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):

less05a

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 Solomon Islands Pijin, or How I Learned a Language in Two Weeks

Would you believe me if I told you that I became conversational in a language in nearly two weeks? It happened, actually, and it was during Passover 2016 when I was “vacationing” at my parents’ house.

The language I mastered during that “holiday season”, as it were, was Solomon Islands Pijin, which is unique among the languages I speak by virtue of the fact that it was, until VERY recently, almost entirely a spoken language!

Yes, there are translations of the Bible into Pijin, but what really brought about a “writing revolution” in the Solomons was actually the advent of mobile phones.

(Something you should know about mobile phones in the developing world, and I saw this when I was in rural Myanmar as well: they are a LOT more common than you think they are! This is true even among very poor people).

You’re probably here wondering “Jared, why are you writing about this topic today rather than, let’s say, any other day?”

Well, you’ve probably guessed the pattern by now…today is July 7th, the Independence Day of the Solomon Islands—home to a culture of forward-looking and friendly people who also have been responsible for some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my life.

You’ve gotten this far and you probably want to know what Solomon Islands Pijin is. So let’s treat you to a sample, shall we?

Iso an Jekob

Okay, as an English-speaker you probably recognize a significant amount of words, but are probably genuinely confused with the most common words.

You’re probably wondering, “what is this and why does it exist?”

Well, allow me to share the story with you:

When British Colonizers came to Australia and Fiji, they set up plantations and then proceeded to “blackbird” locals from the nearby areas to work at the plantation. Blackbirding did involve forced kidnapping and other morally questionable methods (although there were instances of fair work being involved).

So you have people from a variety of areas—namely, Australia, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands—and they’re speaking a huge host of languages with each other but, for the sake of working for English-speakers, they need to find a way to communicate both with themselves and with their colonial masters.

Enter the Pidgin Languages, later to become creoles.

The variety of English that was created as a result of these plantation experiences was a Pidgin English, one that was used to communicate between the locals and the British who ran the plantations.

However, given as there was no formal language training for the workers, they made significant shortcuts in order to learn how to communicate as quickly as possible (you can probably guess from this that Creole Languages can be mastered in a very short time in comparison to other languages!)

The pidgins thereby developed were noted by the British as being highly efficient, although no doubt they were made fun of by English speakers very frequently (and, in some cases even today, continue to be).

Now the story continues with the pidgins turning into creoles.

The primary difference between a pidgin language and a creole language is that a creole is a pidgin that has acquired enough vocabulary to be someone’s native tongue. A pidgin language is just a fusion of various languages, usually with a base in a European tongue (Portuguese, French and English are the most common for creole languages) used to communicate, but its vocabulary does not have to be extensive the way a creole does.

Even so, creole languages usually have significantly smaller comprehensive vocabularies than many other languages (again, efficiency).

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Solomon Islands?

So when the plantations ceased to be, the various workers often found their way back home. But as a result of the experience in the plantations in which various ethnicities that had not been in contact with each other developed a means to talk with each other as a result of the pidgin, that language followed them home.

Not only that, it also transformed into creole languages and became widespread enough in places like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Torres Strait in order to become the primary method of communication in those countries.

This also became important because it enabled these countries to develop linguistic identities that were separate from European powers. This is the reason that Vanuatu’s national anthem is actually the only in the world that is written in an English Creole Language. Sandwiched between British and French influence and constantly pressured to “choose teams”, the Ni-Vanuatu national movement opted for its own team…namely, Bislama, one of the “children” of the plantation creoles.

So that you know, Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Bislama in Vanuatu, Pijin in the Solomon Islands and Torres Strait Creole are siblings. There are also related creoles spoken by some aboriginal communities in mainland Australia, although they diverge from these four more substantially.

It makes sense, because barely a few centuries ago these were actually all the same language! But as a result of varying factors (due to [1] what local languages contributed to the creole spoken there and [2] which European powers exerted more influence), these languages are different.

Bislama has French loan words, Tok Pisin has German loan words, and Solomon Islands Pijin is comparatively lacking in both of these.

 

Okay, Why Should I Care? Are You Going to Tell me a Reason (or four) that I should learn it?

 

Yes, indeed!

For one, the Melanesian Creoles (that I’m not listing again for the umpteenth time) are very similar. Given that I studied Tok Pisin before studying Pijin it is no surprise that I became conversational, if not fluent, in record time.

Yes, there are differences, especially with the Pijin-trademarked question word, “waswe”, which goes at the beginning of sentences (probably a fusion of “which-what-where”, if you ask me). It also serves as a “why?” or a “what if?” or a “is it really?” or “do you think so?”. Pijin also relies more heavily on the f sound which does not appear as frequently in Tok Pisin (and a lot of Tok Pisin I’ve heard actually excludes it with noteworthy frequency).

Pijin and Bislama are sometimes even believed to be dialects of the same language (and some would even include Tok Pisin in this dynamic). No doubt they were, once upon a time, but I think that there are enough differences between them to actually separate them as genuine linguistic entities but that essay is a story for another time (or you could ask me in the comments!)

Pijin is an excellent moral choice for your next language, given that a lot of the struggles concerning countries that many people in the world don’t think about (as well as the developing country’s choice whether or not to partner up with developed countries for the sake of resource harvesting or economic development) will give you a truer insight into where the planet stands and where we should go from here.

What’s more, given that English is an official language of the Solomon Islands and is used in business writing as well as in the country’s national anthem, a lot of prospective language learners tend to overlook Pijin. This leaves the Pijin learners primarily in two camps (with exceptions like myself): (1) missionaries and (2) Peace Corps folks.

Your language choice can be morally motivated and it can make you a mini-ambassador for the countries and cultures that you may not represent on your passport but do represent in regards to which cultures you “tip your hat to”. We need more people who can share stories and cultural narratives from all over the world, rather than from the world’s most powerful states. And with Pijin’s similarity to English, you can become that ambassador in no time! (well…in some time…)

Solomon music is also the best I’ve heard from the developing world, period. Sharzy has become an international icon of sorts, and his music may seem uncannily familiar to you. What’s more, if you speak English, especially as a native language, you’ll be surprised how many Pijin songs you may come to understand with a few days’ practice, sometimes so well that you may even think yourself capable of transcribing them!

 

 

There are also a number of resources you can use to improve your understanding of Pijin (and your speaking of Pijin if you choose to “shadow” [repeat after the narrator bit-by-bit]). A lot of religious material for Christians has been published (and you know that “The Jesus Film”, which has been dubbed into over 1,000 languages [not a typo!] is probably going to get an article on this blog one of these days). While I am not Christian myself, I find this material helpful for understanding not only the processes of missionaries (then as well as now) but also concerning how Christianity is perceived and practiced in places like the Solomon Islands.

And another song just because I feel like it:

Another slice of videos you can watch include informational videos about diseases, economic development, science (especially environmental science) and more! Many of these are localized into Solomon Islands Pijin by organizations from Australia and beyond!

I bet “watch Claymation films in Solomon Islands Pijin” was probably not on your to-do list for today, but here this is anyhow:

Yes, there is radio and you can learn a lot about the many cultures of the Solomon Islands by listening to it, but be aware of the fact that, especially in Honiara (the capital) a lot of English is interspersed between Pijin, so you’ll get an “on-off” feeling at times. But even when Solomon Islanders speak English, you’ll be able to hone your pronunciation and may even learn how to speak English the way they do in Solomon!

A lot of ads and other programming are also available and Pijin and you’ll sometimes listen to them quite frequently on the radio! I’ve also heard fantastic things about Pijin-language storytelling (a true art in the Solomon Islands and in all of Melanesia in general), but I’ve had trouble finding links to Pijin stories so if you know of any, let me know!

Lastly, you can actually help! Pijin Wikipedia may happen if you contribute a handful of articles! Have a look at the progress here! (I think if a Wikipedia incubator reaches 50 articles, it gets launched! Maybe I should just write the remaining ones and get it over with as a “birthday present” to the country. Or maybe I have too many other classes to teach today…)

https://incubator.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wp/pis

Anyhow, after listening to all of the songs, watching the films, and having a good dosage of written Pijin, perhaps it doesn’t surprise you that I learned this language well enough to speak it convincingly within two weeks…or does it?

Happy Birthday, Solomon Islands!

solomon