on the evening of Tisha B’av, I told my rabbi on the night afterwards that a lot of the thought processes present in the Book of Lamentations were ALSO present among the many I-Kiribati being interviewed about their “dying country”.

Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, there are stories of resilience and hope, not to mention many personalities that make me realize how strong the human spirit really is (I am reminded at this juncture that, on the other side of the planet, Nanook, one of Greenland’s most famous musical acts [who I had the privilege to MEET last year!] began one of their best-selling albums with singing the words “I recognize that Greenlandic people possess great strength”).

For me, learning Kiribati was a moral imperative and was for a long time. It’s a pity that only in mid-2017 I began to take is seriously and it is now tied for my favorite language (along with Greenlandic).

There are a number of reasons for this:

For one, late-stage capitalism has successful distanced ourselves from our deepest human urges. We humans are cooperators by nature, more so than competitors. We care for ourselves, our lands and our planet. Capitalism unfettered serves to undermine every single one of these aspects.

But in places like Kiribati, Greenland, and many other places in (what is mostly) the developing world, the old spirit is very much still alive. Even among American Jews I find that people who are not very religious are turning to some form of religious study because it contains many aspects of wisdom that our nomadic ancestors had but our grocery-store, smartphone-addicted globalized selves do not.

By living in this country, I realize that I have, whether I like it or not, participated in a system that has crushed and destroyed many other places throughout the world for the shallow name of profit. Kiribati, while still alive thankfully and also not at war, is one of these affected places. To most Americans, I-Kiribati might describe themselves as being “from a tropical island”. But to me, I have learned more about their culture than most HUMANS ever will.

Maybe if I could relate the sort of things I see about Kiribati online, which will only continue to grow with my Kiribati getting stronger, then I could also help my friends with realizing the issues of climate disruption more deeply than they had, even if they have no desire to learn any other languages (and that’s okay).

Scientific articles show a technical side to climate change but in reading about Kiribati I learn about it in a whole other way, one that may sadly continue to be relevant for us: how it impacts humans who have had their world thrown into turmoil because of rising sea levels.

But despite all of this, I think, just like everywhere else, I-Kiribati want other people to view their country as “a normal country” (a desire I’ve heard, for example, among Israelis and citizens of the former Yugoslav republics). Kiribati is sinking but there’s more to the Kiribati story than sinking. Having both been on the American and Japanese colonial frontier, it has impacted the popular culture of both more than you realize (the Maneaba, the traditional meeting house in a Kiribati village, may look familiar to you):

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This picture is from trussel.com, without which I wouldn’t be able to learn this language.

Nowadays I’ve only met a handful of people who know where (or what) Kiribati is, but unless we as a species do something very quickly, everyone may know what this country is…when it is on the verge of no longer existing. If that is the case, you may think back to these posts and realize that I have, sadly, been validated with my choice.

With my choice of languages I can make statements. I can use them in order to bring bits of the world to my companions, my blog and everyone around me. This is one area of the world that people need to know a lot about. Most definitely now.

 

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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I Want to Learn Jamaican Patois…But HOW?

 

First off, anyone wanting to learning Jamaica Patois is a brave fellow (or fellowette?) and deserves praise. Because trust me, even in the language-learning world, there are NOT a lot of people that look kindly on it.

First off, what exactly is Jamaican Patois? Let’s turn to Wikipedia…IN Jamaican Patois!

(from jam.wikipedia.org)

 

“Wi a-chrai mek Patwa wan a ‘i Wikipidia languijdem. No Jamiekan Ingglish, Patwa. Nof a ‘i piejdem we rait aredi de ina Jamiekan Ingglish, a no Patwa. Jamiekan Ingglish a we muos a wi chat ebi die. Patwa a ‘i raa baan ting we unu griet gran muma did chat, we tiicha did biit unu fa ah se “Speak Properly!”. Wah nex ting tu, a nof dayalek de ina Jumieka. Rait aatikl ina fi yu dayalek. Piipl wi andastan an iwi ton standad suun. Dis ya we mi a-rait a ‘i Wesmolan dayalek.”

 

Jamaican English is an everyday language that stands in stark contrast to the “raa baan ting” (raw born thing). In this paragraph you can see that it is associated with ancestry (“griet gran muma did chat” = “great-grandmother spoke”) and shame (tiicha did biit unu fa ah se “Speak Properly!” = teacher beat all of you saying “Speak Properly!” unu -> all of you).

Even today, Creole languages, especially English creoles, suffer from undeserved derision, despite the fact that music in these languages is popular in every corner of the globe and many cultures associated with these places have influenced Anglophone culture on a very deep level. Virtually every American knows something about Jamaica in particular, much like many of them would know something about Japan or France.

The journey with Carribean Creoles for me is an interesting one and one that really shows to test how open-minded people really are.

Some language-learning events, especially free ones, have a problem. There are language enthusiasts (like me and my friends) and there are also people who happen to be bilingual or speak multiple languages on account of their UPBRINGING rather than their hobby. Most of the former tend to be open-minded explorers who share stories, the latter aren’t too different from the general population (in the respect that all levels of curiosity and open-mindedness, or lack thereof, exist among them. The nastiest things I’ve heard about my choice of languages have actually come from bilingual and “polyglot wannabes”.)

And no language in my repertoire gets a mixture of either scorn or admiration as much as Jamaican Patois does.

 

Anyhow, inspired by my followers (as I often am), I opened up for questions about how I learned Jamaican Patois and how I’m continuing with it.

For one, a multitude of free apps exist which can help for building vocabulary in a small sense but they are NOT substitutes for learning how to speak.

That would largely go to this book, which I know isn’t accessible to everyone, but when I showed it to a friend who had no knowledge of German she actually found it astonishingly useful regardless:

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You can purchase this book on Amazon and find it in bookstores around the German-speaking world, I also think that sellers in areas of the UK and US may also have it.

Another thing that I should also mention is the fact that having learned Krio of Sierra Leone beforehand definitely helped. Krio is further away from Standard English than Jamaican Patois is, and it also really helped me realize what sort of differences would exist in usage between Jamaican and English.

Let’s give some examples:

 

“we” is an all-purpose relative pronoun, “that”, “who” or “which”

Juwish piipl frahn Spien ahn Puotyugal we a ron frahn di “Ingkwizishan,”

Jewish people from Spain and Portugal WHO ran from the Inquisition.

 

You can use “fi” in order to indicate ownership. Works similar to the English word “for”

“mi” can mean “my” but also “fimi” can mean “mine” or “belonging to me”

 

Plurals are different:

Wan bwai -> tuu bwai

(One boy -> two boys)

OR

Di bwai dem (the boys, literally “the boys them”)

 

“Se” is used like “that” in English, as in “I said that you are doing a good job”. Krio and Bislama share the exact same usage.

Also, given the dialectical fragmentation of Jamaican Patois (note that the paragraph above mentions it!), no rule is absolute, and you’ll dance between standard English and Patois forms with regularity depending on who you’re talking with. It’s very much something you’ll need to get a sense for but your best bet is to imitate native speakers. Features present in some communities’ Patois may not be present in others.

Also, Wikipedia and various missionary translations into Jamaican Patois have also helped to significant degrees. It’s telling that religious organizations pay more attention to many languages that most global corporations don’t even give a second thought to.

There is Swiftkey Keyboard in Jamaican Patois as well, but its predictive text function, as of the time of writing, is off.

Omniglot.com also has useful websites in many regards including a newly-added phrase page for Jamaican Patois.

What’s more, a bit of a warning: there is no standardized form of Jamaican Patois (as noted in the first instance of the language at the top of the page) so you’ll need significant exposure to a handful of sources in order to get a good grounding in something consistent.

 

And here also comes another important question: how do you get native speakers to speak it with you?

For one, contrary to popular belief, the Carribean Islanders I have encountered have been VERY thrilled to hear me “chat Patwa” (full disclosure: I’m visibly white, but there are also white and Asian Jamaicans as well who speak fluent Patois from birth. The “out of many, one people” motto is important to Jamaican national identity and virtually every Jamaican knows many aspects of their quilt-history which ties together elements from all corners of the globe).

One issue is the fact that often I encounter people who are second-generation and, as a result, their knowledge of Patois is confined to something more passive. But that’s okay. This is not your fault, this is a fault of creole-shaming present in this world at large in general and I think, to some degree, it’s also found in a lot of these island countries as well (not just in places like the U.S. and Canada).

Obviously one thing you really can do in order to build your “cred” in order to fully feel like a “yardie” would be to (1) use proverbs you’ve heard (Carribean Islanders, much like Slavs, very much value proverbs and sayings and use them in their speech. Each of the nations has their own collection that is very foreign to the other islands. That is to say, Vincentians or Trinidadians may not understand Jamaican proverbs, and vice-versa). (2) If you don’t have proverbs, look online or ask your Jamaican friends for some. Even if they don’t have proverbs, they may actually have SOMETHING to share with you.

Especially with Jamaican Patois, a key element is to think in phrases, not individual words. If you are a native speaker of English, you have a HUGE advantage because you already think in “chunks” in English rather than individual words and you can transmute that way of thinking into your newly forming Jamaican Patois as well.

Much like the struggle I had with Solomon Islands Pijin, in which Pijin and English are juggled in a lot of content produced in the Solomon Islands, Jamaica has an interesting situation as well. Except for even more so, because with the English Creoles of the Carribean some people will change registers IN THE MIDDLE OF SPEAKING. It’s a bit like speaking TWO LANGUAGES AT ONCE and it takes time getting used to. (The fact that this happens so much gives fuel to the dialect side of the dialect-versus-language debate, but I think that the dialect side really only serves no purpose other than to discourage study of these cultures so I’ll put that out there plainly).

Also, don’t worry that you’re “making fun” of their language at all. I hear Jamaican Patois more often on the streets of New York than Japanese or Italian. Also friends of Jamaicans pick up Patois as well (and this should be no surprise to anyone. A lot of these “why speak their language? Won’t they just make fun of me or use English?” are…limiting beliefs that deserve to be pushed out. A lot of it is in your head.

Have YOU learn Jamaican Patois or another Carribean Creole at any point? How did that go for you? Let me know!

My First Post of 2018: Looking Inside My Soul (+Happy Birthday, Slovakia!)

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Let’s just do the lazy thing and get the list of goals for 2018 over with. Yes, it’s large, but I set very high standards for myself. Even if I don’t make them, I’ll ensure that I’ll still do very, very well!

  • Master Hungarian, Lao and Greenlandic (B2 or higher)
  • Get the Scandinavian Languages to C2 (understanding virtually EVERYTHING written or spoken)
  • Make significant gains with Hebrew, Finnish, French, Breton, Icelandic, Jamaican Patois and Sierra Leone Creole.
  • Gilbertese and Uyghur at B1 or higher
  • Learn Comorian to A1 at least.
  • Vincentian and Antiguan Creoles at C1 or higher
  • Brush off Russian, Irish, Cornish and Ukrainian (B2 in them would be great!)
  • Tongan, Palauan, Mossi, Welsh, Persian and several Indian languages to A2 or higher.
  • Learn Swahili, Khmer, Haitian Creole, Basque, Fijian and Fiji Hindi in earnest.
  • Colloquial Arabic dialects (esp. Sudanese) to A2
  • Diversify my language practicing materials.
  • Gloss articles in languages I speak and read and put versions of them online for learners making them “learner-friendly”.
  • Continue that same work of throwing away limiting beliefs and practice all of my languages for 3 minutes a day at least one day a week.
  • Come out with a new polyglot video every season (Winter / Spring / Summer / Autumn). They don’t have to showcase ALL of my languages at once, but at least show something.
  • Start a “Coalition Blog” with folks like Kevin Fei Sun, Miguel N. Ariza and Allan Chin and … anyone else I forgot! Guests welcome!

Also, no new languages for 2018. I will make exceptions for picking up new languages for travel, business purposes or relationships that sprout up as a result of various happenings.

Anyhow, with each passing year it occurs to me that what becomes more and more important is not so much learning new words and expressions but rather developing mental strategies.

I could be fluent in a language but if I’m in a negative headspace words will elude me. I’m certain that anyone reading this has also had them happen when speaking their NATIVE LANGUAGE.

Anyhow, here are some difficulties I’ve been noticing;

  • I remember from “Pirkei Avot” (a Jewish text about ethics and life in general that I’ve periodically mentioned on this site) that it is said that “the reward for a good deed is another good deed, and the reward for a bad deed is another bad deed”. Namely, positive feedback ensures that you’re likely to continue to speak and act in your most optimal manner, and negative feedback will drag you down in a similar way.

I’ve noticed this at Mundo Lingo. I speak the Scandinavian Languages “very, very well” (that’s what Richard Simcott told me, so I believe him). So when there’s a Swedish native speaker who shows up, I’m in a good head-space and then I speak languages that I usually am not so good at (French, for example) better than I normally do.

 

On the other hand, sometimes I’ve heard racist comments at Mundo Lingo (yes, it does happen!) Or people disparaging me for my choice of languages. As a result, I’m in no good headspace to do anything, because it feels like I’ve been “wounded” and will act accordingly.

 

I think one way to counter this is to usually start the day with some good feedback. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to post daily in a closed group called “Polyglot Polls” (you can join if you’d like! Just let me know) Given that a lot of open-minded and curious people are in that group, ones who mutually support each other with their missions, it helps put me in a good headspace. It is a good thing to start any day with.

 

  • Imposter syndrome in the polyglot community runs a bit like a fear of turning out like Ziad Fazah, the polyglot who claimed to fluently speak 59 languages and, on live television…well, he was asked what day of the week it was in Russian and said that he couldn’t understand it because it was Croatian.

 

Only this past weekend I was asked to count to ten in Tongan (a language that I am weak at) and, sadly, I couldn’t do it. But I don’t claim to speak Tongan fluently. But still I felt down.

 

I think moments like these are good for recognizing my weak points. Even in our native languages, we have them. It’s not a reflection that you’re a fake, it reflects on the fact that you have something that needs patching. That’s what life is. Telling you where you aren’t doing well and bringing you on the path to recovery.

 

Unlike Ziad, I don’t claim to have any divine gift for languages. I just spend a lot of time struggling with things until I get them. The contemporary schooling modules have taught us that learning isn’t supposed to be about struggling. That’s not true in the slightest, certainly not at the advanced levels of anything.

 

  • The last one: sometimes I feel that I’m falling into the trap of thinking that I became a polyglot for the sake of others rather than for my own sake.

Again, to tie in Jewish themes, in studying holy texts and observing ritual we use a phrase “Leshem Shamayim” – literally, “To the name of Heaven”, figuratively, “for heaven’s sake” and more figuratively “doing something for love of the subject-matter rather than for acquiring validation, reputation, praise or any other contemporary form of social currency”.

Every dream chaser has felt poised between doing something “leshem shamayim” and doing something for the sake of personal gain or admiration of others. I have to resist that, now more strongly than ever.

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Professor Alexander Arguelles (right) and yours truly, Jared Gimbel (left)

On a side note, I’d like to wish my Slovak and Slovak-speaking friends a happy Independence Day!

May 2018 be full of blessings, everyone!