It has been a while!
Here I am, back in the United States after my venture in Fiji was completed about a week or two ago!
Above all, my experience with Fijian was a great success. More often than not I was capable of forming sentences as necessary and expressing my thoughts in Fijian. Sometimes I had trouble understanding things, as well as the fact that I almost had no opportunities to use Fiji Hindi at all (ah well).
That said, I will continue to maintain my Fijian in the future and look forward to the fostering my connection to this wonderful place and the continent of Oceania.
I learned some very important things during my visit. Let me share them with you.
- You have to forgive yourself OFTEN and realize that you’re not supposed to be perfect all the time.
Steve Kaufmann’s fantastic mantra of “fluency, not perfection” is very helpful in language immersion of all sorts.
Online you can feel as though any usage of any language will be under EXTREME scrutiny, but real life is very different and you should realize that most people in real life are going to (1) want to help you and (2) will not think of you any less for making mistakes (if anything, many would actually think MORE of you).
- Don’t judge yourself too harshly.
Sometimes I felt tempted to “beat myself up” because I messed up a word or if I flubbed Fijian’s legendarily mean pronoun system (Fijian has singular, dual, paucal and plural forms, as well as inclusive and exclusive forms for all forms of “we”).
I’ve been learning Fijian since January so it makes no sense that I should compare it to languages that I’ve had years of practice for.
As long as you use any variety of slip-up as a ladder with which to climb harder, you are doing the right thing.
- Not looking like a “typical native speaker “(e.g. in Asia, Africa or Oceania) may be a disadvantage but it is mostly surmountable.
There were some Fijians that were tempted to use only English with me given the fact that I’m white. In some areas of the world there may be widespread beliefs that westerners “cannot learn” the local language.
However, if I put sentences together with consistency and showed a depth of vocabulary that showed commitment, then any variety of reservation that may have been there previously evaporated.
After all, missionaries of all races go to Fiji and learn Fijian, not also to mention the fact that Fiji is the most racially diverse country in Melanesia.
I understand that in Japan there may be some issues involving saving face and honor that may actually hinder possibilities for you to use Japanese while in the country, but I think scenarios like that are not typical on a global scale. If you have had an experience like that, PLEASE share it!
- Your preparation beforehand should be balanced across the skills you’ll be needing.
I over-prepared writing and I under-prepared listening comprehension. I somehow thought that more writing would enable me to use more vocabulary more easily. And it did. But sometimes I had trouble understanding sentences of deep complexity. It wasn’t a consistent problem, however.
Perhaps what I should have done would be to listen to the Bible in Fijian with a text following along in English or another language I understand. That way I could fully soak in the possibility of me understanding the language very quickly, even if my being Jewish meant that I would hear nothing about Jesus during my whole trip.
- Those who are secure in their English abilities won’t shove their English-as-a-Second-Language on you or make you feel that learning their language is a waste.
Unlike in many areas of Europe, in Fiji almost all signs are not in people’s mother tongue. English dominates on signage but Fijian dominates spoken conversations. As a result of English being an official language of Fiji, many Fijians had very good command of English.
But unlike some European nations that had similar English proficiency, Fijians never “imposed” English on me. And if they were to use English, then they would say everything in Fijian as well. Not ONCE did I feel unappreciated or snubbed the way that I had in some other countries, mostly in Europe, for having used their language.
The Fijians know English very well and they didn’t need to prove it to themselves or anyone else. As a result, they didn’t take usage of their mother tongue(s) as demeaning or condescending and went OUT OF THEIR WAY to show that every effort to speak their mother tongue was very deeply appreciated (e.g. with compliments or with thoughtfully worded questions).
In Suva, which has a feeling of a “capital of the Pacific” present throughout, English dominated even in some conversations between the locals. This was not a dynamic present in the countryside (e.g. in Taveuni or Rakiraki).
This goes to my next point…
- If you’re getting consistently responded to in English in certain situations, there may be a historical backstory you’re missing.
I remember one time when I was reading Fluent in 3 Months there was a guest poster who wondered why she was in Brittany (the region in France) and wondering why people would only answer her in English rather than French.
Not a SINGLE mention was made of the fact that French government policy saw fit to weaken the Breton language to a shocking degree—a campaign that sadly was largely successful.
Given that in the 19th century 90% of Bretons spoke Breton as their mother tongue and the reality that now I have still yet to meet a younger Breton with deep knowledge of it—well, no wonder they won’t use French with you if you have an accent.
In some taxis in Suva, I somehow felt as though my knowledge of Fijian was not acknowledged. But then it occurred to me that many of these drivers were likely Indo-Fijians (I was proven right on several occasions in this respect) who may have had significantly better command of English than Fijian and really didn’t see Fijian as “their” language.
In Greenland once or twice my choice to use Greenlandic or Danish got met with English in response. This was likely for a similar reason (e.g. a bartender with scant knowledge of Greenlandic).
- Resist the need to destructively over-analyze your word choice, progress or anything else.
Do NOT dwell on your errors. Just because you make a mistake doesn’t make you any less of a polyglot. In fact, you’re probably MORE of a polyglot because of your errors, to be honest.
- Native speakers will be forgiving of your mistakes, especially if their language is barely ever learned by visitors or foreigners.
I made some really silly mistakes (e.g. complicated family terms involving siblings had frequent mix-ups. You use a term to refer to siblings that are the same gender as you are, and other terms to refer to your opposite-gendered siblings).
That said, either my native speaker friends or taxi drivers or tour guides would politely correct me and tell me to keep up the good work, or I was understood regardless.
I should also say this: the Fijians I met during my travel showed a deep pride in their culture and a desire to share it with other people. They made sure that every effort to know about them and their language was appreciated. Discounting Suva, this was the case virtually without exception.
I think that in Europe there is a growing trend in which people “hate” their native languages and see them as “useless” (in some areas of the Americas as well this is also present).
We need to learn to love who we are and to hold onto the traditions of our ancestors whenever possible. There might be those who use a lot of American words so as to somewhat convey “I wish I were American instead of my actual nationality”, and this is a deep shame in my opinion because we cannot lose our human diversity. It is one thing that makes greed and conformity a lot less possible.
I’ve said it to many people: Fiji left me changed on every level of my being. I look forward to an eventual return.